Tuesday, October 20, 2015

In Search of Happiness

Maybe I’m too optimistic in my belief that ALL of us want to be happy, that happiness is something we all strive to achieve. If my theory is true, why then do so many of us sabotage our own happiness? Why do we unknowingly restrict ourselves from enjoying anything and spend our whole lives looking for something we think we’ll never find? Even if we allow ourselves to think for one minute that we were meant to experience happiness, we believe happiness is like the elusive butterfly – fleeting.

Many of us live on the opposite end of the spectrum from happy. We are bitter, angry, spiteful, jealous, and depressed. And if somebody suggests that we can be happy, we provide lots of excuses to show them how wrong they are. Who can argue with us when we cry about the loss of a parent, a spouse, a child, a home, a job, or a car? We have no reason to be happy, we explain.

Even years later, after we remarry (a drug-abusing alcoholic), give birth to more children (we can’t afford to raise), live in a home (that is too small for our family), have jobs (that don’t pay our bills), drive a car (that lives in the repair shop more often than on the street), we complain bitterly and hold fast to our reasons, or more accurately, our excuses, to explain our relentless unhappiness. Happiness was obviously not meant for us. 

If we had what we wanted or needed but currently don’t have, we explain, we’d be happy. Money, for example, for most of us, would make us happy. We don’t need extreme wealth, though prosperity would be nice – we just need enough money to pay our bills, take a trip, and buy a few luxuries now and then.

So we cling to our belief that others were meant to be happy. We think our lives are worse than anyone else’s life. We think that everything we do is worthless and meaningless. Nothing matters anymore, because everything we do is never good enough. We’ll never be able to support our families, we’ll never find the job that could pay our bills, we’ll never have that child we always wanted, we’ll never … (the list goes on and on).

We think that even if we could pursue our passions (we don’t have enough money to quit our jobs), or if we were wealthy (that will never happen) or if more people supported us and believed in us (our families and friends are about as supportive as stretched out pieces of elastic), maybe THEN we’d be happy. But some very wealthy individuals who have pursued their passions and have had the support of family and friends are still so unhappy they feel their lives aren’t worth living. So you wonder, what’s the point?

STOP! Just STOP! Let’s reexamine our thoughts. We have just invited a a hoard of negativity to enter our spirits, which are now filled with so much self-criticism, hatred, pessimism, and pain that they have hardened to a point where no positive energy can enter. That protective wall we’ve built around us serves only to keep all the negativity inside, smoldering and festering, until we become one giant inflamed sore. Happiness tries to get in, but our walls are too thick, and we’re too stubborn to allow it entry.

And many of us drown ourselves in alcohol and fill our bodies with drugs destined to make even the most positive among us sink deeper into the pits of hell. 

We need to stop abusing our bodies. We need to stop poisoning our minds (and the minds of others who look to us for guidance). We need to open up our hearts and allow the possibility for a little bit of happiness to enter. 

If we don’t, we become bitter old hags with permanent scowls on our faces, pushing away every good thing that comes our way, because we don’t believe that good things can happen – for us. We have convinced ourselves to believe we don’t deserve to be happy, even while that little voice inside us tells us that we do. Why pay attention to that lying, conniving voice when we know that its purpose is to trick us? We are living proof that nothing good happens for people like us. And we compare our heartaches and devastating losses to those of others. 

But comparing ourselves to others is a recipe for disaster. We all follow our own paths, our own loves, our own passions, and what we believe to be our own destinies. Being on my path makes me no better or no worse than you. My progress in life, while connected to yours, in no way is meant to intimate you any more than your progress is meant to intimidate me. 

We are all at different levels of spirituality, emotional maturity, intellect, and physical development. Would you compare your phase of emotional development to that of a teenager? Would you condemn the teenager for not knowing how to regulate his or her hormones? Would you criticize a baby for not knowing how to walk? 

Sadly some parents do, and babies, while unable to comprehend our words, understand and interpret very well our emotions. Inherent in that infant is the ability to stand upright, but our criticism and harassment cannot force Baby to stand before Baby is ready. 

Why then do we force ourselves or our loved ones to travel paths we think they should travel at the pace we think they should move when they are not ready? Why can’t we recognize that our friends and family members are on their own paths and at their own stages of development? If more of us supported and encouraged others – and ourselves – to travel the paths we were meant to travel, more of us might find happiness.

We also need to stop thinking of ourselves as sinners. To feel that we were born with sin and that we have to spend the rest of our lives ridding ourselves of the disgusting filth that embodied us from the moment we were conceived, we place ourselves in a type of Hell from which we may never escape. 

Isn’t sin nothing more than succumbing to temptation? How can a newborn be expected to resist temptation? – Even if the baby was born with sin, how can a defenseless infant be expected to resist temptation? And how can we be born with sin that is supposedly already a part of us unless we brought it forth from a past life? 

Are we to believe in a punishing God and that God is still punishing all of us for the sins committed by Adam and Eve? Maybe we need to rethink our purpose in being on this planet. Maybe the time has come for us to recognize that we have choices. If we believe in the teachings of the Bible, we know that ALL OF US were given Free Will! And because we make our own choices, others make their own choices as well. 

