The Greatest Risk: Happiness, Part 2

Photo by John Odegard.

By Anne Gagliano

The miracle of human nature is this: We can find joy amidst sorrow. We can have faith that life is good despite the evidence of its brevity and potential for disaster, which firefighters (and by proxy, their families) bear witness to every day. We can risk our hearts again and again, regardless of pain, to be receptive to new joys and fresh pleasures. To risk such an optimism in the midst of what firefighters face is truly the greatest challenge, but it can be done. Firefighters, more so than most professionals, must choose to focus on the good things and exercise selective attention by deliberately ignoring the bad. They must fight to remain hopeful and not succumb to the darkness of dealing with human tragedy on a regular basis. Fortunately, firefighters are uniquely qualified to do this, as risk taking is second nature to them. Aspire to happiness, fight the darkness, dare to be optimistic and seek joy, both at the firehouse and at home. Easier said than done, I know. Sometimes it helps to recognize the obstacles or hindrances to happiness so that we can avoid them. In my previous column, I identified two of those as having an obsessive need for control and fear of the future and regret of the past. Here are three more obstacles to happiness that my husband Mike and I have identified and tried to avoid in our 33 years of living in the world of fighting fires:

The perfect stranger. In the song “Fountain of Sorrow” by Joan Baez, it says, “Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light—You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight…You go running off in search of the perfect stranger.”  To do so does indeed unleash a fountain of sorrow, to run from the good in search of the perfect. It is an exercise in futility, as perfection does not exist.

How much time and energy are wasted on a search for the ideal love?  To believe that if I just keep “swapping out partners,” maybe the next one will be better?  That perfect stranger. The unknown has an appeal that often fades in the reality of the known, the familiar; it will always seem better. He/she is out there, and I’ll find them if I just keep trying. But the truth is this: Every single relationship has approximately ten areas of incompatibility. Ten!  No two people have absolutely everything in common with no areas of disagreement. And no single person can ever meet our every need. It’s just not real. Or possible. To believe so is infantile and selfish when it’s all about “me.”  To abandon a spouse, or to even just to withdraw from them because they’re “not perfect,” frequently results in a “fountain of sorrow” as you tear your relationship apart.

A truly happy marriage occurs when two people recognize each other’s flaws but choose to love each other anyway. It’s not easy, but it’s oh so worth it. “Love isn’t finding a perfect person. Its seeing an imperfect person perfectly.”—Sam Keen. If you chose to accept the good, the real person in front of you, and abandon the foolish notion of that allusive and mysterious unknown perfect stranger—you’ll be much happier here and now.

Holding grudges. Few of us had ideal childhoods. Living in the past inhibits change. Forgive your imperfect parents and let go of the past. You’re an imperfect parent now too.

Few of us have ideal co-workers. There is always that one chief, that one difficult “does not work and play well with others” guy (or gal) that drives us crazy. That we clash with. That we were wronged by. You can change stations, move to a different position, even quit—but there will always be someone you don’t work well with. Don’t let it drive you to hate; then the bad guys win.

Try instead to forgive, to not bear a grudge toward anyone—co-worker and family member alike. “To acknowledge that we have been harmed by another but choose to let go of our resentment or wishes for retribution requires a high order of emotional and ethical maturity…this involves an exercise of consciousness and determination that is a certain antidote to the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that underlie most of our unhappiness.”—Dr. Gordon Livingston.

Your grudge ultimately only harms you and inhibits your happiness—not theirs. To forgive is to be “emotionally and ethically mature”—how cool is that?

Lack of humor. Probably the biggest obstacle of all to happiness is a lack of humor; of not being able to laugh, to make jokes—to see the absurd in any situation no matter how grim. We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can certainly choose how to react!

Firefighters face an unusually grim workload. How do most respond?  With gallows humor. That’s why we love them; firefighters who embrace the humor and share it make us all laugh. They tend to be the healthiest, and really fun to be around. Nothing is so sacred, so twisted, or so disgusting that a firefighter can’t see the humor in it. Celebrate this ability, fire couples, and you will laugh in spite of the darkness. It’s not weird; it’s a normal, healthy reaction to profoundly abnormal situations.

Dark jesting, acerbic wit—these give firefighters the ability to overshadow severe trauma with the lightness and healing balm of laughter. “To be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them.”—Wylie Sypher, American author. To not be able to do so can lead to a depressive, hopeless, negative attitude that impacts the firefighter and his relationships. Unleash the power of humor, and you’ll literally be happier. A recent Oxford study found that laughter releases the same chemical endorphins in the brain that activate the same receptors as drugs like heroin, creating a painkilling and euphoria-producing effect. This study also concluded that comedy led to a higher pain tolerance. Laughter really is the best medicine.

Take the greatest risk of all, firefighters, and choose happiness. It’s easier to be negative and expect the worst, no risk there. But easier isn’t better. Stay positive and hopeful despite what you face, and you’ll be better at work, at home, at life. To help you do this, give up the delusion of control—no one ever has it. Live in the now. Don’t expect perfection from a mate. Let go of the grudges that drag you down. And remember to laugh. Happiness really is a choice, a goal worth seeking, a risk worth taking, and one you can achieve if you set your mind to it. As Abe Lincoln once said (the president who faced the greatest challenges of all): Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.


 If you’re interested in my book, Challenges of the Firefighter Marriage, check it out HERE

 Use code CFM20FL at checkout for 20% off! 




Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 33 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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