Right now, right this minute, there are unhappy people all over the world. Truth…I try not to think about it. I care…a lot. We all deserve happiness. Yes. We all do.
People from every race, every age, every creed, living under diverse economic circumstances, are feeling unfulfilled. They’re hurt, they have scars from the past, and they fear the future. They have financial problems, health problems, relationship problems. Their losing faith and feeling unfulfilled, fighting to justify the guilt that they feel for squandering the opportunities that they’ve been given.
They’re not the weak. They’re strong. They are the quiet heroes of their own thankless lives. They’re not giving up. They’re looking for answers, solutions, a better way, a way out, or simply something…anything…that brings a little joy.
They’re searching for solace. They hope, they wish, they dream, and they wait. Waking up, day after relentless day, to an unceasing storm of anxieties and obligations, knowing full well that tomorrow will be the same…and tomorrow after that.
I’m sorry to say that the answer, the solution, that solace…it’s not out there. It never was and it never will be. We’ve got to stop looking “out there” for it.
Like so many problems in our lives, it’s often not the problem that’s the biggest obstacle. It’s how we see the problem that trips us up. We need a new point of view. We need to see things as they are and be reminded that it’s ok. It’s not only ok, it’s perfect. It’s as it needs to be.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” ~Albert Einstein
Recently I was out for an evening run. My body wasn’t very happy with me. My run turned into a jog, then a trudge, then a walk. As my pace declined, I found that my thoughts slowly switched from, “What the heck! Why do I feel like trash today?” to thinking about how it was possible to be struggling so much yet to be so happy.
My body (or maybe my nutrition) had really let me down. A few chronic aches and pains decided to take center stage again. Concerns about a few members of my extended family were present and very real. But inside, I was happy; legitimately happy. I almost felt guilty, like it was somehow unfair that while so many others are clearly struggling to simply find a single smile in their day, I’m happily “enhancing” the smile lines in my cheeks. I floated through the aches and pains until I got back home. As “tree-hugger” as it sounds, I was literally and figuratively glowing.
That feeling, joy…it’s not out there anywhere. Goodness knows I’ve tried to find it. It’s not in a bottle or an activity. It’s not found in justice or in karmic retribution. It’s inside, and I believe that, in spite of the severity of our unique life circumstances, we can truly be happy anywhere…anytime. We may not know how yet, or believe yet, but it’s possible.
Now this way of seeing things, this belief that we can always be happy, and it’s up to us…it comes with a built-in copout. It sounds very hocus-pocus. It’s pretty easy to say, “Alright, Pollyana! That’s about enough garbage for one night!” But even in that, is a fundamental position of “Joy is garbage.” It isn’t garbage, and we all want it. Every race, every age, every socio-economic group, and every faith. We all want to be happy.
The tough-love in me is saying that if we see, with new eyes, that our misery, our unhappiness, our emptiness, and loneliness is really a choice, then we’re wiping away our excuses. For some of us, that’s a horrifying prospect. If we accept that we can simply choose to be happy, that means that we could have chosen to be happy all along. We’re wiping away our “right to self-pity”…and for some, we’d be wiping away our identity.
“If I don’t complain about something, complain about the injustice that I’ve endured or the conditions with which I live…then nobody will listen. If nobody listens…no one will come and comfort me. Heck, I don’t think anyone will even notice me anymore.” Those are real feelings for real people all over the world.
Consider the pain and detriment of living in such a cold, hard, cage like that. To think that the only attention we might get is pity and sympathy. Not just to think it, but to live it. To build an entire life upon it. I understand it. I’ve seen it. I think it’s tragic.
There’s a pretty great little book called, It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood. It truly isn’t too late. I’m proof of that myself! Although my childhood was full, overflowing with life. But that doesn’t guarantee peace and happiness. Why not? Because happiness comes from inside. All of the boat trips, vacations, video games, and family reunions couldn’t bring me happiness. Or maybe it just didn’t help me find it.
We’ve got to be willing to accept the fact that our childhood may be over, but many if not most of us are still carrying around our perspectives from time in our lives. We’ve gotta stop. Swallowing that truth isn’t gonna be easy. But I’m not saying it’s gonna be easy. I’m saying it’s gonna be worth it. Like heavy bags of luggage you’re carrying through the airport, let’s put down our baggage and enjoy what’s left.
