What is the value of taking time each day for simple pleasures? What is the practical value of investing in small daily moments of joy?
In her book How Philosophy Can Save Your Life, Marietta McCarty suggests that these are more than just frivolous “extras” on the menu of life:
“Simple pleasures feed our essential selves: listening to music, being outdoors, seeing a loved face at the door, laughing all the way, knowing we did our best work…Such soul food has been at our fingertips all along…Simplicity is living close to the marrow of life…There is something oddly grand about the prospect of living life at its juicy core.”
She’s reminding us to invest in these kinds of small experiences because they give us a taste of “living life at its juicy core.” (What a remarkable phrase!)
I’ve started listening to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy each morning when I wake up. And I love the words of the hymn to the same tune, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee–a stunning celebration of the pure joy of living, the “triumph song of life.” Sets a joyful tone for the day.
But of course, there are some days when joy seems as far away as poor, demoted ex-planet Pluto. What do we do on days when the stress level is in the red zone…or a dirty look or unkind word or dark headline puts us in a deep hole…or when we just feel drained?
What do we do when life’s about as juicy as a skunk flattened by a semi on an asphalt highway in Death Valley at high noon? (At least we found a bit of humor in our situation!)
Maybe we need to lower the joy bar. Tomorrow when you wake up, go to the mirror, take a deep breath, and fog the whole mirror. Then take your finger and write: “You can still fog a mirror, congratulations!” (No matter what happens during the day, you’ll at least have that accomplishment to fall back on!)
Then wipe off the fog, look at yourself and smile. You’re still here! Still alive! And still the only “you” there is in this world or ever has been or ever will be.
Life’s juicy, joyful core. It’s a grand prospect, indeed! And the more problems and stress we have, the more we need to look for it…invest in it…remind ourselves of it…and taste it!
As McCarty says, it’s never far away. It’s “at our fingertips” all the time. But we have to go for it.
What would you do on your next to last day?
The day before his death in 1972, Abraham Heschel, perhaps the greatest Jewish thinker of the past hundred years, insisted on traveling to Connecticut to stand outside in the freezing snow.
This ailing Jewish Rabbi was there to meet a Catholic priest who had been jailed for civic protest and was being released.
We will pause to absorb the symbolism of this moment.
I would love to have been there and heard their conversation. And I wonder, What was Heschel thinking at the end of his life?
Well, nine days earlier, NBC had interviewed Heschel on television. At the close of the program, the interviewer asked him if he had a special message for young people. He nodded his head and said:
“Let them remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word is power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. Above all, let them remember…to build a life as if it were a work of art.”
I’m struck by how Heschel combines modern realism with personal idealism—in such a few words.
First, a realistic world view: Yes, there is absurdity. Yes, there is often injustice in the place of justice. Yes, good people sometimes suffer and bad people sometimes prosper. Yes, relationships are full of failure and we sometimes hurt those we love. Yes, the rich and the powerful will often twist things to their advantage and the poor will suffer. Yes, we all fail and yes, we will all die. It has always been so.
But then, in effect, Heschel says…
That’s not the whole story. That’s just clutter, not core. There is something more. There is something beautiful. There is “meaning.” There is something that truly matters.
You matter. Your life and how you live it matters.
Today, you can be the artist who paints on the canvas of your day mixing colors like joy, quiet attentiveness, listening, inner strength, imagination, compassion, kindness, big-heartedness, forgiveness and even a dash of wisdom.
You can make your day…and your life…a work of art.
You can be—where you are—the antidote to absurdity.
What is life trying to teach me? And have I learned it?
John Burroughs, the naturalist, gave a thoughtful take on this question:
“The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is ‘look under foot.’ You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.”
It’s true. It’s often tempting to think that the “great opportunity” of life is somewhere else or in some other situation or with other people.
It’s odd how easy it is to take for granted or not quite see the “great opportunity” that may be right in front of us.
Suppose you were trapped in the situation you find yourself in right now and couldn’t change it? What would you do?
That, of course, is the premise of the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Phil the TV weatherman (played by Murray) is trapped in time. He keeps repeating the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over, with the same annoying people and the same limiting situations.
Phil doesn’t like his job. He doesn’t like the people around him. The girl he likes doesn’t like him. And now he’s stuck in this podunk town, repeating this same boring routine over and over and over. It’s a nightmare, and it eventually drives him to attempt suicide.
But at some point, Phil starts looking around and seeing the people and events of this ordinary day with new eyes. He starts responding in different ways.
At the beginning of the movie, Phil saw Groundhog Day as a very bad day. By the end of the movie, it was a very good day, full of joy. And it was the same day! The thing that changed…was him.
Phil had finally learned that “the great opportunity is where you are.”
You may have already seen or heard J. K. Rowling’s comments on the “fringe benefits of failure,” part of her commencement address at Harvard. But even if you have, the very wise and helpful insights she offers on how to think about failure and deal with it are well worth another look.
Here, then, is an extended quotation from that talk without further comments.
“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”