Sometimes their choices put us in danger. Sometimes their choices hurt us. Sometimes their choices kill our family and friends. But so do our choices affect them. Are we always making informed choices? If God took away our Free Will, our ability to choose, would we then be happy? Would we be happy living as robots, unable to make our own choices, because they’ve already been made for us? Why bother living at all if we can’t decide how to live our own lives? 

We have to accept that we have the ability to choose our thoughts, even when others humiliate us, degrade us, and behave in ways that make us miserable. 

As I was in the midst of writing this piece, my mother called to tell me that her grandson (my nephew) would soon be moving and that she was trying to find somebody to take the wall unit that she and my dad had given to him. I had just been telling one of my granddaughters, who had spent the weekend, that I needed a large wall unit to hold all my crafts. 

So when the subject about the shelves arose, I jumped at the opportunity to take something that once belonged to my parents. I told my mom I wanted it and she immediately went on a tirade. “You are NOT getting it. And where would you put it anyway? You are too unstable! You never stay anywhere long enough! How can I expect you to be living anywhere for very long when you move constantly?”

While her reasoning made no sense to me (what difference does moving make?), I understood (but didn’t really understand) that she wanted a stable environment for her very expensive shelf unit. Later, when I talked to my son, who will be taking the shelf unit, I learned that my mother had told him that she knew I was angry with her and that maybe she shouldn’t have been so honest. Those words knocked me off my feet. I found myself even angrier, and I plunged into a depressive state that took a couple of days to dissipate.

Why? I have a tendency to become depressed (usually over lack of money, though), and I always have to resist depression. My mom has never been to my home and she has told me that she will never visit my home, because she won’t drive this far. The problem would be solved if she would spend the night, but she refuses to spend the night. She has no idea how much space I have or why I would want the shelf unit in the first place, etc. But more importantly, she lashed out at me for – what? Why was she angry with me for wanting to take the shelf unit she no longer needed or wanted? 

And how could I continue writhing an article about happiness when I was now so miserable I couldn’t think happy thoughts – at all – in my depressed state of mind? My thoughts went back to the mom she was to me 6 years ago. If I had asked for the wall unit then, she would gladly have given it to me. I had been newly diagnosed with breast cancer, had to go through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and she was so terrified I might die, she would have done anything to make me happy. 

But, I realized, because of past psychologically devastating family situations, once the cancer treatment was over, our relationship would resume its stasis. I was back to my designation as the unforgivably weird and unstable renegade in my family. 

And then it hit me – happiness isn’t always an easily achievable state. I needed to understand that fact if I was going to continue writing this article. I’m also reading Dr. Wayne Dyer’s, Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life. Even if my mother was trying to impart to me the message that I was incapable of caring for anything, even something nobody wanted, I had to learn that what my mother, and others, think about me, is really, according to Dr. Dyer, none of my business. 

Though we try to overcome our sadness at things others say about us, though we may become depressed when people who are supposed to love us act as if they are fully intent on “putting us in our place,” wherever they think that place is, we have to recognize that sometimes angry, miserable, or even just critical people will come along to challenge our attempts to be happy. 

What I’ve learned and what I continue to learn, is that we can’t allow others to threaten our happiness. Whatever my mother’s reasons were for not wanting me to take the wall unit, I had to let go of my desire to make sense of her adamant stronghold about me being unstable. She may go to her grave thinking I’m inept, but I refuse to go to mine believing her.

What I have also learned over time is that we can’t always change what happens around us and we can’t always change what happens to us (though we have some control over what precipitates certain events that occur, like tempting fate by texting/drinking and driving). We can change our reactions, our perceptions, and our beliefs. We can choose to affect our destinies by following our own desired paths, even while others are standing on our paths, intent on pushing us over the edge.

Ignoring them isn’t always an option. Maybe they are our parents, our children, our siblings, or our best friends. But we can choose our reactions to them. We can understand that maybe they are limited in their abilities to move along their own paths, because they’ve been stuck in one position for so long, they don’t know how to proceed. Maybe they’re so focused on us making mistakes they can’t see their own blunders. Or maybe they think their job is to guide us along our paths at the expense of their own journeys.

We can also open our minds to other possibilities. Maybe we brought our sins into this life from a previous existence and the reincarnation theory, “What you reap, so shall you sow,” is playing itself out. Another example for opening our minds is the study of Vedanta, a type of Vedas philosophy, which tells us that, “our real nature is divine. God is our innermost Self, an underlying reality that exists in every being. Religion is therefore a search for Self, a search for God within. We don't need to be ‘saved.’ At worst, we are unaware of our true nature.” (See Source 1 below.) 

Another explanation for Vedanta appears here (Source 2 below): “Vedanta is one of the world’s most ancient religious philosophies and one of its broadest. Based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India, Vedanta affirms the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of religions. Vedanta is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism; but while Hinduism includes aspects of Indian culture, Vedanta is universal in its application and is equally relevant to all countries, all cultures, and all (religions).” (What I like about the Vedanta philosophy is that Vedanta treats Christ and spiritual teachers from other religions with equal respect.)

