I have become so obsessed with The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World that I find myself reading and re-reading each delicious section as slowly as I can. This is partly so I can take it all in, but it’s also because I want to savor it, to roll around in it, to imagine if there is any way I can see the world the way the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu do.
These last few nights, I’ve been reading about acceptance and how these two lovely men are able to do this in their own lives and work. This, of course, is one of life’s most difficult tasks for me. So often I think of accepting what is as being passive, somehow not caring that things could be better. If I accept some negative situation as it is, I fear I will lower my standards, and not expect so much from myself and other people. And then, who knows? Suddenly I’ll be perfectly happy with a mediocre life and an unjust world. Then, maybe I’ll stop having goals, quit striving for something better.
The older I get, the more I realize how ensconced I am in my reactions to things.
But I’m learning that acceptance doesn’t mean not wanting something else. It means that if I can do something to remedy the situation, I’ll do it. If I can’t, then I have to figure out my way through it and then to something better. This is not my habit. I get so hooked on how I want things to work out, my focus is only on that. When I concentrate just on the reality I want, I miss a lot of real life and the discovery of other possibilities. I miss the process, the lessons, and the opportunity to figure out an even better solution than I’d imagined in the first place. Fighting against the immovable keeps me from experiencing it and learning to move on in whatever way I can muster.
How do I accept that? Surely there are few people who understand this better than someone like the Dalai Lama. As he says in his example about having a difficult neighbor, “You cannot control your neighbor, but you do have some control over your thoughts and feelings. Instead of anger, instead of hatred, instead of fear, you can cultivate compassion for them, you can cultivate kindness toward them, you can cultivate warmheartedness toward them. This is the only chance to improve the relationship.” This sounds as difficult to me as being happy that I’ve been rejected or feeling good that people suffer. But, he is right. I am not going to be able to help myself or anyone else if I concentrate on what’s wrong with the situation.
The older I get, the more I realize how ensconced I am in my reactions to things. If I have a big response to someone who is difficult for me, I take it as a matter of course. I rarely stop to muster compassion. It’s a regular part of my view of the world that this person is annoying. And yet, if it weren’t me and someone else told me the story, I might be inclined to say, “Hey, you should be the grown-up here and have some empathy for this person. They are clearly wounded. Why give them so much power?”
On this particular read-through of the book, that’s my takeaway message. Much of the way that I torture myself in the world is by being mad about something I can’t control. My foot-stomping and angry words get me riled up and off balance and the thing I’m railing against is unmoved. As Desmond Tutu says, we even do this to ourselves. We’re angry that we can’t change, that we are who we are. But, he adds, “You learn when something happens that tests you.”
I feel lucky to be 66 years old because I know by this time that so much of life is a test, but not one I need to ace so that I can move to the next step. Our lives are filled with good and bad and easy and hard and we are building ourselves every moment. If we are brave enough to be open and expansive, we can learn and change and have an even richer view of ourselves and the world we inhabit. And that’s my wish, for me and for all of us.
Stay open and stay engaged—not with only one possibility, but with all of what we’re trying to do. If it's a true journey, the bumpy ride is part of it. Hold on, but do it gently, and with grace.