On being happy

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Happy.

. . .showing or causing feelings of pleasure and enjoyment, favored by luck or fortune (“happy coincidence); notably fitting, effective, or well adapted (“happy choice”); enjoying or characterized by well-being and contentment (“happy childhood”); expressing, reflecting, or suggestive of happiness (“happy ending”); glad/pleased (“happy to meet you”); or having or marked by an atmosphere of good fellowship.

As far as I can tell, life’s not designed to make us happy. There is no promise that if we hold all the right cards and marry the right fellow and have the right number of babies and eat enough kale, happiness will follow. Is anyone actually happy eating kale? We should instead all eat dark chocolate salted caramels, except those make our blood sugar spike and food can be our comfort which leads to weight gain and depression. Maybe Gwyneth is right and kale is better.

Oh, please.

But somehow there is this myth floating around – it starts about high school – that one should do whatever it is that makes one happy. Like if theatre gives us wings we should move to California and live on stale pita bread, slumping around drinking bad coffee with wispy hair in audition lines. Or if writing is our passion we should quit our long, boring, corporate day jobs (so we can pay our mortgages) and write. Life bold. Live free. Love who you want and do what you want and smoke what you want.

Be happy.

But that lesson doesn’t always pan out. We turn around one random Monday when we are 40 wearing ill-fitting jeans trying to find the teacher who said it to us years ago, like “Wait! That’s not what you promised!” But there’s no one there: just a trail of smoke in the distance behind. We have lingering pain that we can’t seem to numb with narcotics. We have jobs with bosses. We have toilets that break over Thanksgiving and enchiladas that taste like cardboard and spouses with drinking problems and tumors that sprout up out of nowhere and end up lodged in our cortex. What once gave us great joy is now a burden. What was once a dream is now crushed, and we all feel like failures with raging sinus infections.

Because sometimes, life is not at all happy. Our fairy godmother has a case of rheumatoid arthritis.

So we roll up our sleeves and seek answers where we can – our pastors and friends, leaders and teachers – and compare the reality of our situation to some ethereal and unrealistic fairness standard the world sets. After all – THEY are happy. You know, those people. Celebrities with waistlines. Mothers in carpool. Men wearing suits. Oprah. They live a full life and have a Range Rover with tan leather interior.  They have spotless kitchens and blond grandkids with smocked dresses. Why can’t I? How can I get what they’ve got? Why do they get that life and I get this one?

How the hell should I know. For dinner tonight my kids ate macaroni and canned peaches.

What I DO know is that the most interesting and fascinating people are those who have been through many trials. Who have learned that struggle is not just a necessary part of life, but a valuable part. They see deeper, beyond the current reality.  And these fighters roll up their sleeves, look at their tattered lives full of holes and damage and failed relationships and past mistakes and 1980’s coca-cola t-shirts, and think “Well, hell.  I can teach yoga.  I can start a school. I can instill in these kids a sense of wonder. I can bake cakes. I CAN GIVE WHAT I CAN IN THIS TINY SMALL SPACE WHERE I’M PLANTED TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.”

They aren’t actually shouting, despite the all caps. But in essence they are. Shouting to the teachers that they were all bald-faced liars. Shouting to God that sometimes life hurts. Shouting to their student loans and their dislocated marriages.  The most interesting and blessed people have very little to give, and it’s not fair that whats-his-nuts got a promotion when they did all the work.  But they are hell-bent to keep on keeping on, pressing on, marching on, regardless.

Amen to you brave warriors. Applaud your own courage, and strength, and will. Your bold, bad-ass spirit is not unrecognized.

So on one leg or one eye or one bruised heart, rebound. Go teach yoga and start schools and raise kids and bake. Raise up those kids and march toward that job and smile when it’s hard. Then vow to give up Diet Coke or start running or keep your closet neater. And small things build to bigger things, and before long you’ll be volunteering at the animal shelter or finding a dollar a week for someone else and laughing, of all the nutty things. And out of nowhere like a wellspring rising there is an amazing amount of joy to be found in the surviving. In the community of people who walk alongside. In a God who teaches us to serve, and dig down deep.  After all, we are more than our circumstances.

We are standing inside of a brilliant, amazing life that we have weathered.

