One of my favorite online resources is the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley. Researchers in the science of happiness and gratitude, they’ve got a bang-up website and tons of free resources. But the relentlessly upbeat tone has irritated me lately: Four Things You Can Do To Help Your Kids During the Pandemic! Happiness for Medical Professionals!
Yesterday the newsletter editor wrote about not being happy: what a relief.
These are difficult times. I won’t add to the agony by reciting the list of woes that we constituents of this fragile biosphere are facing. But things won’t get better simply by humans trying to be happy. Happiness is not the result of just doing the right things and thinking the right thoughts. Even if I make myself personally comfortable (believe me, I try!), to be alive is to be connected. This web of connection means that our suffering is never only ours, and our joy is never only ours. To believe that we should be at ease while the world around us is mentally and physically ill is itself a form of mental illness.
I’m giving up wishing that the world would go back to the way it was. After all, one of the gifts of this time is the understanding that things are not okay, not for many of the people and animals and plants with whom we share life. Rather than wishing, I am choosing to exercise my will.
Here’s the distinction. Wishing, according to the mystic Beatrice Bruteau, is wanting uncomfortable things to change without lifting a finger to make them change. Its roots lie in the childish belief that the purpose of life is to fulfill my desires. Wishing also presupposes that, personally, I am incapable of effecting change. It’s a powerless place.
Willing, on the other hand, begins with seeing clearly. This is not the same as liking the reality we see. (A teacher of mine would say that we have to forgive reality for being the way it is, which neatly grasps how painful reality can be.)
When we see clearly, then “willing” is possible. Willing means that I take actual concrete steps to change a given situation. I commit myself to participating in the solution. The actions I take may not be big or important. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll see the specific problem fixed in my lifetime. But “we turn our face toward the good that we are determined to bring into being.” Turning my face toward the good—regardless of personal success or failure—gives my life meaning, and kindles a quiet calmness.
In his autobiography, Man’s Search for Meaning, concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl recalls “ …the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”