“Happiness is the settling of the soul into its most appropriate spot.”
When I was a teenager I had large thoughts and grand questions. Was it reasonable to think that our earth was the only habitable planet in the universe? Could there be another world, another population, possibly another me out there somewhere? Was Christianity the only way to God? What gave Christians the right to think that there path was the only path? My father tolerated my questions with good humor. I don’t particularly remember his answers, I believe he probably thought it was an important stage of discovery that I needed to go through for myself.
As I got older and life got in the way, there seemed to be more important everyday things to worry about. There was a comedian in England in the 70’s who put things in perspective when he joked about looking out one night, seeing the vast sky full of twinkling stars and wondering “What does it all mean?” Then realizing it had nothing to do with him, he went back to bed! And for most of us, there are enough real life problems facing us, that we don’t have much time for grand debates. Certainly, there are those who can only think about their next meal, or keeping safe from warring factions. Yet even in those circumstances there are those who continue to inspire.
Malala, the young Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban and survived, has written a book. She can be seen on TV, being interviewed, and carrying herself with such dignity and composure, it is hard to believe she is only 16. She speaks of recognizing the power of forgiveness, and the knowledge that meeting violence with violence only puts you at the same level as your enemy. How many of us can practice that, even when the only thing we have ever been subjected to is hasty words, or careless insults?
Surely we miss the whole point of life when we stay stuck in petty disagreements, and fail to see the beauty of the world we live in. Many of us are blessed with the freedom to come and go as we please; to spend money on non-essentials; to voice political views that go counter to those around us. And yet we don’t appreciate it. We waste time counting perceived wrongs; we make excuses for why we cannot move ahead; we stay stuck in harmful habits and ways of thinking.
Aristotle said that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life. But are you doing the things that make you happy? And if not, why not? Many of us are guilty of over-thinking things, spending time agonizing over things that we should just let go. We hold on to our scars, picking away at scabs to remind us of the pain we have gone through. Sometimes we need to stop and reflect, to see how much of our suffering is self-inflicted. In the words of the TV psychologists – ‘Move on with your life. Just let it go.’
But it was not the mindless pursuit of happiness that Aristotle was speaking about. It was a happiness that comes from helping others, from giving of yourself in a way that then gives back to you. It is a lesson that many of the world’s most philanthropic people have learnt: it is in giving to others that you receive. One of the most important gifts I have received over the past five years is the understanding that it is through teaching that you learn. Life is full of interesting paradoxes like that. What you send out to the world comes right back to you. But we are often so focused on holding on, that our arms are too full to accept the gifts that life has to offer.
Recently I have been given many gifts, little messages and lessons that make me pause in my day to appreciate the friendship of wise women. Women who are passionate about the work they do, and the opportunities life has offered them. Despite the frustrations of life, they face the problems with enthusiasm and innovation, looking for ways to turn obstacles into opportunities. And they do it with laughter and love.
One of these wise women, in talking about the behavior of others, stated her belief that people are motivated to act out of either fear or love. When we recognize that, we are better able to forgive their behavior. Instead of being angered by the ignorance of another person, recognize that fear may be what prompts them to strike out. Then instead of reacting to their ignorance, and fuelling the fire, we can take a breath and give them some space. When we react like animals to the taunts and threats of others, we are no better than animals. Unfortunately we see examples of that too often.
On this wonderful Friday morning, I wish you happiness. May you feel motivated to give more, to love more, and to forgive more. It may be that you need to begin with yourself – for often we hold ourselves to a very high standard, and forget to first forgive ourselves. But that may be a message for another day!
Have a great weekend, family!