Be that. The person who survives. Who laughs. Who is grateful for the hard. Ask God to help you find the brightness even in the failures, so that you can look back and weave it into your patchwork. And in the end, I hope you say with a shocked expression that you actually found happiness. The true kind that survives and doesn’t wilt. That perseveres through the drought. The one that rises up strong and bears fruit.

The kind of happy that matters.

 

photo:

(threew’s).flickr.com/photos/59632563@N04/6175811463/in/photolist-e2hJGK-abM9JU-9ofGDy-6KPPWD-bBvtnv-bp9m9-apJDzZ-rMYu7-5P4viu-8XSJbv-7v2Jn8-j4AGwg-5yeaxh-akM4Jk-4xgtq3-72fAgB-9XRadb-7ZZR5f-o4ZJ4i-dMRL9y-5SC2UQ-jNSMHB-r3rRNU-6N72iH-frBWxy-nRrSqr-bjBVUm-agWQrT-eMBZmh-5w317J-sdr8ZE-embEE7-rEHogF-rTdTJs-8uHcQX-iZTMkx-qsWQRU-rZjEBn-efhMWd-5AxMSw-6BBZ5S-dAcQw8-9Aei5q-9VDMAY-fzai2S-k6raUS-9VDMBu-9VDMAC-9VDMBo-9pqy9D

 

Freefall

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I had a dream a few months back that I was dangling on a roller coaster, my hands gripping the sides of a drop-off that went straight down into blackness.  I was in my car with my children, for heaven’s sakes.  I couldn’t risk their lives letting my clunky Chevy Tahoe loose on these metal tracks.  What kind of mother would let go? I couldn’t tell if my car was strapped in or if I would fly off into the cold air.  Where would I land?  Who would provide for them?  What would I do?  Help, Lord!

I shrieked in fear as I sat up straight in bed in a hot, panicked sweat. I have given my life in service for you, Lord, and this is the payback I get?  This is my reward for all those youth mission trips and church services and solos?  Is this really happening? It felt like I just got kicked in the gut, and yet when I curled over to seek some relief, the blows just kept coming.  All I could feel was hurt.  A deep and immense and crazy hurt that I’ve never before experienced.  Worse than cancer.  Worse than my abdominal infection. Worse than death itself. It was as if all the darkness in the world was hurling toward me at once, and it entered my bloodstream like a bad drug.  I was swept under at the sheer the weight of it and was so extremely uncomfortable that I wanted to peel off my own skin.  But I couldn’t, so I just curled up and clenched my teeth, and begged for mercy, and made no coherent sense for months.  And now I’m dangling off a cliff with white-knuckles and I’m a little pissed about it, if you want to know the truth, because I so don’t deserve this.

I’ve lived my whole life professing my faith in God, that he is the ruler and owner and molder of my soul.  I’ve nodded in response to picking up the cross and following Jesus and felt in all earnestness that I was a good believer.  Kind of like most people do on Sundays, before they go home and continue their natural and sinful natures.  And yet here I am, and now it’s happening, and I’m finally tested.   The stability on earth that I clung to with my bare hands shattered and I was dangling on the edge in fear, not trusting God would catch me.  And not only did I lack faith, but I had the audacity to challenge God’s plan, like I put my payments in the God vending machine all these years but all I got out was this crappy mess.  I was such a damn fool.  Or rather, I was blind to what God was really trying to show me.

Now I see more clearly.   What’s so beautiful is that this is precisely my payback for years of loving Him. A realization that I had it wrong, and I wasn’t fully submitting, and all I have on this earth is a cartoon mirage.   Jesus was holding out a hand in my personal crisis to say “Follow me. ”  I could have just said don’t-mind-if-I-do, or thanks, man, or even Cool. My life on this earth is one empty vessel of saggy skin that will rot into the earth, but my soul exists for Your glory, and this is a chance to live into it.  I could have said all sorts of lofty things, but I didn’t.  Instead, I screamed like a girl and asked God to somehow put my Tahoe in reverse.  I basically said to Jesus, “You’re a great teacher, and I’ll take what I think applies to me, but this total submission thing?  This fall-off-a-cliff dependence?  That’s a good one, dude.  Now let’s quit with all the crazy-talk.  I want my old life back.”

