Lessons from a Stranger

Today is my granddaughter Olivia’s birthday, a day that reminds me of the juxtaposition of “things,” things like emotions, events, and experiences. I’m thinking of a man I never met who had a profound effect on my thinking. Because of him, I’ll never take my blessings for granted; nor will I ever be insensitive to the feelings of others (or at least that’s my goal).

On that spring morning the other grandparents and I felt excitement, mine bordering on giddiness. We walked and talked and snacked and waited. And then we waited some more. We were allowed in and out of Amanda’s room for part of the day, and then as the big event became more imminent, the medical personnel shooed us out. We adjourned to the huge waiting lobby filled with clusters of sage vinyl couches and found a vacant sitting area. As we made small talk, a feeling of anxious anticipation permeated the atmosphere.

“Dumas said all human wisdom could be summed up in two words, wait and hope,” I quipped. Anxious smiles greeted the remark. We knew the moment was close, and yet there was nothing the four adults could do. It was in the hands of the doctor and Amanda. And God.

Life teemed all around us. At least two groups of expectant parents came for “the tour.” Led by a member of the hospital staff, the excited parents-to-be were given instructions on where everything was and what they could expect on delivery day. The group stopped just short of the double doors that led to the labor and birthing rooms, and we listened as their guide informed them about what went on behind those doors. Securely locked, the doors were sacred portals beyond which no one could pass without permission and a code of some type.

Several medical personnel bustled about with clipboards and pagers, all busily intent on their missions. I watched the scurrying about of doctors, nurses, and orderlies and recalled Annie Dillard’s poignant passage in For the Time Being about an obstetrical ward in a busy city hospital. As Dillard described the activity level, she said there “might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks.” She then asks if we, her readers, should perhaps “remove our shoes, drink potions, and take baths?” Because, Dillard writes, “This is where the people come out.”

Chitchatting about various topics, none of them too serious, we scarcely noticed the quiet arrival of an older man who came to join our group. Truthfully, he didn’t so much join us as he filled an empty seat for a few minutes. Because of the various seating combinations in the waiting area, and we had grown accustomed to sharing our space with an assorted crew of people as the day had progressed. He was just another seat filler, someone with whom we’d share small talk and commiserate about the waiting…or so I thought.

Cap pulled halfway down his forehead, his coal black eyes stared straight ahead. On the frail side, his downcast demeanor made him appear even more shrunken as he sat still and silent on the sage green sofa, his dark face immobile and unreadable. He appeared to be around 60, but frankly, it was hard to determine his age. Serious sorrow, rather than his age, could have been responsible for the deep lines etched beside his mouth and the empty look in his eyes.

The four grandparents-in-waiting continued to talk, and hoping to bring him into our conversation, I tried to establish some eye contact with the newest member of our cluster. My friendly overtures were to no avail, and I could tell from my surreptitious glances at his face that to him we might as well be pieces of furniture. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he dealt with some inner turmoil or heartache. Still and silent, he created a sacred inviolate space around him that no one could enter.

Looking straight ahead, the sad, silent man pulled a brown bag of plain M & M’s from his shirt pocket, and for the entire time he sat amongst us, he slowly and methodically ate the chocolate pieces. He didn’t tilt his head back and jiggle several at a time out of the bag. Nor did he spill a few in one hand and examine the multi-colored morsels before popping them into his mouth. He ate them unhurriedly, one by one, not savoring–merely chewing. Did he even notice their sweetness? Did eating them merely give him something to do, something to momentarily assuage his pain?

After a few moments, I noticed a lone tear streaking down his cheek, and then another and another. From my vantage point, I could see only his right profile, but I’m certain the tears were coursing down both sides of his face. Despite his sorrow, the candy man’s demeanor was one of dignity and restraint. The juxtaposition between our emotions and his couldn’t have been more obvious. Seeing his pain almost made me feel guilty for feeling so much hope and happiness.

What had happened to cause him such distress? Had he lost a wife or a daughter? Had one of the women in his life given birth to a stillborn child? Northside Hospital’s Women Center is a full-care facility that handles just about any women’s issue imaginable. From surgery to seminars, females from 12 to 100 are treated. The area where we sat was right outside of the labor and delivery area, but there were other sets of doors radiating from the waiting area, all leading to some mystery-shrouded ward. Which ward had he come from?

