Choose joy.

joy

Sometimes joy is a matter of perspective. It’s reaching down and being grateful for it all, the mess, the euphoria, the triumphs, and the tragedies. Grateful to be here, to have a voice, to have people to care about, to have a chance to make a difference. Joy in it all is a choice.

In Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen unpacks this further:

Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently from the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it.  What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.

What is the promise behind the circumstances that threaten to steal your joy? Is there something hopeful there? Seeing that promise may just be the key you are looking for.

How to be a good creature.

climbingfishSy Montgomery’s delightful book, How To Be a Good Creature, is a ‘Memoir in Thirteen Animals‘. What an interesting way to organize a memoir, focusing on the impact various animals have made on her life and what they have taught her about co-existing as fellow creatures on this planet! It is a profound, yet simple, book.

If you were to write a memoir of your life through that lens, who would the animals be that impacted your life in meaningful and enriching ways? What life lessons did you learn? How were your limits expanded from sharing space with that fellow creature?

For inspiration, consider Montgomery’s words:

All the animals I’ve known–from the first bug I must have spied as an infant, to the moon bears I met in Southeast Asia, to the spotted hens I got to know in Kenya–have been good creatures. Each individual is a marvel and perfect in his or her own way. Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding. A spider can taste the world with her feet. Birds can see colors we can’t begin to describe. A cricket can sing with his legs and listen with his knees. A dog can hear sounds above the level of human hearing, and can tell if you’re upset even before you’re aware of it yourself. Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.

I often wish I could go back in time and tell my young, anxious self that my dreams weren’t in vain and my sorrows weren’t permanent. I can’t do that, but I can do something better. I can tell you that teachers are all around to help you: with four legs or two or eight or even none, some with internal skeletons, some without. All you have to do is recognize them as teachers and be ready to hear their truths.

Today, consider the wonder of creation around you and thank your teachers of the non-human persuasion.

 

Stand in awe.

awe

When was the last time you stood in awe of the universe and felt your own smallness within the world’s immensity? It turns out experiencing that smallness, that awe and wonder, is good for what ails you. It could also be part of the glue that holds society together. Scientists believe awe has an important impact on well-being:

One important distinction between awe and other emotions (like inspiration or surprise) is that awe makes us feel small — or feel a sense of “self-diminishment” in science-speak. And that’s good for us, Stellar explains.

We spend a lot of our time thinking about what’s going on in our world and what’s affecting us directly. “Awe changes that, making us see ourselves as a small piece of something larger.”

Feeling small makes us feel humbled (thereby lessening selfish tendencies like entitlement, arrogance, and narcissism). And feeling small and humbled makes us want to engage with others and feel more connected to others, Gordon adds.

“All of that is important for wellbeing,” she says.

Data from a 2018 study that both Stellar and Gordon worked on found that individuals who reported experiencing awe more often in their daily lives were rated more humble by their friends. And after participants experienced awe as part of the study (by watching awe-inspiring videos), they acknowledged strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced way and they were more likely to recognize the role of outside forces (such as luck, a greater being, or others) in their personal accomplishments (such as getting accepted into a university), compared with individuals who had not watched awe-inspiring videos.

These effects of feeling small, feeling humbled, and the desire to connect with others, according to evolutionary scientists, is thought to be part of the reason over the course of human history mankind has formed groups, societies, and lived collectively.

As identified in the article, to experience more awe in your life try these four things: Go out more in nature, get out of your comfort zone, look up, and have an open mind. Or, as Dr. Beau Lotto puts it, “engage with the world with a more open mind, see possibilities, ask questions, and look for the impossible.” It can only be good for us to move our own selves out of the center of the universe in our sensibilities.

To give without remembering.

give

How many gifts come with strings? The anonymous giver is a rarity. People want attention for doing good things, sometimes more than just attention. Sometimes they want people to feel indebted….forever.

The humble taker is as rare a unicorn as the anonymous giver. The myth of the self-made man is much more palatable than the humility of a man who realizes that all he has, is, and will ever be is founded on the generosity of others, many others, who have helped.

And yet generosity without self-interest and abundant gratitude are two qualities that lead to happiness, to community, to joy. We would do well to remember these things.

For more on Anonymous Giving by this author, go here.

 

Don’t end up simply having visited this world.

wild-and-precious

Today, we say goodbye to beloved poet, Mary Oliver, but her poems remain to inspire and awaken us, to uplift us and call us to task. She had a gift for seeing the holy in the mundane and for helping each of us open our eyes a bit wider, to see. Who among us doesn’t pause to consider deeply her question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

We are all on a one-way conveyor belt from birth to grave, but along the way we have opportunities to seize. Today, cherish these words from Mary and make sure to live:

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Open to surprise.

surprise

How much do our expectations get in the way of our gratefulness? If we were expecting nothing, would our eyes open more to all the gifts we receive each day. Brother David Steindhal-Rast explores just this link between surprise and gratitude:

Have you ever noticed how your eyes open a bit wider when you are surprised? It is as if you had been asleep, merely day-dreaming or sleepwalking through some routine activity, and you hear your favorite tune on the radio, or look up from the puddles on the parking lot and see a rainbow, or the telephone rings and it’s the voice of an old friend, and all of a sudden you’re awake. Even an unwelcome surprise shakes us out of complacency and makes us come alive. We may not like it at first, but looking back, we can always recognize it as a gift. Humdrum equals deadness; surprise equals life. In fact, my favorite name for the One I worship in wonder – the only name that does not limit God – is Surprise.