I see now what I could not before.  That my old life wasn’t life-giving.  It was full of decay, and stagnant water, and salt that had lost its flavor.  I was saying all the right words about faith and thinking I was in the right camp, like I could fit God within the walls of my upper-middle class lifestyle and would give God my budget surplus.  I liked to go to bible study and talk about Godly things and sit on the front row to be entertained, but the real lesson of Christ?  The die to self part?  Well I’d find time for that later, after dinner and bathtime and lunches and writing and friends and phone calls and facebook and photo sessions and, well, me.  I’d find time for that after me.

But God doesn’t do surplus. He won’t accept lukewarm, or dependence when it’s easy, or prayers only on Sundays.  He doesn’t believe all religions are created equal or we can just slide by unnoticed or half-ass our way to salvation by putting ourselves first.

We have to let it all go.  Not because our palms are sweaty and we just can’t hold on any longer, but because we want to.  And friends, there is joy in submission.  Joy that envelops fear, and pain, and deep, dark wounds.  Joy that frees us from the beating and torture and darkness that penetrates.  It’s in these moments where you have nothing else to hold onto but God himself, when you see His amazing grace mostly clearly. A smile starts to crack, and then it widens, and joy enters in.

So here I am, starting over.  It’s liberating, in a way, to see how God works.  To see how He uses people and circumstances and turns bad into good for the sake of His glory.  And the fact that I can be of some service in the great commission is fascinating and humbling and makes me want to fall down in reverence with tears streaming down these saggy human cheeks.

Lord, thank you for this pain.  With every fiber of my being I scream to the heavens a resounding and echoing thank you, for I have finally let go, and I trust you’ve got this, and I am finally free.   If my luck holds out, I won’t get bugs in my teeth on the way down.

—-

photo:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/heypaul/1428910/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Top Ten Ways to Laugh More at Work

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I have had my share of crappy, miserable, insanely-awful Tuesdays.  My mornings usually consisted of lukewarm coffee, screaming children, re-heated muffins, and boring NPR stories.  I was stuck in traffic, with bad hair and pants that are an inch too short, and when I got to work I noticed half-done reports and a computer keyboard covered in the crumbs of yesterday’s subway sandwich.  Is that really the day care calling to say my kid as a fever?  Do I honestly have a meeting in ten minutes? It’s only Tuesday for crying out loud.

But sometimes the negative can be turned into the positive. It’s a byproduct of being a writer, I suppose, where I look at life as one huge collection of stories.  But I’ve had to ask myself – was I good about finding the humor at work all those years?  Work is the one place where you hang up your personal, jovial self in the closet next to your blazer and and trudge off to Get Things Done.

I think back through my career.  I’ve snapped at support staff for packets not fully prepared and have been angry at opposing counsel for unrealistic discovery demands.  I’ve worn sour expressions and said so many disparaging things I’m sure my co-workers wanted to slide Midol pills underneath the crack in the door with a note that read “For heaven’s sakes take these pills, eat a cupcake, and come back when you are nice.”  But what do they know?  Work is a place where you Get Things Done.  Where you beat deadlines and answer emails and attend meetings.  Grrr.

But can’t we get some fun up in here?  I’m not talking about the lame birthday cake parties in the break room.  I’m talking about real and honest joy.  Is it even possible given today’s demands?

The answer is yes.  An overwhelming yes.

But you have to go about it the right way.  One particular website suggested that in order to break the tension in a workplace, a manager should bring a panic button into the meeting and tell their staff to “just push the panic button when it gets too stressful.” It breaks up the monotony!  It creates a light-hearted environment!  It’s so darn fun!  If I were in a meeting where my manager brought in a panic button, he’d have about as much credibility as my two-year-old.

Another piece of advice said to take fifteen minute walks, develop games with cube-mates, work puzzles in the break room, and take jokes with you to meetings.  This just doesn’t ring true.  If I was discussing a merger, I couldn’t be all “hold up there, folkzies.  Before we begin this discussion, have you heard the one where the elephant walks into a bar?”  No offense to those people who love puzzles, or elephants.  I’m just saying it wouldn’t work particularly well for me.