I’d like to say that someone offered him a tissue and that we became shoulders to cry on. But no, that didn’t happen. Subdued by the newcomer’s obvious distress, we grew quieter, and after a few moments we gave up our feeble attempts to continue our earlier lighthearted banter. We all tried to ignore him, not because we didn’t care but rather because we respected him and his anguish. The candy man had built an invisible wall around himself and seemed to be saying, “I’ve got to get myself together before moving forward.” His grief was a private thing, and we all sensed and respected that; we too had experienced punctured hearts.

But that was eight years ago. Today I’m feeling jangled by the memory of a stranger whose sadness continues to haunt me. What is he doing on this May afternoon? Have his tears dried? If we met today, would he talk to me? And if so, what would he say?

I think he’d tell me something that I already knew, that while there is suffering, there is also joy. And that perhaps pain serves to make us more aware of the exquisite sweetness of life. I hope that the candy man’s heartache has eased and that he has joy in his life.

Good Enough or Perfect?

Aren’t words powerful? Come on, admit it. You know they are. Powerful enough to rouse the sleeping beast within, calm the troubled heart, or stimulate the deepest of thoughts, words are amazing creations.

Fortunately for me, I have friends who feel the same about the fun, power, derivation, and meaning of words. A few weeks ago, a group of logophiles met to share new words over lunch. That morning, I had listened to a podcast by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, and was reminded of the difference between satisficers and maximizers.

After sharing our new words, I hesitated before adding these two words to the mix. Were they too frivolous? Was I partial to them only because of my interest in positive psychology and happiness? After about three seconds of hemming and hawing, I shared Rubin’s words, and we all decided we were (are?) satisficers in most areas. That word, by the way, is a combination of satisfy and suffice.

Since then, I’ve been pondering just how important one’s attitude towards “good enough” vs. perfection can affect happiness and overall well-being. I think Rubin is on to something. Further investigation by a lunch partner revealed that this idea was  espoused by Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice.

Here’s an edited version of what I posted on psychcentral.wordpress. com earlier this morning.

Writer Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, and creator of the book related blog and podcast, has tackled the concept of happiness with zeal. Although she isn’t a psychologist, Rubin incorporates the theories of philosophers and psychologists into her personal observations and experiences. A gifted writer, she makes learning about happiness interesting.

One of Rubin’s ideas is based on that of psychologist Barry Swartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. Swartz contends that choice overload can actually make us less happy as we set our expectations too high. Should I try the  vanilla latte or the sea salt caramel hot chocolate?? And what about paint color? Would Soothing Aloe look better on the dining room walls than Morning Zen? And then there are relationship issues. We’re told to “never settle,” and yet is there really a Mr. or Ms. Right waiting in the wings?

Instead of agonizing on and on about decisions, Swartz and Rubin advise readers to go with “good enough.” People who do so are called satisficers and are generally happier than the maximizers those who make perfection a quest.

Years ago, I was involved in a fender bender and had to go car shopping. Friends inundated me with information about price, makes, models, reviews, mileage estimates, and deals. I listened for a while but then began to get a little dizzy with so many facts and opinions.

After work one afternoon I drove the rental car into Sparks Toyota with some ideas about what I wanted. Small, good on gas, and affordable were the top criteria. I knew I couldn’t buy (wouldn’t buy) a new car, but I didn’t want to buy a clunker either. As soon as I walked on the lot, I saw it: a dark green Corolla that was two years old. The salesman was a little surprised at the quick decision, but he didn’t try to talk me out of it or sway me to a more expensive option.

A friend, incredulous that I had made such a snap decision, told me that most people didn’t buy cars that way. Instead, they did a little research first, even traveling across the state to see and test drive different models.  She admitted that it usually took several months for them to make a decision and that even then, she and her husband ended up second guessing themselves. They’re maximizers, and I’m a satisficer.

What about you? Do you have to have things “just right” to be happy, or is good enough okay? 

Let’s Get Happy!

 

I wish I hadn’t run out of time Sunday while giving a lesson on finding joy. There are so many other things I wanted to share, things that could make a definite difference in the happiness or misery a person feels. And all are practical and easy to incorporate into one’s life.

I’ve often said that the combination of religion and psychology has saved my life many times. Plus, there is often an overlap between what psychologists have learned about being happy and what the scriptures say. The former state that there’s a correlation between mental and physical health, and Proverbs 17:22 says pretty much the same thing: “A merry heart does good like a medicine: but a broken spirit dries the bones.”

