Happiness in the face of harsh reality

2013 Jan/Feb Edition

As I write this (December 2012), the United States has just witnessed another senseless act of gun violence in Connecticut. As we all know, the world we live in is a hard, scary place, and only seeming to get worse. As I type this editorial millions of children and adults are dying of malnutrition and disease. Entire countries are flirting with economic collapse. Wars continue to rage in places far and near. Natural ecosystems are on the brink of disappearing.

 

And yet I’m sitting in front of my fireplace relishing the enticing words of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel. I’m laughing out loud at a YouTube video of some dog yet again doing something silly in front of someone’s iPhone. I’m slowly savoring every delightful sip of a chai tea. I am happy.

 

Sometimes we tend to feel that appreciating such small-scale enjoyment in the face of a world so filled with suffering is criminal. It becomes hard to indulge in fudge when you know full well that families across the globe are dying for want of food. I realize that in the dry deserts of distant places, women are walking miles to get clean water, so I feel guilty when I hop in my car and spew pollution into our clean Paducah air with my gas-guzzler. We begin to think that the only moral thing to do is to sustain an attentive misery.

 

But over the years you begin to see what leads to positive change and what doesn’t. I continually try to agree with the poet Jack Gilbert: “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

 

This isn’t narcissistic pleasure-seeking. It’s the way to make your own LIFE work and give your best to the world.

 

When my son was traveling in Asia learning about organic farming and sustainable agricultural techniques in villages bereft of fresh food, working in a Vietnamese orphanage, and volunteering in Haiti after the devastating earthquake there, I would often feel burdened by the weight of the world after a phone call or a Skype visit.

 

But after a period of reflection a new resolve would take over. In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath write about making positive differences in difficult situations. In social work, this is called the “strengths perspective”—finding sources of success and empowerment to fuel change.

 

To stubbornly accept gladness, we must stop believing that we can be sad enough to make a sad person happy. Gilbert adds, “We must admit there will be music despite everything.” Or as Pablo Neruda penned, “Take bread away from me, if you wish, take air away, but do not take from me your laughter. . .it opens for me all the doors of LIFE.”

 

 

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