Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Worry, Too?

            I had hoped to keep yesterday's post simple and easy, but I've gotten enough confused, yet predictable, feedback that I feel I may need to elucidate some of the finer points. I try to keep these posts straightforward and consumable in the 30 minutes between dinner and Jersey Shore, because I'm still rather shocked that people are interested in reading this stuff,  and so I try to make it as painless as possible. 

           That said, I knew that some of the claims I made in yesterday's post could be misread. So I'm going to try to take them one by one and hopefully make my point a little clearer.

            First of all, why I care about this. I don't. Some people want to argue with my premise that being happy is simple, and that worrying doesn't really make you unhappy. Fine. It doesn't really affect me one way or another. I'm just telling you what has worked for me. If you don't want to believe me, don't, because guess what? I'm not going to worry about it. : ) I'm just going to say what I can say and the rest is up to you. If you'd prefer to hold on to your worry, if you want to feel that your misery is justified and legitimate, if that makes you happy in some perverse way, that is entirely your prerogative. However, if you're sick of your answer to the question, "How was your day?" always being, "It was okay," "It was fine, I guess," or "Argh! My day sucked!" then you might want to try something else.

             The real problem here is that people hate being told that their unhappiness is their fault. Who wants to be responsible for their own misery? It is sooo  much easier if your happiness is the fault of your boss, or your job, or your being single, or your not being single, or a string of gray days, or your health, or your joint pain, or your bank account, or your looks, or your weight, or your teacher, or your students, or your sex life, or your lack thereof.

             So people get all up in arms and scream, "No! My problems are real! You don't understand!" No, it's true, I personally, can't understand what anyone else is going through. But at the same time, you can't understand the real suffering and misery happy people have overcome to get where they are. You are no more entitled than they are to say, "Well, your problems aren't that serious, of course you're happy."

              And I will admit, although this isn't in any way about me, I have been extraordinarily blessed.  I was born in America in the 20th century to an amazing and loving family. We always had enough to eat, I had supportive parents and wonderful siblings. I've been blessed with some small measure of intelligence, and passable looks. I had a fair amount of success in one career and am enjoying some in my current one. I am married to the most amazing, loving, beautiful and giving woman I have ever known, and have a frightfully perfect little girl. I am truly, truly blessed.

            I have no major complaints. But that doesn't mean I haven't had my share of problems. We all have, though I won't bore you with mine here. Because the point is not which problems you have. Even living a life relatively free of major complaints, I still had to learn to be happy. Which I am, probably 98% of the time. And when I am not? It's because I have let myself get wrapped up in something I can't do anything about. And then I work on letting it go, and find myself happy again.

            Because how many people do you know who have it all- the money, the looks, the spouse, the job- and yet still manage to complain about something, every single time you talk to them? We all know someone like that. Because happiness isn't in what you have or don't have, it is in how you appreciate what you do.

A Matter of Perspective

            My students and I just finished up a unit on Anne Frank, after which I showed them the mini-series starring Ben Kingsley as Otto Frank (superb, by the way, still powerful even though I watch it twice a year.) It is hard to imagine how even the most determined individual could find happiness in the bowels of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. There is some crap that life can throw at you that can make it pretty hard to keep your spirits up. But what most of us deal with every day, in the richest country in the history of the world, with more material comforts and security than any human beings before us could possibly imagine, is not among that crap.

           And there is no better reminder of this to me than my students. I work as an English as a Second Language Teacher in a public school. All of my students are refugees of the Somali civil war, and have spent some time in refugee camps. So when the movie was done, I asked them to write a paragraph in response, nothing in particular, just what the movie made them think about, reminded them of, or made them feel. 

           The responses I got were humbling- 

           "The movie reminded me of when we were moving from Kenya to a part of Africa. I was so dissapointed when I saw people getting hit with belts and sticks. Some soldiers were beating them. My mom told me not to look at them because it was too sad."

            "The concentration camps reminded me of the refugee camps. We slept in tents and it's surrounded by wires of metal, you can't escape anywhere. There's only a little food to eat and some people died because of the disease. When my family saw more people were dying we were all afraid, we had no hope. Every night we sleep of fears, hoping to come to America, without losing anybody."

            "I have a slight connection to the movie of Anne Frank. In the camp I went to there was not a lot of food, many people died of starvation and diseases with no treatment. The diseases would spread out and more people would die every week or somedays. I feel bad for the people that had to go through that in the concentration camps and I really hope it doesn't happen again."

             "Once I was in that kind of problem in Africa. The police were looking for our family and our aunty had to hide us. If the policemen had caught us they would have killed us and our father was dead and only our mom was going through all that dangerous with us. My mom was crying that we had to hide and move away at night and then this lady told the police we were at my aunty's house." 

              While it is gut-wrenching to read these stories and imagine my mostly cheerful, upbeat and positive students, who are now 14 or 15, going through these things at 7 or 8, I am fortunate to regularly get reminders like these to put my own "problems" in perspective. We humans are resilient creatures. And whatever seems like the end of the world today, can often be overcome by tomorrow.