Today there’s a movement in positive psychology that studies health, happiness, well-being, self-esteem, and a host of other issues. Its emphasis on growth and optimism rather than gloom, stagnation, and pessimism offers hope to millions, including you—and me too. Positive psychologists don’t profess to have a panacea for suffering, but they do think it’s possible to experience moments of joy and happiness regardless of the situation.

Sunday we talked about the importance of prayer, faith, hope, scripture study, and “pressing on.” We didn’t, however, talk very much about being grateful. Having an attitude of gratitude is so helpful! I recall a song whose lyrics went something like, “Standing knee-deep in a river and dying of thirst.” On my walk this morning, one of the songs I listened to was “Desperado,” and this line spoke to me: “It seems to me a lot of fine things have been placed upon your table, but you only want the ones that you can’t have.”

Speaking of my morning walk, my husband often kids me about my lack of athletic ability. When I remind him of my marathons and half-marathons (all a combination of jogging and walking), he usually says, “Anybody can walk.” My answer is, “No Dear, they can’t.” But I can, and I’m grateful that my legs, lungs, and heart work together to allow it to happen.

One of the topics of the lesson was that happiness must be earned from day to day. Just like we need to eat and rest to keep our physical selves up and running, we need to do and think certain things to keep our mental selves in good order. There are dozens of suggestions I could offer, but I’m narrowing them down to something all women can identify with: Jewelry.

Yep. That might sound strange, but I purposely wear jewelry that boosts my mood by reminding me of something or someone.

  • I wore pearls Sunday, and you can guess why—the whole sand and oyster and friction process. Just like pearls, we can use the “refiner’s fire” to make us more beautiful and whole.
  • I also wore a Lokai bracelet given to me by one of my daughters-in-law. From the website: “Each lokai is infused with elements from the highest and lowest points on Earth. The bracelet’s white bead carries water from Mt. Everest, and its black bead contains mud from the Dead Sea. These extreme elements are a reminder to the wearer to live a balanced life – staying humble during life’s peaks and hopeful during its lows.”
  • I also wear a CTR ring (Choose the Right) to remind me to make good choices. That includes not being easily offended, being kinder than necessary, refraining from gossiping, and so forth. I mention those behaviors because they’re the ones that give me the biggest challenge.

Oops, I’ve already gone over my 500-word limit. It’s not a WordPress limit, just one I’ve attempted to practice since most people don’t want to read more than that.

Must ask: What are some things you do to stay happy?

Ask an Expert

If this post seems underdeveloped or unpolished, blame it on Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. I read that book about a year ago, and today I discovered her podcast, Happier, that she and her sister Elizabeth have started.

When describing the one coin loophole, the sisters said that if a person does something rarely, then she feels like it has to be top quality. If, on the other hand, she does it often, that takes the pressure off and she can live with “pretty good” when something is a little lame.

That’s so true of me, I thought. I have dozens of things I want to write about, but being involved in several projects has decreased my blogging time. When I finally do have thirty minutes to an hour to put something together, I feel the pressure to make it (the post) good. Tonight, however, I’m remembering Gretchen’s (first name basis here) mention of Voltaire’s aphorism: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Tonight I’m taking the advice of the Happier podcast.

While in the beauty shop the other day, I recognized a woman who works for a local optometrist. Making small talk, I told her that I had always been impressed with her ability to put contacts in my eyes without my even knowing she had done it. She’s that good!

“Make sure the tip of your finger is dry,” she said, “and put a small drop of solution on the contact itself. Just a drop.”

Later that same day I met with a young woman who knows all about chalk painting. She’s done (painted, waxed, distressed) dozens of pieces and is now teaching classes in which she demonstrates techniques using Annie Sloan products.

 “I’m doing a side table,” I told her. “And it seems somehow ‘not right’ to use wax on the top.”

“Will it get a lot of use? I mean, are people going to put drinks or food on it?” she asked

“Maybe. I can just visualize kids putting all kinds of things on it. Stresses me out to think about!”

“Okay, here’s what you do. Put a coat of clear poly on the top.”

“That’s it?”

“Yep. That’ll protect it and give it some sheen.”

Today I went to Lowe’s to buy some tile. I must have looked lost and confused because an employee walked over to see if she could help. When I told her my plans, she told me exactly what I’d need and explained why I needed this and not that with several products. After learning that I’d be putting this backsplash up all by my lonesome, she explained the process twice and then suggested that I get a trowel.

Everybody knows something. Everybody is likely an expert on something. BUT no one knows everything. Let’s respect the knowledge of the experts.

