December 9, 2017 at 9:27 AM Leave a comment

“Two men looked through prison bars.                                                                                                                                     One saw the mud, the other the stars.”

This was the quotation that began a speech I gave in college, fifty or more years ago. I remember it still. It struck me then, when I was nineteen, as something I would be wise to take to heart. Which do you see? The mud or the stars? Are you a half-full-glass person or a glass-half empty person? Whom do you imagine is more happy more of the time?

Obviously, those of us who suffer from depression see the glass half empty and would focus on the mud, not the stars. Depressed people, people whose body or brain chemistry is out of whack, cynical people, resentful people, jealous people, people who feel cheated by life and slighted by good fortune are deeply enmeshed in negativity. But this is not necessarily a permanent condition. Choosing to focus on what we have instead of what we don’t have, or on a positive instead of a negative piece of our lives, is just a choice away. The mud and the stars are both visible outside the prison bars.

Just as love, which we talked about last week, is not limited to sex or lust or romance, or lollipops and roses, so happiness is not limited to the moments when everything in life is perfect. That’s why happiness, like love, requires constant, conscious choices. As Helen Keller says, “Its easy to be happy when you’re standing in the sunshine.”

We need to stop waiting for the right person, the right moment, the right career, the right house, the right child, the right luck, and start working with what we have. There are actually very few things in life that are right or wrong. I was a teacher for thirty years before I became a therapist. It wasn’t the wrong career. There were things about teaching I miss to this day. But I would have been a shabby therapist when I was twenty-one and started teaching. Life hadn’t beaten the judgment out of me yet. I still thought there was a certain order to how one had to proceed through life. By the time I started as a therapist, I had learned (and earned) some humility — a very necessary characteristic for a counselor.

So how do we learn to make different choices, healthier, happier choices? One way is certainly to learn to see the advantages in the disadvantageous happenings. No one, not one soul, learns the soul lessons without adversity. I remember my junior English teacher in high school. I forget his name, but I remember the life lesson he taught me. There was an altercation in the lunch room and I was sitting at the table where it happened. I sat and watched while someone got hurt. The teacher — Mr. Moore, I think his name was — pulled me aside and asked me why I didn’t intervene. I started to say, “I didn’t think . . . ” and he stopped me. He nodded. “You didn’t think. You certainly didn’t think.” I thought of him last week when I stopped on the road to help a dog who almost got hit. It was a deserted road and a dog with no collar. I flagged down four cars to help me. Guess how many people stopped? Not one. I guess they had a different eleventh grade English teacher.

Another way we learn to make more positive, happiness promoting choices is to focus on the big picture. I was fired from a job when I was a single mom with three little boys working four part time jobs. Losing that part time job was the impetus that sent me back to school to become a therapist. I decided I needed a career instead of a multitude of part time jobs. But too often we coast along, unhappily, because change is so difficult for most of us. If you ever participated in a debate, you were taught that the advantage always goes to the “status quo.” People will continue doing things that don’t work, or at least don’t work well, rather than try something new. This explains the lethargy in stale marriages, too, by the way. “Oh, it’s not that bad. He doesn’t beat me.”

A third motivator for making positive changes is realizing that how we do anything is how we do everything. This is one of Richard Rohr’s most helpful insights into human nature. I heard him say to an audience, “If you are sitting there judging me right now, because I’m too short, or too bald, or my accent is wrong, or you disagree with something I’ve said, I know that that judging, critical person is who you are. How you do me is how you do your wife and your co-workers and your children, because how we do anything is how we do everything.” I think of this every time I get frustrated with the cat and want to push her off my lap. Am I really such a fussbudget that I can’t handle a cat moving around to get comfortable?

Richard Rohr (cac.org if you want to learn about this wise teacher) has a great story about happiness. He apparently is nicknamed “the mailman” at the Center for Action and Contemplation (cac) because he loves taking the mail to the post office and bringing the mail back to the Center. However, on his route from the Center to the post office, he must go through Five Points — five roads coming together with, you guessed it, interminable traffic lights. One day he was sitting at this lengthy light, fidgeting and impatient, and he says he heard God speak to him: “Richard, are you really going to be any happier on the other side of Bridge Boulevard?”

You see, we think we are happier if we’re not sitting at the light because we have judged “sitting at lights” as bad and “zipping through lights” as good. But you heard the stories from survivors of 9/11 — the bridge was closed, they spilled coffee on their shirts and had to go back and change, they missed their normal train….. the reasons they were spared were all “disastrous.” Small disasters spared them from the great disaster. Being fired pushed me into therapy.

Happiness is as close as the next breath I’ll take and the next thought I’ll think which will all pave the road for the next feeling I feel. Happiness may well be the realization that I have had more, much more, than my fair share of good fortune, and, also, that I have tried to learn from the misfortunes. My Aunt Kitty, about whom I frequently speak, did not have more than her fair share of good fortune. She was hit and dragged by a car and spent the last ten years of her life as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. She told me she spent the first two of the ten years plea bargaining with God. If he’d just give her the use of her hands, she’d accept not having the use of her legs. Finally, she accepted her situation exactly as it was. The next eight years she learned to type and became the village psychologist/minister/always available listener/ advice giver. She wrote articles for the local newspaper and poetry based on what she saw outside her bedroom window. I’d say she was contented, maybe happy. She never said. She just lived every day and welcomed every visitor as she dispensed her hard won wisdom.

Love is a choice, and happiness is a choice. We can choose to be loving, and we can choose to be happy. As Anna sings in “The King and I,” talking about bravery, coaching her son to have a positive attitude toward the new culture they’re entering, “Make believe you’re brave and the trick will take you far. You may be as brave — happy, loving — as you make believe — or choose to believe — you are.”

You know, my friends, I don’t know how much it helps you to read the thoughts of my heart, but it certainly refocuses and re-encourages me when I put them into words. Thank you for helping me. May love and happiness flow from our hearts and our eyes and our hands as we move and have our being. Susan




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