Forty years ago, while discussing the inequities of our world at a deep night college party – ranting is the more accurate verb – my friend peered over his beer and shook his head. “You are one angry young man.”
My head struck a firm nod in agreement. “Damn straight, I’m angry. And I’m going to do something about it.”
Last week, I came whistling out of the locker room after yoga and my young teacher asked, “Why are you always so upbeat?”
I tossed her a smile and a wink as I headed out the door. “It beats being grumpy.”
Riding home I recalled that college party and wondered how that angry young man turned into this cheerful yogi. I can’t pretend my anger dissipated because the world improved or that I saved even a morsel of it. The world’s the same old mess with a different cast of characters. But I was able to identify specific moments when my anger melted into understanding, compassion, and eventually, joy.
1. Be Like Sissy Hankshaw. “The international situation was desperate as usual” is a recurring phrase of dread that haunts our antiestablishment heroine as she hitchhikes across the middle of this great country in Tom Robbins’ 1976 novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. But that reality never dampens Sissy’s adventure. In the 70’s, communication brought every tragedy into every living room. Now tragedy pops up on our iPhones. The world has no more problems than before; they just get more airtime. Be like Sissy and learn to ignore them.
2. Volunteer. The first time you volunteer you think, “I’m going to save others.” Then you realize whatever benefit you produced was meager compared to what you gained yourself. Keep doing it anyway. Volunteer early and often, near and far from home. It’s the quickest way to see the world through another person’s eyes.
3. The Best of All Possible Worlds. In my late twenties I was a member of church social group. One evening we debated Doctor Pangloss’ assertion in Voltaire’s Candide, that this is the best of all possible worlds. I was the sole person in agreement with Voltaire. Humans seek, but we are never satisfied. The setbacks imposed by nature, inhumanity, and satirical authors deserve to be railed against and set right. But they will never stay right, nor would we be content if they did. The best possible world isn’t perfect. It’s this one, where perfection is just out of reach.
4. Sing and Dance. Singing and dancing builds community, empathy, and strength. Not just at weddings and parties, but also at protests and wakes. Singing elevates emotion; dancing releases tension. They make you feel good despite yourself. No one can ever sing and dance too much.
5. Avoid Lawyers. Life is unfair. Once you accept that, everything else can roll easy. Strive to be fair in all of your dealings so you can sleep at night. Relinquish the slights others deliver to you and you will sleep even better. Confound the poor dude who crosses you. Shower him with kindness. That ought to ruin his sleep.
6. Have Children. Studies show that people without children are happier than people with children. This says more about the transitory nature of happiness and the vagaries of statistical studies than it does about the value of children. Children may not make you happy in the moment, but they enhance your connection to humanity and expand your concern for the world. Children allow us to re-experience the world through their eyes. They are the conduit to rescripting our youth as well as contributing to the chain that will continue after we’re gone. They cost a fortune. They can be surly and insolent. But they also provide lasting joy that supersedes mere happiness
7. Cry for Joy. One afternoon, during year two after my divorce, I was working in my attic while Michael Feinstein warbled through Johnny Mandel’s Where Do You Start for the thousandth time. I cried so hard my gut wretched, which was an awesome core workout before core workouts had even been invented. When I finally stopped, long after the song was through, I thought I’d expunged all the tears in me. But I was wrong. Two days later my daughter demonstrated how to push milk out of her nose and I laughed so hard I cried. Since then I’ve never cried in sadness, only in joy.
8. Find your Fitness. I’m a yoga junkie but not a zealot. What works for me doesn’t have to work for you. First World living requires little from our bodies, yet we still have them and they need to be put through their paces. Whether it’s rugby, roller blading, or ring toss, find a way to keep your body moving.
9. Spin, spin, spin. Clouds do not have sliver linings. In fact, clouds have no linings at all. They’re nothing but gas. A few things in this world are utterly evil (Hitler, child slavery, bed bugs) while others are completely pure (babies, full moons, ice cream), but the vast majority of material goods and pronounced opinions are a sprinkling of both. The more you choose to accentuate the positive, the more the positive will flourish.
10. Be obsessed by something nobody cares about. Find something that you love and drill deep. The amount of personal satisfaction is directly proportional to its obscurity. Following stock prices may be your thing, but you’ll get more satisfaction from craving Red Sox trivia and will be truly happy if you’re mesmerized by New England sea grass. A carefully crafted bit of alliteration can keep me giddy for days.
11. Slow Go. Use the slowest form of transport to get from A to B. You will save energy and savor the journey.
12. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Read Susan Jeffer’s book if you want, but the title says it all. We are all afraid of ourselves, of what we know, and what we don’t know. Acknowledge your fear but don’t let it hold you back. Rise above. Celebrate this messed up place. It could be better in so many ways, yet it is our home and we wouldn’t trade it for… the world.