Many years ago, I was interviewing an older woman for my newspaper column. We were on the front porch and there was a large motor home in the driveway.
“My husband didn’t like his job,” she said. “Long hours, stressful. When he bought that motor home he said, one of these days I’ll retire and then we can really enjoy ourselves.”
She paused, then said, “The week after he retired, we lost him. Heart attack.”
Stories like this remind us that it’s important to think about how we think about joy.
Joy is often associated with the absence of struggle. But I’ll bet there’s a lot of bored people sitting on the beach.
Here’s a little different angle: joy is so central and important to our lives that we dare not wait until the struggle is over. The greater the struggle, the more we need joy. Not someday, but now. John R Silber, President of Boston University put it like this:
“If you are to retain your joy in life you must find much of that joy in spite of disappointment, for the joy of life consists largely in savoring the struggle, whether it ends in success or failure. Your ability to go through life successfully will depend largely upon your traveling with courage and a good sense of humor, for both are conditions of survival.”
“The joy of life consists…in savoring the struggle.” That includes struggles in work. Struggles in relationships. Struggles with self. Struggles in trying to find meaning or fulfillment. Or just the struggles of getting through the day.
To be human, to be alive, to be a man, to be a woman, is to take one’s stand in the world and taste, savor, embrace, and take on the struggles…and even find humor in the midst of them.
Like the crazy little character in middle-eastern literature named Nasruddin who said, “You know, I’ll really be surprised if I get out of this world alive.”
Savoring the struggle, says Silber, is where we find a joy that won’t miss. A joy that will last. A joy that can’t be taken away.
I remember driving up to a toll-booth, thinking I wouldn’t want a toll-taker’s job. Seemed boring and stressful. Then I noticed a young man working in one of the booths who seemed to be having a good time. He was dancing. Dancing in the toll booth.
Today’s quotation may sound like a simple cliché, but I think it raises an important question. It comes from that wise and prolific writer, Anonymous:
“The secret of contentment is the realization that life is a gift, not a right.”
That phrase “secret of contentment” got my attention. In today’s world, we could all use a little deeper sense of contentment, couldn’t we?
Now, we’ve always heard that we have “certain inalienable rights…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And that makes a certain sense, politically.
But in terms of how I experience my life, my days, my moments, is it more helpful to think of life as a right? Or as a gift?
Do I have a right to this day? Can I demand it? Or is it a precious gift to be cherished, appreciated, and opened with excitement?
Do I have a right to this breath I’m breathing now? Is it to be taken for granted? Or is it a priceless gift?
Do I have a right to the important relationships in my life? Do I own or control them? Or are they precious gifts to be enjoyed (even when they come with problems)?
Do I have a right to love and be loved? Or is that a gift?
Do I have a right to my skills and abilities? Or are these gifts?
Do I have a right to the things that make me human—ability to care, sense of humor, ability to think and change and grow, ability to create, uniqueness? Can I demand and control these? Or are they gifts to be enjoyed and employed?
Do I have a right to joyfulness? Or is joy a gift to be welcomed each day?
If Anonymous is right, then the more we make this simple little shift—from viewing life as a right to viewing it as a gift—the more we’ll feel at home in our skin and at home in the universe…which is another way of describing “contentment.”
The sociologist Peter Berger wrote a book about what it’s like to live in the modern world. His title sums it up: The Homeless Mind.
His point is that we moderns are faced with many more options than people had in the past. As a result, we can feel hesitant, indecisive, anxious, fragmented—torn in many directions. What if I commit to this but miss out on that? What if I choose door number one, but miss door number two?
The problem with The Homeless Mind is that it can cause us to miss the deeper, richer, more unifying experience of pouring our whole self into whatever we do. In that spirit, I want to share several thoughts on the importance and power of being fully committed.
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way.
Whatever you can do
or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius
power and magic in it.
- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
Be bold and mighty powers will come to your aid.
No one knows what you can do and you won’t know until you try.
Whatever you hand finds to do, do it with all your might. For in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
I recently learned of the untimely passing of a friend from years ago. He was one of the most effortlessly genuine human beings I’ve known. Quiet, sincere, soft-spoken but honest, gentle but cheerful, humble in the best sense of that word, a lover of life with a spark in his eyes and a good sense of humor, at ease with himself and easy to be with, thoughtful. A person who wouldn’t harm you.
Thinking about him got me thinking about the quality of genuineness.
Today, with all the noise and hype coming at us, with all the games being played around us, with all the substitutes for the real…Maybe a good way to respond is to deepen and renew our own quest to be more genuine. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves.”
It’s important to be reminded that there is really no future in hiding, pretending, playing games, putting on an act…and we don’t have to do it. We are what we are.
And it is refreshing and freeing to realize that it’s enough just to bring our genuine self to work, relationships, challenges and problems.
Maybe all we have to do is do genuine work, be a genuine friend and neighbor, love genuinely, care genuinely about each other and our world, and strive to be a genuine person.
The artist Erik Pevernagie suggests that the quest for genuineness begins with clearing out the clutter in our minds and it ends in a new morning:
“The day we decide to drop the flimsy makeshift scenarios in our cluttered mind and eschew the ‘alleluias’ of self-importance, life can become genuine, lucid and graceful, like a flow of wellness in the glow of a new morning.”
But is just being a genuine person enough in today’s tough-and-tumble world? Is genuineness weak or strong? I like the words of the author C. JoyBell C:
“Silk is a fine, delicate, soft, illuminating, beautiful substance. But you can never rip it! If a man takes this tender silk and attempts to tear it, and cannot tear it, is he in his right mind to say “This silk is fake! I thought it was soft, I thought it was delicate, but look, I cannot even tear it”? Surely, this man is not in his right mind! The silk is not fake! This silk is 100% real.”
My friend was gentle, like silk. But there was a surprising strength in that gentleness…because it was 100% real.