All this is leading up to a recent discussion about the Mormon church—or as we prefer to say, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” People often inform me of some pretty outrageous things, including:

  • Mormons aren’t Christians.
  • Mormons practice polygamy.
  • Mormons don’t believe in the Bible.
  • Mormons wear magic underwear.
  • Mormons think they can work their way into heaven.
  • Mormons worship Joseph Smith.

None of those things are true. My purpose here isn’t to go into a long diatribe about what we do or don’t believe. My purpose is to say that unless you’re a member, you don’t really know what we do or don’t believe.

If I want to know something about putting in contacts, chalk painting furniture, or installing a backsplash, I’ll ask someone with knowledge in those areas. The same is true for religion. If I want to know something about the Catholic religion, I’ll ask a Catholic. If I want to know about Islam, I’ll ask a Muslim.

If you want to know something about the LDS religion, ask me. In the meantime, when I hear you saying something untrue, unfounded, or derogatory about the church, I’ll be thinking, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s a line from Moonrise Kingdom, something an orphan told his sweet little girlfriend after she told him that sometimes she wanted to be an orphan.

While this isn’t my best post ever, I’m glad I took the advice from the Happier podcast. Saving up thoughts and refusing to share them until I could do so perfectly and eloquently might prevent their ever being shared. And really, I’m feeling happier now, just like the experts on happiness said I would be.

 

Stopping and Looking

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I’m going to cut myself some slack this morning.

A couple of days ago I wrote about David Steindl-Rast’s interview on NPR in which he advised people to STOP, LOOK, and GO when it comes to their day-to-day experiences. I enjoyed the interview so much that I immediately purchased his book 99 Blessings for my Kindle.

  • STOP long enough to catch your breath and observe your surroundings.
  • LOOK at where you are in your life and at the sights surrounding you this very moment. If this moment is sad, painful, disappointing, or frustrating, there’s no need to despair because just like the present moment is a gift, so are jillions of others that you will have.
  • GO forward secure in the knowledge that more opportunities and precious moments are ahead.

I think the reason Steindl-Rast’s ideas reverberated with me so much is that sometimes I, like so many others, go through life at full blast. We rush about “getting and spending” and scarcely notice the new buds on a tree or hear the sweet birdsong right outside of our window. We get perturbed at traffic jams, slow drivers, and spilled milk when in actuality, these things don’t matter. What matters is our reaction to them. But that’s a topic for another day.

Today I just want to announce (strong word, huh?) that I’ve actually been practicing what Dr. Steindl-Rast is preaching. Even in the crazy, busy days of raising children and managing a home while working full-time outside of the home, I was able to see beauty around me, particularly when I looked skyward and thought of the Giver of “every good and perfect thing.”

I wish I’d written about more of those moments. I wish I hadn’t waited until I was in my mid-40’s to begin keeping a gratitude journal. It’s sad to think of all of those many moments when my children were younger that have now just slipped right over into oblivion.

But as Steindl-Rast said, there will be other moments of opportunity. Today is my day to STOP, LOOK, and GO. It’s yours too. And it’s so easy, Folks.

I have my iPhone with me just about all the time, and I’ve begun using it to its maximum potential as far as stopping and looking. Whether it’s a nature scene, a child’s face, a seashell, a deserted building, or a pier, I’m going to snap the picture. Then I’m going to go forward knowing that I’ve been mindful enough to capture a little slice of life.

Since January, I’ve begun posting a “pic of the day” on Facebook, and at the end of the year, I’m going to compile them into a Shutterfly book. I wish I’d done it earlier in my life, but alas, I didn’t. At least I’m on the right path now.

What is something that you do to stop, look, and go? Please share.

 

Stop, Look, Go


Until I heard people discussing it, I didn’t know that March 20th had been proclaimed as the International Day of Happiness, a day that recognizes the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal. All I knew was that there were several videos of people dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”

When I learned about this double duty day, first day of spring and day of happiness, I actually felt, well, you know, happy. I had recently read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and was already familiar with the work of psychologists Martin Seligman and Dan Gilbert. I know that money, fame, and education don’t create happiness, and that gratitude and forgiveness can contribute to it. Even so, I’m always eager to learn more about this essential emotion.

My lesson came from the radio. I listened to an NPR interview with David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, whose most recent book is entitled 99 Blessings. Steindl-Rast contends that happiness is born of gratitude and not vice versa, and he offers a method that we all can use to help us live more gratefully.