Meet Your Maker

           The other response I get is, "Well, surely worry serves some purpose.  Evolution wouldn't have designed us to worry if it wasn't for a good reason." Absolutely, worry definitely serves a purpose- evolution's purpose. But evolution didn't design us to be happy. It designed us to survive, put ourselves in a position to reproduce, and then do that. We are rewarded by feelings of pleasure or satisfaction when we take small steps towards those goals; eating, gaining social standing, having sex, not being in pain, etc. But evolution designed us to be fairly unsatisfied most of the time so that we would live our lives in constant pursuit of the things that are best for the transmissions of our genes. Evolution designed us to worry, because it keeps us focused on it's objectives. Not ours. It is a cruel master.

             No, we're not designed for happiness. We're certainly are not designed for long-term peace and satisfaction. We are designed for seeking one fleeting pleasure after another. Anything else is hard work. 

           But it is simple work, which I tried to explain in yesterday's post. What we need to learn to do is not complicated, even if it can be difficult to master.

No Abdication of Responsibilities

            Another way yesterday's post was likely to get misinterpreted was to think that it implied the right to abdicate all your responsibilites and adopt a devil-may-care attitude. This is far from the case. I am not suggesting that you are any less responsible for the things you can control, just that there are fewer of them than you probably think. If anything, this makes you more responsible for the things you do have control over; your thoughts, your words, your deeds. With a domain this small, shouldn't you be master of it?

            I am not suggesting that you should look at yourself, perhaps heavier than you want to be, unemployed and mean-spirited and say, "Eh, whatever. I don't have to worry about any of that. Rob says so." Uh, no. You should be thinking about those things, reflecting on them, trying to determine a way to change them. What I am saying, all I am saying, is that worry itself, that one mental state, is useless, counter-productive and pretty much self-inflicted misery. Reflection and problem-solving are virtues. Worry just keeps you up at night.

            If anything, I am ruthless in my belief that people are responsible for their attitudes, words and deeds, possibly to a fault. I hold people to absurdly high standards, which is why I expect everyone to pony-up and admit that if they aren't happy it is their own goddamn fault.

The Babushka Dolls of Decision Making

           The final misinterpretation I will address here is similar to the last. It is the idea that once a decision has been made, you are free to wash your hands of it, and whatever will be, will be. Again, no. For inside every major life decision we make, are nested dozens, hundreds, even thousands of smaller decisions. 

            Let's say you decide to get married. You say your vows, move in together and then that's it, right? Whatever happens, happens, right?

             No. You still have to wake up next to this person every morning, decide what the first words out of your mouth are going to be, whether you are going to save the last bit of creamer for their coffee, what the last words out of your mouth are going to be before you leave for work, whether you are going to take the time to send them a randomly sweet or sexy text on your lunch break, whether you are going to let last night's tiff slide before you get home again in the evening, whether you are going to clean up when they cook, whether you are going to put the kid to bed so they can finish some work, whether you are going to let them decide what to watch tonight, and whether or not you are going to remind them how much they mean to you before you go to sleep.

             Every big decision is filled with countless little decisions. And each of these can be handled properly or improperly. Each one is an opportunity to inflict unhappiness on yourself if mishandled. You may greet your spouse cheerily when you both get home from work, and you might get a grunt in reply. What can you do? You could get mad at them, wish they had done something different. But they didn't. They did what they did and it is already in the past and far outside of anyone's control. So you could  dwell on it,  and allow their unhappiness and rudeness to ruin your own happiness. Your own unhappiness would very likely cause you to be rude to them at some point in the near future, and next thing you know, coffee mugs, lamps and the word "divorce" are getting slung around the room. Don't go there.

            What could you do differently? You can control what you do. You cannot change what they did, or how they feel. You can try to influence their actions and attitude by not taking offense, offering sympathy or giving them some space. But allowing their unhappiness to become yours is foolish. If you too are miserable, you're not going to be able to help your spouse out their own funk, you're just going to make it worse.

What is Ours

            We are never free of our responsibilty for our thoughts, our words or our actions. People's unhappiness lies in the way they often try to abdicate their responsibilty for these things which they do control, and try to impose their will on things which stand far outside it. So as their world looks less and less like what they want it to, they scream and cry and throw things, wondering why the vast, senseless world refuses to respond to their implorations. And all the while, we ignore those few things which are within our purview, the only things which we can expect to control; what we say, what we do, and how we respond to all the rest.

Finding Happiness

            Is there more to happiness than simply learning not to be unhappy? I wouldn't think so. Perhaps for some people. But in a world with lawns to lay on, children to chase, burgers to grill, Cormac McCarthy to read, Bill Wither's Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone, mountains to climb,  beautiful people to make love to, Manchego cheese, Geary's ales, the Red Sox sweeping the Yankees, volleyball to play, lakes to swim, books to write, songs to compose, photographs to take, the Uffizi, the Louvre, Florence, London, Paris... I don't know what makes you happy, but these are a few of my favorite things (along with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens). So long as we're not inflicting misery on ourselves, what else do we need? Eternal bliss infused in us through a ray of golden god-light because we can't find it ourselves?

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