The road to sanity gets narrower the longer life goes on. Every few feet or so you get a chance to make yet another decision about how you’re going to handle what you find along the way. If you keep finding fault in the things you find, by the end of one day’s march you’re going to be one highly irritated human being. By the end of a lifetime, you’re going to be screaming at strangers on the street and negotiating with SWAT teams who have surrounded your house.
If, on the other hand, you have decided to accept whatever you find as being exactly what you’re supposed to have found at that moment, you have a good shot at not only sanity but peace of mind and occasional glimpses of enduring happiness.
The trick to avoiding both outright agony and chronic malaise lies in cultivating enough faith in the essential benevolence of someone like God, or in the universe itself, so that you can make those little leaps of faith. More often than not, reason tells you the Pollyanna approach just won’t hack it, and discernment demands that you point out in great detail exactly what’s wrong with the obstacles you’re bumping into as you lumber towards death. Yet either correctly or erroneously ascribing blame only leads to unhappiness. I wonder if the aforementioned delusion is the product of our educational system. Remember “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” where we received praise for pointing out all the errors?
As Thoreau pointed out 150 years ago, Buddhism is the perfect antidote to Puritanism. We need less “can do” in this country and more “so it goes.” Imagine a best seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Tolerant People. On the other hand, anyone who has visited India or Indochina probably can see that most folks over thataway might do with a little more Norman Vincent Peale or Napoleon Hill.
Surveys of happiness have yielded interesting results. In a recent London School of Economics survey, Bangladesh comes in at first place. We tag along way behind at 46th. The grumpy Russians trail along in last place, drowning their sorrows in bootleg vodka and passing out in public parks.
Abraham Lincoln, who suffered from depression to the extent that he spent melancholic weeks bedridden as a young man, concluded that “most folks are about as happy as they’ve made up their minds to be.” And this was long before Prozac.
Maturity brings a startling revelation: most of our problems are of our own making. If we want our problems to disappear, then we, not the rest of the world, have to change. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, for buses carrying schoolchildren really do fall off cliffs even though it’s not the children’s fault. To these completely unanticipated and undeserved events, we simply need to cultivate acceptance along with gratitude.
Choosing to cultivate gratitude is not so much a moral choice as a practical one. Just how miserable or happy do I want to be? If I really and truly believe that death, like birth, is an illusion, then what do I really have to worry about? There are many documented stories of young children who, as Wordsworth described in Intimations of Immortality, have not yet forgotten where they came from.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home. . . .
Maybe we can’t remember home, but that doesn’t mean we have to live in dread, fearing the journey homeward.
Right now I have a really nice motorcycle which Prudence and her sister Modesty would have suggested I not buy. Thank God, I didn’t ask their opinion. Like many of my so-called possessions, the bank owns it. Someday I will no longer have this motorcycle. Does that mean I shouldn’t have bought it, or that I shouldn’t enjoy it now that I have it? Of course not.
So look for me to ride it to Fairfield sometime this summer. If you see a 60-year-old with a gray goatee riding a cherry-red Yamaha V-star slowly around the town square, you’ll know that I haven’t yet had the good sense to sell the thing on Craig’s list.
You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.