My sister direct messages me a meme: “Instagram banned me for life because I kept posting on everyone’s pictures, ‘yeah, but are you happy?’” “I’m tempted to start doing this,” she laughs. “Seriously!” I exclaim in return.
That night, I think about it. I think about every picture I’ve posted while I’ve been abroad, about blogs and memes and social media and resumes and professional paths and success and law firms and grades and internships and working hard and sleeping harder, and I ask myself, ‘Yeah, but are you happy?’ As someone who struggles with perpetual dissatisfaction – mostly with myself – I struggle to ask myself that. I feel happiness often, love often, joy often, even, and fulfillment at least once a month. But am I happy?
What am I supposed to be happy with? Myself? My friends? My surroundings?
That morning, I left my house in a sun shower, but it was a cold sun shower, so my hands were red as I biked, with the ice feeling of rain and wind, in the odd spring. Then, as I reached the small path that twists between two horse farms, the rain stopped, and there was so much blue, green, and yellow around me, between the sky, the flowers, and the trees with their new leaves that I felt overwhelmed. Mostly, I felt overwhelmed that this one of the last of these bike rides.
To say goodbye that same day, my judge takes me to lunch with our legal team, and we sit for two hours in a small dim sum restaurant near the beach talking about how kids learn languages and how we ended up here, who our parents are, and what the weather is like in Manila in May. Someone brings up something about electronic filings, and my supervisor talks about how they pick a jury in the U.S., and the judge tells us about a movie he’s seen recently, and I thank them both for the experience and the judge for lunch, and we’re driving back to the Court in the mid-afternoon, and I’m happy.
I’m always happy at the end, like I’m relieved I made it through without messing up terribly but destroyed that I can’t keep being good at this: the bike rides to work, the nights on the beach on the North Sea with my friends talking about the Arab Spring and Tinder and human rights and Dutch guys, the days at the court writing long memos or buying cappuccinos in the coffee corner where the interns gather at the long tables in the sun by the windows to talk about their joys and their hangovers, my Saturdays at the library, the rituals I’ve learned to fit into my days: Facetiming my parents on Sunday nights and stopping at Albert Heijn on Wednesdays when I’m out of groceries, my landlady greeting me in French when I get home and my friends Nikki and Maryam texting me when I’m doing laundry or writing a paper to ask me to bike to random café and sit out. I never realize anything is the last time until it is, because suddenly it’s my second to last week, and soon, I won’t make it to another trivia night on Thursday.
But when I first got here, I was thinking about how the shitty bars here are the same as shitty bars everywhere else, when I was at a dive called “The Thai Princess,” a cash-only karaoke bar with neon lights, and I was homesick. But it’s not true. The shitty bars here are not the same everywhere, and I’m wanting another chance to keep on living life like it is, with another picnic on a Sunday in the forest at Clingendael.
So I’m wondering if the key to happiness is to leave the things I love, if maybe the feeling is only real when it’s gone. Like people always say, “Tell the people you love that you love them while you still can,” but it feels weird to walk around saying “I love you” to everyone and everything that I love because I love so much, so I don’t. Or I forget to. Or I only want to fight the feeling, anyway, and the feeling of the absence of fighting the feeling of falling in love is the only way to know that I did.
I lived for three and a half months thinking about all the things I didn’t exactly love about the Netherlands, until I felt like I was at home, and maybe “home” only starts to feel that way, anywhere in the world, after I pick it apart, criticize its faults, curl into its imperfections, and still find comfort. Love doesn’t always feel like happiness. Sometimes it feels like cold hands in an icy spring sun shower, and lonely, like a bad karaoke bar with people I barely know but soon maybe I will know. And maybe I still need it, love, so in the end, when I have to leave, it feels like happiness but also sadness because I learned that I was happy after it was over. But I couldn’t have learned that before then and that’s the paradox of loving and living.
It never feels as good as it does when I can’t have it anymore.