If we learned to accept that happiness is obtainable, we would want to explore the truth that resides in all of us, that we were born with a divine nature, an acceptance that would change our belief about who we are. Believing we are divine does not mean that we are sinless. We are human, after all, but believing in our own divine nature opens our hearts and minds wide enough to recognize that God truly does reside within us! 

Isn’t that what even Biblical scholars have been teaching us all along – that God resides within us – that we don’t have to search outside ourselves to find God? How can we be born with sin if God has dwelled inside us from the moment of conception? And if God co-exists with sin, why do we pay more attention to the negative aspects of our nature (the sins we and others choose to commit)? Why can’t we focus more on our divine nature (the God within)?

One explanation is that we allow greed, anger, gluttony, lust, envy, pride, and sloth (the seven deadly sins) to control us. To combat those sins, we need to replace greed with generosity, anger with compassion and kindness, gluttony with temperance, lust with self-control, envy with empathy and love, pride with humility, and sloth with action. (See Source 4 below.) And maybe we need to start paying attention to little things that we tend to dismiss when we are in the throes of negativity, those almost unrecognizable moments of joy, like this one:

One year, when I was working two part-time jobs, going to school full time, raising my three youngest kids, and getting them to all their after-school activities, I sat in a Dairy Queen parking lot on a beautiful Spring day, waiting for my youngest daughter to get her free ice cream cone (a coupon prize from one of her teachers). Her siblings were with friends and I was trying to relax before I had to return home to wrestle with homework – theirs and mine – and figure out a way to pay the bills. I had been arguing bitterly with their father over the child support he was supposed to pay in keeping with inflation, but he refused. 

Instead, though for eight years the cost of living had risen dramatically, he continued to pay what he paid eight years before. I calculated the difference between what he had been paying and what he should be paying to be the weekly cost of two gallons of milk, a box of cereal, and a loaf of bread. My frustration over his refusal to obey the courts put me in a terrible state of mind. Though I kept praying for some relief, though I kept asking for a miracle, I was always choking back tears, always ready to pound my fists into my steering wheel, my floor, the walls, or even my forehead. One time I flattened a ring on my finger because I had pounded the floor so hard, crying out to God and blaming Him for putting me in such a state of poverty, that I couldn’t get the ring off my finger without using a pair of pliers. 

So, while my daughter stood in line, waiting for her ice cream cone, I stared out the window and, once again fought back tears as I tried to enjoy the weather and not let her see the pain I was in or the frustration I was feeling.

In that moment, a little girl, who was maybe 3 or 4, came up to my driver’s window as her dad looked at me through the front window of my car. She handed me a handful of dandelions, and, in that moment, my heart melted. The little girl didn’t pay my bills and she didn’t entice my X to pay child support, but she came in answer to a prayer. Unbidden, she offered me something my own children had given me numerous times before, a handful of dandelions. 

In that moment, I felt something crack open inside me. I truly believed that this child had been sent to me by God, who I imagined was telling me, “Open your hand. Accept this gift. And open your heart. Remember this moment with joy. Many more will come. Recognize them. In time, you’ll understand that true joy brings happiness.”

My life didn’t change dramatically or immediately. I still found myself getting fired up over my X and his refusal to accept responsibility for his children. And I still fought with creditors over bills I couldn’t afford to pay. But I felt a shift of energy inside me and I never forgot that little girl and her gift.

Today I am happy. I live at just above (yay for small steps) poverty level and I live on a strict budget, but I am happy. Through the sale of my manufactured home, I was able to buy new furniture (my kids grew up with nothing but borrowed furniture). 

My true joy, though, comes from spending time with my kids and grandkids, from visits with friends and family, from the change in seasons, from finding a skein of yarn that I think would make a nice project, from watching new episodes of NCIS or Criminal Minds, from knowing I have a plethora of movies and shows I can watch on Netflix, from walking on my treadmill, or from finding time to read a book. 

Most recently, I began a new business, Crystal Butterfly Creations Message in a Bottle. Will it thrive? I don’t know. My happiness doesn’t depend on whether or not this business succeeds. My happiness derives from knowing that I have talents and skills I can share with others. My happiness comes from knowing that God resides within me and that I can connect with that Source of Happiness and Joy every minute of every day if I open my heart and my mind to recognize the positive energy I draw from that Source – from God. I just have to remember, even in times of sadness and frustration, that God is there waiting for me to notice that Fountain of Joy within me.

Life has never been easy for me. The struggles oftentimes have been insurmountable, just as they have been for everyone else. We can’t expect to remain in a blissful state 24 hours every day. We all encounter frustrations and tragedy that require our attention and zap our energy.

But we can trust that life is cyclical and that “all things must pass,” including our own lives. So while we’re still alive, let’s start enJOYing those little things that bring us JOY right now, today. Let’s learn how to be happy by following our own paths, encouraging and supporting others to follow their own paths, and guiding them along their paths, trusting that we are all where we are meant to be. 

Let’s support others who have fallen off their paths and who have ignored the God within them. Let’s help others realize their talents and skills, and let’s encourage them to share their gifts with others. I leave you with this quote from Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?