Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Never let them do it

Yes, yes. It's been a long time. I have no excuses. Well, no good ones, since there really is no such thing...


Today's post is going to be a bit personal, as I'm going to try to answer a question I have been asked a lot lately. The question, though never expressed precisely this way, is essentially: How do you stay happy in the midst of such unfortunate events?

For those reading this who don't know me, a minimal background is needed. I recently went through an unexpected and undesired, initially, divorce. The details are irrelevant, but the essential facts are these: I was happy in my marriage, happy with my wife, happy with my family, happy with my life. Then that changed. 

And now? Now, in many, many, ways, though not all, I am much, much happier. Of course, I am heartbroken that my daughter lost the family structure that was all she had ever known. I am immeasurably sad about that, and will be for a very long time. 

Unfortunately, however, this sad fact is reality, and though I wish it hadn't come to pass, there was very little I could do about it, and there is certainly nothing I can do about it now.

So, the question that I keep getting asked: How are you doing? When I say, "Really, really well," people are almost always taken a bit aback. Some seem genuinely confused, annoyed, or, even, offended. "But you're not supposed to be happy for, like, at least 15 years. Your wife just left you, dude."

Yes, that happened. And dealing with it was not the easiest thing I have ever done. But I came through it alright, and I hope, in the next few paragraphs, to shed some small light on how that was possible...

As I write this, one of the great men of history, Nelson Mandela, lies in a coma, unlikely to ever recover. The recent flurry of coverage of his illness resurfaced one of my all-time favorite quotes of his (or anyone's). Once, shortly after being released from serving 29 years in solitary confinement, he was asked how he survived, and more so, how he survived without emerging broken and bitter. He replied, "I was never in prison. I never let them do it."

I never let them do it. 

We have much in life that we value: our health, our wealth, our friends and family, our lives and liberty. All of these can be taken away. They can be taken away through the machinations of others, through our own choices, or simply through the twists and turns of fate. The substantial loss of any of these things can certainly make adjusting to our new conditions difficult (unless of course, it is your life you've lost, in which case there is no adjusting to be done...) 

But, it can be done. It can be done because while each of the things above are immensely valuable, they are not infinitely so. Unfortunately, the illusion that they are is part of the human condition, and the root of nearly all human misery. 

What Mandela realized was that while they could take a great deal away from him, virtually everything short of his life, there were things they couldn't take away. For him, as he said in the same conversation, it was his dreams and aspirations. For Socrates, when they handed him the hemlock, it was his wisdom and understanding. For Thomas Paine, sitting in a French prison writing the second part of The Age of Reason, waiting to be guillotined for writing the first, it was reason, honesty and truth. 

There is much we can acquire outside of ourselves that can bring us varying degrees of joy and contentment: wealth, power, fame, sex, family, friends, health and fitness. But as easily as these things can be acquired, they can even more easily be taken away. 

But there are other things that can be acquired: knowledge, wisdom, reason, compassion, honesty, truth, a sense of justice, that cannot truly ever be taken away. These things are as close to infinitely valuable as anything can be. When someone chooses to hold these things in the highest esteem, higher than all the other comforts and joys that life can offer, they are unbreakable. 

I do not mean to suggest that some of the exterior joys of life, especially our health and liberty, or our friends and family, should be taken lightly, or are not valuable. But we cannot do justice to any of them, or ourselves, if the threat or the loss of another weighs so heavily on us that we cannot still hold our head up. Instead, if we are able to find our source of joy in things that cannot ever be taken from us, then we can be strong in the midst of struggle for those that need us, whether it be a nation or a daughter.

Never let them do it.