But the more advanced I became in my career, the fear and insecurity of being accepted wore off and faded into oblivion.  So I began to let loose and hauled my normal happy self into the office. After all, my shoes are from TJ Maxx and my brain only works about half the time.  If I had a joke about an elephant that I thought was really funny, I’d probably say it.  Because elephants are endearing little things that crush vehicles with their hind quarters.

So here are the Top Ten Things that I learned after so many years that helped me start to enjoy work again. To bring humor back into my working life.  To learn to really live a little:

(1) Don’t take things so darn seriously.  Humor creates a psychological distance.  After all, if you don’t get that report turned in and your boss gets mad, and you end up being fired, you could work at Dairy Queen and eat Blizzards all day.  Think of the toppings!

(2) Get out of the office for lunch.  This is key so your head isn’t buried inside your computer from 7 am until closing time, causing you to be grumpy and lumpy and snappy.  Just leave.  If you aren’t hungry, drive around.  Pick up some iced tea.  Head to a park and walk a bit.  But take a mid-day break.

(3) Think of your commute as a very special time, not some horrible long wasted hour.  Listen to music that uplifts you.  Pray.  Call a friend or check out a book on tape. Enjoy a cup of good coffee.  This is your time, without kids yelling or bosses snapping or husbands talking. How many times do you tell yourself “I have no time for me!”  Well here it is, you whiner.

(4) Be the bearer of silly little gifts.  Everyone brings something different to the table in a workplace.  Some people are more organized.  Others are great with follow-up.   Some are good listeners.  Reward those talents by leaving candy or gum or little treats on their desk with lame, corresponding sayings that you find online or make up.  You’re worth a mint to me (mentos)!  The way you listened to that client was so smart (smartees!) Your organizational skills are worth all the cash in the world (100 grand!) It’s not laugh-out-loud funny and might cause people to roll their eyes a bit (rolos!) but it makes people smile and it helps them see you as a human being and not just a widget (or whatchamacallit!)  Tell me to stop.

(5) At every opportunity, send out poems (Today is just another day, it’s Wednesday in December, but if you have a moment at all, can you call that counsel member?)  I use www.rhymezone.com so much I think they created that site exclusively for me.  Now, instead of simply barking orders, you can bark orders in rhyme, which is far better and makes you more likeable.  Unless you’re firing someone.  Then I’d steer clear of rhyme.  I also like to use unusual similes and metaphors, like “this is similar to fighting alligators” or “imagine this project is a large lion.”

(6) Be a gossip killer.  When someone comes into your office, closes the door, and says “I’m so sorry but I just have to get this off my chest” and then begins to rant about someone with glee, think strategy. It’s fine to listen.  But when they are done, ask them if they often have to replace buttons on that blazer or start a conversation about space exploration.  Don’t give in to employee-bashing.  It’s not helpful, it ruins the office mood, it destroys morale, and it’s hateful.  Hateful humor doesn’t warm the heart. Unless it’s your boss, of course, which is an exception and you can both plot his/her demise in good conscience.  Think of what will be on the gravestone.  Pick the funeral flowers.  Whatever.

(7) Send notes of praise and thanks all the time, to anyone you can think of. Email someone’s boss and blind-copy them.  It makes you feel better, and happier, to give rather than receive.  We learned this as children around Christmas, and it’s so true.  Unless you are receiving a new Nikon 5100.  Then getting is good.

(8)  Smile.  When someone walks into your office, stop your train of thought long enough to let a smile erupt on your face.  Even if it’s forced.  If you hold it long enough, it might turn real.

(9) Despite advice to the country to form “lunch bunches” and all kinds of work pot lucks, I’m not big on dining together with work colleagues all the time.  After all – you see these people enough.  Do you really want to sit together in the break room heating up leftover lasagna?  Find your own space.  This makes everyone happier and more interesting.

(10) And finally, admit when you are wrong.  Apologize when necessary, and embrace your faults.  No one can find humor, warmth, and joy in the workplace if you are constantly trying to fight battles of will, or cover something up, or lie to save yourself.  Be true to your inner self.  The self you were born to be.  The self that wears pants that are sometimes too short with coffee stains.  It’s cool.  You aren’t the only one.

We all have those kind of Tuesdays.

Photo:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/xlordashx/6045901304/sizes/m/in/photostream/