Archive for the ‘Happiness’ Category

Downsides of the News Blackout

Two months ago I wrote about my latest idea for a news blackout. (It’s more of a dark-brownout, really.) So how’s it going?

Well, my blood pressure’s probably down. My anxiety level certainly is. I’m more focused on what I’ve been called to do: prayer, writing, spiritual direction, the occasional money-making project. There’s also an emotional buffer in place: I can scan the news these days with more resilience than I could in the past.

Lately, though, I’m seeing some downsides. For one, I catch myself thinking things like “Seems like the president has calmed down in the past few months.” Or “Congo is in trouble again? Who knew?”

Of course, it’s not that the president has become more stable, or that the Congolese conflict popped out of nowhere. It’s just that I haven’t read about them.

Even more distressing: On two compelling, heart-tugging stories of the past month or so—the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the package bombs in and around Austin, Texas—I barely noticed until several days into the crisis.

That does not sit well with me. These are teens we’re talking about. I have friends in Austin.

Beyond not sitting well, this newfound obliviousness presents a larger quandary. My faith tradition calls me to stay engaged with the world, to care about the lives of all people, especially the most vulnerable. (I’d put high school students and Congo’s poverty-stricken masses squarely in that category.) If there’s one theme in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that’s almost impossible to ignore, it’s God’s passion for the poor and at-risk.

And yet…and yet…there’s the lower blood pressure. The easing of anxiety. The healthier state of mind, which not only benefits me personally but equips me to engage with others more deeply.

So it looks like neither extreme—near-total news blackout, near-total news immersion—will work for me. But I’m wondering where the middle ground might be, and whether it’s too delicate a balance for any human to hit with precision. If I let a little more news in my life, it’s almost automatic to let in a little more, and then even more. Before I know it, I’ve reopened myself to the toxic maelstrom that our public life has become.

I’ll probably continue to tweak my current approach. At the same time, I can’t ignore the longing that maybe we all have: for a less intrusive world, a less chaotic world, less toxin in the news stream.

What about you? How are you managing the news these days?

The Day God Became Not Special

Dear Reader: this post is about Christmas, and it may strike a chord with you especially if you struggle with Christmas. Or if you’re struggling in general. It’s dark at first, but if you know dark like I do, that won’t faze you. The second half gets brighter.

This past year, I’ve been led repeatedly to one big lesson.  I didn’t think of it in terms of Christmas till this morning.

The big lesson is, weirdly enough, summed up in the words of a bumper sticker: Always remember that you are wonderfully unique…just like everybody else. It’s the everybody else part that’s captivated my soul this year. Despite all my delusions to the contrary, I keep coming back to the truth that I am not special. I am just like everybody else.

Two-thirds of the way through my natural life span, it seems likely that I will live out my years like everybody else—breathing, sleeping, eating (preferably at diners), working, taking up space, trying to make my one-person’s contribution to the world. When I die, I will almost certainly fall into the category described by the writer of Ecclesiasticus:

 There are some who have no memorial,
who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,
and so have their children after them.

In other words, not special.

Now here’s the breathtaking part. The Christmas part.

Christians believe that in an average backwater on a contentious fringe of the Roman Empire—in a stable, no less—God became a human being.

In other words, God became not special.

Think about that. We’re talking the Source of all that is, the Ultimate Reality, the One who is special in a way no other being can possibly claim. Becoming not special.

That’s pretty amazing all by itself, but there’s more. Having become not special, God knows what it’s like to feel one’s not-specialness in one’s deepest self. So we can peer into our own not-specialness and sense that God is with us in it.

It is hard to express how much we need this withness.

You see, our not-specialness can lead us to despair. We’re born, we live, we’re average, we die. Ultimately, we do a lot of this alone. What’s the point, especially when life is so difficult?

The Christian tradition has answers for that—good answers—but they’re not part of our story today. The story today is that God responds to the question, to our temptation toward despair, with withness. With a connection, a communion that is closer to us than our own breath.

No one wants to be lonely. We all want to be with. This is being with at the core of our being. Being with the Source of all that is. The answer, in so many ways, to the deepest longings of our hearts.

We could hardly ask for more.

Joyous Christmas, everyone.

 

 

Hard Knocks and the Choice to Be Happy

My beloved cat is in decline.

She came to us from a pet store 17 years ago, and it was her decision. We’d picked out a different cat at the store to bring home, but Madeleine would not be denied. Somehow she got into my arms and we took to each other immediately. As my daughter and I tried to decide which one to take, a total stranger walked up to me and said, “Take ‘em both.”

We have never regretted taking both. Madeleine and I have remained close through all these years. And now, between the tumor in one mammary and the limp in the opposite leg, she is probably facing her final days.

Oddly this has me thinking about happiness, and the myths we build around it.

As my cat’s health goes downhill, I see numerous places where I’m not making the grade. I should have spent more time with her, but I didn’t. My sadness comes from attachment to beings who change and die—so say my Zen reading and meditation—but the attachment endures regardless. I would like to shove this grief aside, but it does what it wants: moving into my heart and mind like a concrete block, shoving everything out of the way.

There’s very little control here.

And that has me pondering the messages we all hear about control, especially our control of happiness, in situations like these. Happiness is a choice, we’re told. You can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to events. We are the sum of our choices.

Those are alluring myths. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could choose and control and influence in this way?

What makes the myths dangerous is that they’re partly true. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is known for her observation that 40 percent of our happiness is within our power to change. One of my neighbors told me that, upon losing his father, he was a mess for two days and then quietly chose to move on with his life, partly because that’s what Dad would have wanted.

But you see, 40 percent isn’t 100 percent. Just because my neighbor moved on doesn’t mean the grief magically left him. And yet, too often, myths like happiness is a choice get condensed and touted into absolute statements, often with a subtle tinge of shaming: “If happiness is a choice, why aren’t you choosing it? If you can control your reactions, why are you letting this get the best of you?”

And I want to say: Shut up. My cat is dying.

Even while commending my neighbor for the courage to move on, and celebrating the 40 percent of mood we can influence, I don’t want to choose happiness or control my reactions if it blinds me to life’s darker events. I want to look them in the eye with as much clarity of vision as I can. I want to live into what is.

Our faith traditions echo this desire. The Bible is chock-full of people confronting the vast array of life’s events with the vast array of human emotion, including full-throated anger at God’s maddening ways. So many of the Buddha’s teachings lead to the unflinching view of existence as it is—how it moves from birth to fruition to old age and death.

Just as important, faith invites us to savor the wisdom that the sorrow might hold. I don’t know that I would appreciate the boundless love of God, or “the fear of the Lord,” or the beauty of life’s impermanence without having stared into the abyss. Only by wrestling with depression have I come to treasure the notion that, so often, our pathologies are the flip side of our strengths.

Does all this wisdom make the sad events easier to endure? Not one bit. It just makes life richer.

Maybe wisdom will come from Madeleine’s passing. Maybe not. Maybe no-wisdom is its own lesson. I won’t know for a while. Until then, it’s sit and wait and make her comfortable and savor her last days.

 

This article first appeared at The Huffington Post, March 1, 2017.