Right this moment, as I remember spiritual giants I have been privileged to meet – Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, His Holiness the Dalai Lama – I can still feel the life energy they radiated. But how did they come by this vitality? There is no lack of surprises in this world, but such radiant aliveness is rare. What I observed was that these people were all profoundly grateful, and then I understood the secret.

Surprise is a seed. Gratefulness sprouts when we rise to the challenge of surprise

A surprise does not make us automatically alive. Aliveness is a matter of give-and-take, of response. If we allow surprise to merely baffle us, it will stun us and stunt our growth. Instead, every surprise is a challenge to trust in life and so to grow. Surprise is a seed. Gratefulness sprouts when we rise to the challenge of surprise. The great ones in the realm of Spirit are so intensely alive because they are so deeply grateful.

Gratefulness can be improved by practice. But where shall beginners begin? The obvious starting point is surprise. You will find that you can grow the seeds of gratefulness just by making room. If surprise happens when something unexpected shows up, let’s not expect anything at all. Let’s follow Alice Walker’s advice. “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”

To expect nothing may mean not taking for granted that your car will start when you turn the key. Try this and you will be surprised by a marvel of technology worthy of sincere gratitude. Or you may not be thrilled by your job, but if for a moment you can stop taking it for granted, you will taste the surprise of having a job at all, while millions are unemployed. If this makes you feel a flicker of gratefulness, you’ll be a little more joyful all day, a little more alive.

Once we stop taking things for granted our own bodies become some of the most surprising things of all.

Once we stop taking things for granted our own bodies become some of the most surprising things of all. It never ceases to amaze me that my body both produces and destroys 15 million red blood cells every second. Fifteen million! That’s nearly twice the census figure for New York City. I am told that the blood vessels in my body, if lined up end to end, would reach around the world. Yet my heart needs only one minute to pump my blood through this filigree network and back again. It has been doing so minute by minute, day by day, for the past 75 years and still keeps pumping away at 100,000 heartbeats every 24 hours. Obviously this is a matter of life and death for me, yet I have no idea how it works and it seems to work amazingly well in spite of my ignorance.

I do not know how my eyes adapt, yet when I chant by candlelight they are 100,000 times more sensitive to light than when I read outdoors on the porch at noon. I wouldn’t know how to give instructions to the 35 million digestive glands in my stomach for digesting one single strawberry; fortunately, they know how to do their job without my advice. When I think of this as I sit down to eat, my heart brims with gratefulness.

From the humble starting point of daily surprises, the practice of gratefulness leads to these transcendent heights.

In those moments, I can identify with the Psalmist who cried out in amazement, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps.139:14) From there it is only a small step to seeing the whole universe and every smallest part of it as surprising. From the humble starting point of daily surprises, the practice of gratefulness leads to these transcendent heights. Thomas Carlyle pointed to these peaks of spiritual awareness when he wrote, “Worship is transcendent wonder” – transcendent surprise.

Surprise is a seed; let it sprout and blossom today to color your life with gratitude.

 

 

Loving thy neighbor.

worldpeace

When you have the power, or are on top, or when everything is going your way, it’s only natural to want to strut. You don’t want to think about a time when you might be powerless, on the bottom, or have the world against you.

That’s a downer, isn’t it?

But that’s exactly where religion urges us to go, to think about the world from other perspectives, to consider what life is like for people without your privilege, to have empathy with the unfortunate. Because, after all, if you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you hope they would look out for you?

I shall not pass this way again.

passthroughlife

There is an elephant in the room. We don’t talk about it, we try not to think about it, we pretend it doesn’t exist. That elephant is the fact that we are all on a one way journey through this life. Our time is limited. None of us knows in advance when our end of the journey will come, but that end will come.

When we pull ourselves out of denial and gaze directly at this elephant, we can realize something important: our opportunities should be seized now. That good we can do? Don’t put it off. That kind word? Say it. That gift or remembrance? Give it now.

We will not have this place and time and opportunity to make a difference again.

Stand convicted of positive thinking.

positive thinking

How will we use our words?

William Zinsser notes:

“Writers can write to affirm and to celebrate, or they can write to debunk and to destroy; the choice is ours.”

But we all have that choice, don’t we? Not just the artists and writers. We all are choosing what we say, how we respond, where we focus our emphasis. We each can choose to lift others up by focusing on the positive.