I won’t lie; when I talk about this blog being “Practical tools to make hard times happier,” I’m not actually talking about your hard times. I consider my own life to be something of a struggle, with challenges that I’ve chosen to face due to the work I’ve chosen to do. Things like health insurance, bills, my kids, my parents, my loved ones, my work…all of them often seem to come fraught with stresses. A good deal of the research and reading I do is finding tools and perspectives to deal with these kinds of anxiety-causing problems.
1st World Problems
The thing is, you can always point to someone else who has it worse. If I complain that my shoes are too small, then you point to the person with no shoes, and I point to the person with no feet, and you point to the person with no legs, and I point to the person in charge of the Romney campaign, and there’s always somebody dealing with worse problems than the person before them. None of which really helps the person in their own particular system of challenges; at best there’s some kind of reverse-schadenfreude where you say “well, at least it’s not that bad.”
It’s really not all that comforting. So how do we manage to feel better? Especially when solving one problem just means another one is coming up right behind it. I’ve grown addicted to paying rent, for example, because it’s always a challenge for me; there’s always a heightened feeling of excitement towards the end of the month as I try and pull together the finances to cover my lodging. Always has been, though I confess the excitement is less now that there’s just me to worry about. Trying to keep a roof over my wife and my four kids? Now that was an exciting time! Talk about pressure! The rush of adrenaline when on the 1st of the month (or, I confess, occasionally the 2nd or 3rd or 4th) came around and I actually paid for another month was an amazing relief.
I’d have about two weeks of relief…and then the cycle would start again. How are we going to stretch X amount of cash to cover X+Y amount of bills?
It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. So yeah, I’d call it an addiction. At the same time, I remember the way I got past that kind of anxiety, at least for a while, about 27 years ago.
Bach, Buscaglia, and Jones
The meaning I picked, the one that changed my life: Overcome fear, behold wonder.
Like many teens, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who foisted Jonathan Livingston Seagull on me. That led to Illusions, and The Bridge Across Forever, of course, and the beginning of the search for my “soulmate” (a quite educating snipe-hunt, that one) and later the book One. Those who have read Richard Bach during their formative years will be nodding their heads, probably with a wry, wistful smile on their faces. He taught millions of people how to see their lives and their loves in a magical way, and while I can’t say that I agree with all of his philosophy, I can definitely say that the man who is writing once a week about love in a first-person wry and reflective tone owes a lot to little Dick Bach.
The fact that I can plant a seed and it becomes a flower, share a bit of knowledge and it becomes another’s, smile at someone and receive a smile in return, are to me continual spiritual exercises.
– Leo Buscaglia
Leo Buscaglia was the first non-scientific nonfiction author I read. His books on love and relationships were also pivotal in changing my views of what love is, how love could be, and the myriad ways of showing it and appreciating it. The kind of father I became, the kind of husband I tried to be, all were influenced by his many writings and more than a few talks I was able to listen to (recorded, alas). His kind of optimism looks, to some, a bit dated and overly soft for the real hardships facing a post-9/11 world, but I’m not sure that’s a failing on his part as much as a failing on ours.
Whoa-oa-oaoaoa, whoa-oa-oaoaoa, whoa-oa-oa-oa-oa, Oh-ohhhhh
– Howard Jones
A particularly memorable make-out session to Howard Jones’ Dream Into Action implanted all of the songs on that pop album into my teen psyche in a very positive way. Howard was different than most pop artists of the ’80’s; rather than sing about nihilism and darkness, he sang about how bright and bouncy and happy and amazing love and laughter and sharing joy could be. I don’t know if it was driven by hormones or perhaps a fortunate sympathetic reaction to the other authors above, but it literally turned my world around. At a certain point when I was, like most 16 year olds, darkly depressed, wearing black, and convinced my world would end any minute (this was back toward the end of the Cold War, remember) I suddenly turned around, began wearing bright clothing, smiling at everyone, doing my best to brighten everyone’s day.
“If nobody’s going to love me, I’ll just love everyone.”
-me, 1985, age 16
It had mixed results, to be sure. Much joy, much sorrow, and many of my attempts to love ended up causing some pretty practical problems (such as being a single dad with 4 kids). But for a while, I was able to simply turn my back on my perceived problems and focus on the love in my life – whether it was already there or else hunting passionately for the places I could put love in. I began to recognize all of the awesome in my life, the music, the plays, the friends, the lovers (not surprisingly, when you love everyone, there’s usually one or two who love you back), and the brightness of the world of 1986-87.
This morning…I almost found it again.
It was a very particular moment to recognize. I was shaving with my Dollar Shave Club razor, reflecting on the work I had to do today, on the bills I was facing, on the troubles of friends and the challenges facing the ones I love, family of blood and of choice. It was rather daunting, and there was not a smile on my face as I drew the blade against the stubble.
Then this little switch clicked in my head, and for a moment I thought about how incredible my kids are, how beautiful my grandsons. I thought about this great city and this beautiful house I live in. I thought about how lucky I am to have a day filled with work that I care passionately about, and that I get to work in my home, with the pictures and sounds and foods that I love filling my day. I thought about my friends and loved ones, a pack of truly remarkable and amazingly good-looking and intelligent folks. I thought about those who love me, and how fortunate I am to have their support and to have encountered them in my life.
For just a moment, I felt like such a fool for being anxious or stressed or anything except blissfully happy.
I wanted to hang onto that feeling, but you know how it is: the computer starts throwing up weird error messages. The clients ask for seven things before breakfast, and the phone bill is due, and when you try to go out for ice cream, you park in what you think is a free zone and end up with a $44 parking ticket. It piles up, and at the end of the day, you can just look back at the feeling and catch a faint wisp of memory of that jubilant moment in the mirror.
But that moment was there, and it’s possible that in spite of the decades, there’s a part of me that won’t ever forget that the real Higg’s Boson particle that holds the universe together is the sea of love and grace we all swim in.
He’s in there, somewhere. And that makes me smile, even as I go back to work late in the evening.
And do you feel scared? I do…
But I won’t stop and falter.
And if we throw it all away, things can only get better…
Haiku update: I appreciate the suggestions that I let “good enough” be there, but I’m afraid you overestimate my standards. It’s not a matter of picking out the best picture, it’s a matter of taking a picture at all. It’s not a matter of not having a 5-7-5, it’s a matter of not having the first word.
At the same time, there has been progress; yesterday I recovered the original pieces of the Lost Haiku that went along with the picture of the wine glass and glasses. You can see it here, through the magic of back-dating…