ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
Some Thoughts on The New Year
The New Year is an imaginary line in the sand. Of course, all lines are imaginary lines in the sand. From national borders to your property boundaries, we made them all up. And yet, countless wars and endless litigation have been waged over those imaginary lines.
My point being, when thinking about the new year, why not go ahead and consider it a real line, but instead of cause for war or legal action, use that line for something good. And by good, I mean real change. And by change, I mean the way we think about life and our place in it.
Let me explain a little. Lately I’ve been reading little fragments of The Untethered Soul again. And that’s got me considering the idea of unconditional happiness once more. The question the author poses is essentially, Are you willing to be happy no matter what happens?
It is a harder question to answer than you might think at first glance. I mean, pretty much everyone wants to be happy, right? The crux is, most of us don’t really know what that means. What most people mean when they say they want to be happy is that they want everything in their lives to go the way they want. Pretty much everything. Pretty much all the time.
The problem with that is I don’t know a single person whose life is like that. Now I think it is a fair observation to note that life is objectively easier for some people than it is for others. I’m thinking along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here. If you have no food and no place to get out of the weather, self-actualization is not your primary concern. But before we let the mind take us on that tangent, let’s stick to the central tenet at issue.
We have equated getting what we want with happiness.
But happiness and how the events of our lives play out are not at all the same thing. There are two problems with this definition of happiness: (1) people who get everything they want are often the most miserable (think spoiled children or trust funders); and (2) there is generally no end to the things we want, and so the invisible line we must cross always stays several yards in front of us (think billionaires who continue chasing more and more money).
Nevertheless, under the common definition, people are willing to be happy so long as life meets their expectations for what they want. In other words, they want to be happy so long as everyone else in their lives acts exactly as they want them to at all times. Traffic is free-flowing, co-workers are congenial, boss is accommodating, paycheck is the right size, children are well-behaved, romantic partner is loving, kind, and supportive, their house, car and all electronic devices function properly, and everyone is healthy. All the time.
Does this sound reasonable? Of course not. And yet these are the conditions almost all of us have placed upon happiness. When we say we want to be happy, what we really mean is that we want everything in our lives to be easy. But that is not the same thing as happiness. And it is virtually impossible to attain.
Happiness then must be something different from what we have imagined it to be.
And coming to terms with that is the place where we must begin if we really want to be happy. We must break a lifetime of conditioning and begin to separate our life events from our quest for happiness. Otherwise, happiness is likely not possible. It is like having a wrapped present that you refuse to unwrap because it is so pretty. Our idea of happiness is so pretty, we refuse to take off the wrapping of our expectations, and so we will never to get to what is on the other side.
One of the most interesting things I noticed about myself when I was reading about unconditional happiness was the amount of resistance I immediately had to it. I can’t possibly be happy no mater what! That’s too much to ask. But I couldn’t figure out what I was afraid of. Did I think agreeing to unconditional happiness somehow meant bad things would happen to me? Or maybe I thought it would invite bad things just to test me. Or maybe my left-brain just couldn’t find a box for this concept, because it goes against a lifetime of coding.
These thoughts are either the mind short-circuiting because it is not wired for this kind of thinking or the ego raging against its diminishment in your life. Either way, committing to unconditional happiness feels way scarier than it should.
If one day you wake up and just decide to be happy, in spite of what your day has in store, how could there be a downside to that? You are going to experience bumps, obstacles, and roadblocks on your life path, no matter what. The only difference your decision to be happy makes is that these life experiences need not be frustrating, anger-inducing, or devastating. Your decision means only that you get to have peace of mind along the way. And yet, most of us will still resist the decision to be happy. Doesn’t that seem crazy?
Yes, it seems crazy. But that doesn’t change the reality of it, does it? So how do we mere mortals overcome our resistance to this idea? Here’s where I get back to the beginning of this thread and the concept of imaginary lines.
When I read The Untethered Soul -- or Eckhart Tolle or one of any number of such purveyors of this kind of life wisdom -- I feel like I am looking at a picture of a beautiful mountain that I’ll never be able to climb. Why is that? Why does my mind tell me that this may work for other people, but I will never be able to choose to be happy?
I think it is because unhappiness is like an addiction. And we are really reluctant to give up that next hit. (Likely only seconds away.) And maybe that is at least partly because we are also addicted to our ideas of ourselves, our identities. And our ideas about ourselves are tied up in the story we tell ourselves daily, virtually nonstop. That story involves unhappiness. And without unhappiness, who are we?
Here’s how choosing happiness and starting a new year are the same. They are both imaginary lines in the sand. And they are both opportunities to experience life in a new way. But we have to be willing to hang up our old coats, so to speak, and to put on something new. Or as Joseph Campbell taught us:
We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
Now, maybe that new way of life looks like jumping with both feet into a commitment to unconditional happiness. Or maybe it isn’t that drastic. Maybe you give yourself some room to grow into that kind of thing. But the point is you treat whatever decision you make as an invisible line in the sand. And you move forward. You buy yourself a fresh journal and begin to write a new story for yourself. Is it an imaginary line? Sure. But only in the beginning.
Once you begin to live this new story, something magic happens. It becomes real. And that feels like something even mere mortals like you and me can manage to do.