Once upon a time, there was a poor motherless girl who wore no shoes. She made her own out of strips of red cloth. They made her feel rich even though her days were spent gathering food in the thorny woods. One day an old woman in a gilded carriage drove up beside her. The old woman said she would adopt the girl and treat her as her own. So off to the wealthy old woman’s house they went…
The Red Shoes
I recently stumbled upon an article about a new breed of perpetually ‘cheerful’ mice, created for the research of the treatment of clinical depression. The mice were bred with the absence of a gene called TREK-1, which can affect the transmission of the feel-good hormone serotonin. The TREK-1-free ‘ever-happy’ mice were reportedly joyful and good-natured, blithely going about their days, every day and all day, without a care in the world. This research represents the first time depression has been eliminated through genetic alteration of an organism. Those familiar with fairy tales don’t need to think too hard about how the story of the ‘ever-happy’ mice might unfold. In the name of creating peace and happiness, we can imagine all sorts of wolves in sheep’s clothing creeping stealthily into view. What is the consequence of our culture’s never-ending quest for happiness?
Are you happy? The very question can evoke a sense of doubt, as it requires an instant personal assessment, which immediately makes one feel ill at ease! The pharmaceutical companies have capitalised on this doubt by creating the depression industry. A new generation of drugs was introduced called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. To boost sales of SSRIs, the companies widened their boundaries of what they defined as depression, and lowered the treatment threshold. In Britain in 1995, for example, 13.2 million prescriptions were written for antidepressants. By 2002, double that number were written for SSRIs alone. Don’t think for a moment that the increase of prescriptions was because of a sudden explosion in depression!
In their book Medicines Out of Control?, published in 2004, Charles Medawar and Anita Hardon of Social Audit in the UK argue that pharmaceutical firms have reinforced peoples’ sense of their own neediness, so that during the 1990s ‘depression’ became redefined as a serotonin-deficiency disease (that is to say, in need of an SSRI — such as Prozac) — ‘a convenient and seductive, but deeply simplistic view’, they write.
Ray Moynihan, a top medical journalist, exposes the collusion between medical science and the drug industry in his book Selling Sickness: How the Worlds Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All Into Patients. In it he says drug companies market their products by either redefining problems as diseases (like ADHD) or redefining a condition to encompass a greater percentage of the population.
The fairy tale The Red Shoes describes well how we trade our simple joy for the happiness industry’s promise of ‘feel even better’, and when we do, the catastrophe that ensues. The story goes like this: once there was a poor child, she wore no shoes and so made her own out of red rags. Her handmade red shoes made her proud, and she felt rich and happy though her circumstances were desperate.
One day a wealthy old woman pulls up in a gilded carriage and offers to adopt her. Upon arrival at her mansion, the girl is washed and scrubbed, her rags, including her handmade red shoes, were incinerated. Dressed in finery and told to be ‘good’ and ‘keep still’, the child wept for her handmade shoes and for her once wild and free life. Though her former life had been full of hardship, it was authentic and real.
The time came for the young girl to be christened at church and the old woman bought the child a new pair of shiny red shoes. It’s a long story, but ultimately the shoes — bewitched —began dancing wildly while on her feet, and took the child over hill and dale, dancing endlessly day and night. She was never able to remove them. Finally, after years of terrified, uncontrollable dancing, the child pleads with an executioner to remove her feet with his axe so as to be freed from the bewitched shoes. The story ends with her as a poor cripple, in service to others until the end of her days.
Storyteller and Jungian psychoanalyst Clarrisa Pinkola Estes says that The Red Shoes points to a psychological truth that a person’s meaningful life can be pried, threatened, robbed, or seduced away from them unless they hang on to their ‘basic joy’ and worth. And when we do trade our meaningful life in for ‘something better’, we often set sail on a self-destructive path.
A life, we could say, is a series of fairy tales, of archetypal hero’s journeys — battles fought and won, or lost, demons faced. In The Red Shoes, the protagonist is us, the gilded carriage is the promise of ‘feel better’ and the shiny red store-bought shoes would be that quick-fix pill — whether it be literal or metaphorical — that takes total control over our lives.
In the story, the child trades her humble but rich-feeling and self-empowered life for a bit of ease. We might find we face such a choice many times a day. There we are, minding our own business, feeling either fine or not so fine when all of a sudden comes the opportunity to just get by with a little less intensity, a little more comfort. Perhaps we choose not to have that difficult but important discussion with our child’s teacher. Or we opt for not signing up to that oh-so-confronting writing class. We want a little less mess, a little less discomfort or emotional turmoil. Up drives the gilded carriage, on come the pretty red shoes, offering to take us away from that turmoil forever.
Turmoil and difficulty is where the dirt is. Hitting rock bottom, hitting the hard stuff, the dark stuff, the sad, difficult and messy stuff is being in the fertile soil where the seeds of renewal and rebirth are sown. Interestingly, shoes are a symbol of where and how we touch that soil. But the happiness industry would have us thinking and believing that we should never touch that earth, never feel messy, sad or … God forbid, depressed. Like the ‘ever-happy mice’ we could life happily ever after, as promised by the old woman in her carriage.
When ordinary life, ordinary joy (the handmade shoes), and the accompanying rock-bottom realm is devalued — as is the habit of the happiness industry — and we go into agreement with that devaluation, we cease to notice and be touched by the simple pleasures. We forget to notice that small microscopic twinge of joy that appears as we watch two people we love enjoy each other, or when we accomplish something we’ve put off for some time, or when we manage in our hectic lives to keep a potted plant alive. This is a natural and instinctive way of being — it lacks self-reflection, and just is. In fact, it lacks so much self-reflection one may not even notice they are ‘happy’… they just are.