As a teacher and a dad, I’m probably hyperaware of recognizing opportunities to learn, to grow, and to share. As I walked the last half-mile back to my house after a dismal attempt at a run, I wanted to find an effective, engaging way to share with my boys the truth that our happiness, the entire depth of our own happiness, lies inside us. I wanted them to see that joy is always within reach. It’s always…within.
My sons have had some growing pains recently. I just wanted them to learn that they don’t need to carry those feelings around with them forever. It’s healthy to accept things as they are, to hurt, to grieve, to feel let down, and to feel all of the feelings that come to them naturally. But I also want them to learn that those emotions don’t make them who they are. Who they are determines what they do with those emotions. Here is what I shared with my sons, one at a time, with quite different responses from each.
The sun had just set when I walked in the door. I said hello to them both, then asked one to come and see me in the kitchen. The curiosity, evident in his body language, seemed to go from “What chores do I have to do?” to “But dad, I was watching YouTube!”
I asked my younger son to stand in the kitchen, looking out the west-facing kitchen window that reveals the most beautiful southern California sunsets nearly every night. Although the sun was completely gone and it was really dark out, I asked him to look out at the sunset. He furrowed his brown and looked at me like I was stupid (I recognized the look right away.) Then I turned off all of the lights in the house. “Can you see it now?” I asked. Again, he gave me the same look. I could hear his thoughts, “Bruh! The sun went down twenty minutes ago!” Then I asked him to close his eyes and visualize the sunset we’d just seen.
“Visualize the bright, vibrant colors in the sky. See them right now in your imagination. Even imagine the ocean underneath the sunset if you want. Make it your own vision. Now take a deep breath and just ‘be.’ Just be in the moment. Soak up the view. Maybe you can hear the waves breaking on the shoreline. Be happy. Don’t worry about your schoolwork, the news we’d just received from the family, or anything else. Just be. Imagine the sounds of birds, or maybe the sounds of a harbor with the lines on the sailboats striking their masts.” I told him to take another big, deep breath, then let it all out.
“How do you feel, son? Don’t think about it…just feel. How do you feel?” I asked.
“Peaceful. Happy. Like I want to go to the beach, dad.” he said.
Then told him to open his eyes. “Look out the window again, son. Look really hard.”
Again, I get back a dismissive glance. “Hang on buddy. Let me turn the light on for you.” I turned the kitchen lights on; bright, white, led lights. “Now look out there. What do you see?”
“Great! Now I can’t see anything at all, dad.” he said.
“Sure you can, buddy! Look harder. You see something! What is it?”
He sighed, “All I can see is me! I can only see my reflection. I can’t see past it.”
“Isn’t that exactly where the happiness was, son? Isn’t that where happiness always is? Inside? That vision you had. It only exists in you.”
Then, just like that, as I find happens so often, he inadvertently turned our little exercise back on me. “But dad. That wasn’t what I was looking for. I was looking past me, beyond me, out there.”
“That’s what we all do, buddy. That’s what we all do. We look beyond ourselves to find our happiness. We don’t need to. It’s always within us. It’s always only within us.”
His breath abruptly halted. His eyebrows raised. His gaze went blank. He blinked his eyes several times and sort of bit his bottom lip. Then took his glasses off and wiped his eyes which had welled up with tears. “I guess we’re responsible for our own happiness then. Aren’t we? Like it doesn’t matter what’s going on in our lives, we can choose to be happy…or not happy. It’s up to us. Right?”
Too big to cry in front of dad anymore, he wiped his eyes again, put his glasses on, took a few deep breaths as he walked away into the gameroom.
And where did that leave me on a Tuesday night with an aching body, a dirty kitchen, concerns about the family, and another son to share the exercise with?
Gushing with joy and gratitude. Happy inside.
We…individually and collectively…we’ve been through a lot. We’re going through a lot. We’ll continue to go through a lot. It’s natural and healthy to search for peace, to search for love, to search for solace. But we’ve got to stop searching “out there. Beyond myself.”
The way we see our past and the world around us is a direct reflection of the world within us. Maybe happiness isn’t so far away, and maybe others even see happiness within us that we’ve never recognized within ourselves.
I hope that you take a look sometime. And if you forget, mired in the thick of thin things…maybe the next time you see a reflection of yourself in a window…you’ll pause for a minute and find a little happiness on the inside that deserves to be seen and felt and nurtured.
It’s in you! Can you feel it?