We all know people who seemingly have everything that money can buy and yet they are unhappy. We also know people who have misfortune, illness, and tragedy in their lives, but somehow they are happy. According to Steindl-Rast, that’s because they are grateful and are aware that every moment is a gift.

Grateful people are aware that every moment is a gift, and Steindl-Rast states that everyone has the ability to develop this same awareness. We often say that opportunity only knocks once, but according to him, that’s not true since each moment is a new opportunity. If you miss the opportunity of one moment, there’s no reason to fret. Another moment is promised to us…and another and another.

Steindl-Rast says there is a very simple method that will help us live gratefully. We must Stop, Look, and Go. He admits that stopping is hard for many people. Busy, we rush through life and therefore miss many opportunities because we don’t stop. We have to build more stop signs in our lives. STOP! Whatever life offers you in that moment, go with it and realize that it’s a gift.

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We need to STOP, take a look around, and be grateful for the moment. Plus, it’s comforting to think that no matter how many opportunities we have missed, there will always be another one. Maybe you were meant to miss that first one. That job, that relationship, that phone call, and that interview were not the only moments and gifts you will have. Something better is on the horizon.

While listening to this interview, I had the thought I’ve had many times, that there’s really nothing new under the sun. Anyone who’s familiar with positive psychology (or even pop psychology) knows that an attitude of gratitude is essential to happiness. And yet, there was something that touched me about this monk’s words.

As an experiment, STOP right now, LOOK around you, and think of how grateful you are for this moment. If you’re not happy with this moment, realize that it’s just one moment, one point in time, and that there will be millions of others. GO forth with the knowledge that you will have many future moments filled with opportunity.

Be You

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Great photo, huh? I snapped it along the route of the OBX half-marathon in 2012 because of the unique appearance of the person cheering us on. I loved her (his) joie de vivre and think it fits perfectly with this post.

As I mentioned in an earlier post about The Happiness Project, I already knew most of the concepts Ms. Rubin writes about. However, she gives them an interesting and unique twist that makes me say, “Ah, yes. She nailed that one.” Today I’m concentrating on the first of her 12 Commandments, “Be Gretchen.”

Although I didn’t think much about being an individual true to her own values, strengths, and interests in my earlier years, it has become increasingly important, not only in how I live my own life but also in how I encourage others to live theirs.  We’re all children of the universe, in a manner of speaking, and just like snowflakes, we’re all unique. Wouldn’t it be a dull, boring world if we looked, thought, and acted alike?

Accepting and BEING who and what and how we are has applications for many areas of life. Take occupation, for example. There are people who love being accountants, and they’re darned good at it. I, on the other hand, can’t even keep my checking account in order! The fact that it’s online now and can be checked 24/7 has made it easier.

My husband faithfully records his debits and credits in an Excel document and has even set one up for me.  When I recently almost ran into a problem with my account, he reminded me of the value of recording the data in Excel.

“If you’d just do it my way, you’d know exactly what was due and when,” he chided.

“That’s you, Hon. It’s not me,” I replied.

“I’m just trying to help you, that’s all.”

“I know, I know. And hey, I’m going walking in a few minutes. Want to go?” I asked.

He answered me with an exasperated scowl, and I couldn’t resist saying, “I’m just trying to help you, that’s all.”

“But walking isn’t something I enjoy,” he said.

“Exactly. Just like I don’t enjoy poring over numbers in boxes.”

He went back to the computer, and I went for a walk, content with my newfound confidence to “Be Jayne.”

Another area is dress and appearance. One of my daughters and I were chatting on the phone yesterday, and I mentioned that when I was in high school and the first couple of years of college, all females had to wear skirts or dresses. At some point, we were allowed to wear pants to class, and shortly thereafter jeans were permitted. I soon got into a denim craze and have never grown out of it. While some people might think it’s weird for a senior citizen to wear jeans, that doesn’t bother me. I’m living the commandment to “Be Jayne.”

Speaking of attire, last week I had the opportunity to meet with an old friend for lunch and a walk along a river’s edge. It was awesome. But here’s what I wanted to share. She was wearing a beautiful vintage necklace, and when I complimented her on it, she said she had given it to her daughter for Christmas but that her daughter had returned it with the comment, “It’s you, not me.” I knew exactly what my friend was talking about. Even in jewelry, we have our preferences, our looks.

What about you? Do you ever struggle with being you? Do you sometimes feel that you need to be or do or act the way others think you should be? Please share.