But when we agree to that promise of happy-ever-after, like the child in The Red Shoes, we are taken away by something of less substance and meaning. Like the plaster caves and cliffs of an amusement park, our life’s scenery becomes false, less robust. Easier, maybe — for a time. But at what cost?
Do you remember the story about the butterfly trying to get out of the cocoon? Some guy comes along and, feeling sorry for the butterfly’s struggle to break free of the cocoon, cut the cocoon open for it. Well the butterfly emerges without difficulty, but much to the man’s horror, he sees its wings never unfold. The butterfly is forever crippled, as it is the struggle and difficulty against the cocoon walls that make the wings become strong and filled-out.
I see myself so much in that story. I especially see it with regard to my own children’s challenges and emotional turmoil. I’m hell bent on trying to make it easier for them, to keep them happy, to make them ‘ever-happy’.
Years ago I was hanging out with my eight-month-old son in my living room with a friend. We had a housekeeper who my son was particularly attached to and she was leaving after having worked the morning at our house. As she walked out of the front door, my son began to cry and make a fuss. Everything in me wanted to go and comfort him. As I rose to pick him up, my friend stopped me. ‘Just wait,’ he said. ‘Just let him feel what he feels, it’s ok.’ We watched as he cried, crawling towards the door. It was hard for me. But then I watched as my son experienced the full spectrum of his emotions in that moment, while we sat near him, present and loving but not interfering. He crawled to the door, cried a bit more and suddenly stopped, turning to us and smiling again. I was suddenly aware that so many of us were taught to be emotional cowards by our well-meaning parents. Their reaction to our negative emotions taught us to fear and deny them, never allowing us to experience the renewal that awaits on the other side.
I’ll never forget that morning. But habits are hard to break, and the happiness culture constantly feeds us with reasons why feeling good is better than feeling bad.
Thankfully a leading professional in the field of children’s emotional health, Aletha Solter, has come to the rescue with her research into the healing benefits of emotional release in children. She is author of three books: The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish and Tears and Tantrums all of which are excellent sources for supporting parents to have the courage to hold a child while they are crying or raging, but not manipulating them to stop. Solter is not afraid of rock bottoms, of handmade red shoes and cocoons that are hard to break open.
The cocoon story also reminds me of agri-business’s manipulation of nature in the form of GE plants. There, in the name of breeding out the ‘inconveniences’ of pests and frost, a generation of plants have ended up with no resistance to disease and drought. Their roots are compromised, their connection to their genetic integrity severed. Handmade shoes traded for store-bought plastic ones. Ever-happy mice run through fields of ever-ripe produce to feed the ever-contented population. Collectively, we might be headed for that cursed dance over hill and dale.
When we buy into the lure of the happiness industry’s calling of being ‘happier’, having ‘more’, feeling ‘transformed’, or ‘having it all’, we might miss the important message of the other, less popular experiences. What is sadness and depression trying to tell us? What is crying trying to heal? What resilience, strength or wisdom are these other ‘negative’ psychological elements attempting to bestow? Perhaps our momentary ‘insanity’ is a sane response to an insane world. Perhaps depression calling us back down to earth, to rock bottom, to the soil of where renewal is sown, is where we can organically right ourselves, our lives, our situation.
We might even attempt to force a rock bottom by self-sabotage, which will bring us to that fertile soil again. As in The Red Shoes, though the child was injured in the end, having danced the cursed dance, she emerged with a special kind of wisdom and strength given to only those who have seen the darkness and survived.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t address our unhappiness, nor am I saying there aren’t certain situations when someone wouldn’t be greatly supported by temporarily being prescribed anti-depressants. But is the constant pressure and glamourising of happiness making us lose sight of what it really means to be happy?
Last month our next door neighbours, and close friends, put their little dog down. Our two children are close to the neighbours and in particular to their family of dogs, whom they visit nearly every day after school. Bear was his name, and before it was time for the vet to come over, the children were invited to say goodbye to him. We all cuddled Bear and the children began to wail. Everyone was crying. It was an almost too much, but I was aware of not trying to change the children’s feelings, just letting them experience the full sadness of losing someone they loved. As we walked slowly home, sniffling and heads hanging, a tangible sweetness came over the four of us — a shared vulnerability. It brought us just a little closer that day — to ourselves and to each other. You could even say that we were happy in our sadness. Something I doubt the ever-happy mice will ever experience.
The trick, I believe, is to recognise that tiny little spark of happiness in our lives, no matter how small it is. And then to take that little spark and recognise that it is enough; it doesn’t need to get bigger or louder.
The other night while putting the kids to bed, I had a moment to myself on my daughter’s bed while waiting for her to brush her teeth. She was singing to herself through the bubbles of her toothpaste. In the room next door my son was talking to our dog. It was just an ordinary moment, just like any other ordinary moment, that could have been lost in the shuffle of the millions of moments in my lifetime. But this moment, for some reason, I thought to myself, ‘This is enough… I’m happy enough.’ And with that thought, a load of concerns, angst, striving and doubt just drained out with one huge exhale.
Since then I’ve been appreciating the simple joy that does exist, and noticing when I’m perhaps opting for that old woman’s promise, as she dangles those lovely store-bought red shoes in front of me, ever-happy mice running round her feet. Sometimes I choose to ride in her gilded carriage, and like the child in the fairy tale I usually end up humbled by the process, and longing for those handmade shoes and the earth beneath them.