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Friday, April 07, 2006

This is an article I wrote for my occasional newsletter, "Out of the Chrysalis". It is now April and and it may well seem as though the year is gaining momentum, picking up speed all ofthe time. It is so important to remember that there only is this moment and it is up to us to fill it with power, beauty, laughter and love. The hours of our lives are not something which ultimately we have control over but we do have this precious moment. Use it well.

Happiness is a Choice

I was recently asked how I manage to maintain such a positive outlook on life even in the face of adversity. The process has become so much an integral part of me that I had to stand back and think quite deeply about it. It is a little like someone asking how you breathe. You know you do, but it is such an automatic process that unless you are ill and literally struggling for breath, or using shifts in breathing patterns consciously as in meditation practices, you simply do not think about it. The man who posed the question postulated from my writing that I was a glass "half-full" sort of person, a natural optimist. He asked me to comment on how I got to be that way and how it helped me deal with the turmoil of life. This is the distillation of what I wrote to him.
I did not spring from the womb as a naturally optimistic human being. I would not question the description now and my own son told me during a recent conversation that I was an "outrageously optimistic realist". The realist part is witnessed by the fact that he knows I see the world exactly as it is in all its madness and all its beauty. The optimist comes from my choice to dwell on the light rather than the darkness. As for the outrageous, well you would have to ask him, but I think it comes from his combination of exasperation and reluctant admiration for the way I can spin his teenage angst upside down and round again until he ends up grinning in spite of his best intention to see life in its grimmest aspects.

I was once asked to describe myself in terms of how I face the world; the phrase that came to mind is "relentless positivity". I see and I feel the misery all around me. Every day I work with people to take them out of misery into peace and happiness. It takes acertain quality of relentlessness to maintain a positive outlook. Now if you have a choice between being relentlessly miserable and being relentlessly joyful, it should be no contestfor the joy. Somewhere in between is just fine; I tend towards exuberance myself but I will let you off with quiet happiness. Sadly many people allow the misery to win. Who does that serve? Certainly not them, their loved ones or this world.

When it comes to cups half-full or half-empty, well mine is overflowing. I see it more as a cornucopia than a cup. So if I was not born an optimist, a natural little Miss Sunshine, how did I get from there to here? I learned it through the experience of turning adversity into an opportunity for growth and learning. I discovered that I could make reaching forhappiness a deliberate choice. Like most things in life when you practice it often enough, it starts to come naturally. We can be defined by our hardships or we can be defined by our strength in overcoming them. Which sounds the better option to you?

I was an extremely serious child, the one people would stop in the street and say inane but well meaning things to, like, "Smile, it might never happen". I was much too polite a little girl to say what I was thinking, "Too late. It already has." I was not unhappy. I was just very intense, very cerebral and extremely sensitive to the feelings of others. I also came from a family background where there had been a large measure of misfortune, something I did not consciously become aware of until I was older but which I absorbed from the atmosphere I grew up in.

My father had survived two years of slave labour in a Siberian camp and then action in the allied navy until the end of the Second World War; his mother died of malnutrition in Teheran having survived the camps, only to loose her life just as freedom came; his father died of cancer the year the war ended without ever knowing the fate of his family.

My maternal grandfather died of peritonitis when my mother was only 9, leaving his widow to raise 11 children, all under the age of 16, in conditions of extreme poverty. My mother, a gifted artist and musician, left school at the age of 14 to work so she could support her mother as she put most of her children through college.

There was not much of joyful spontaneity in either of my parents and as second oldest in a family of ten, I learned to adopt responsibility as my middle name, when I was not quietly almost unobtrusively rebelling against it. Rebellion takes many subtle forms and sometimes they are inward directed rather than overt.

I grew up hideously aware of the realities of international politics, the real dangers of Stalinism and not the myths. I knelt with the other little girls in my class as Sister Teresa lead us in prayers begging God to save us from annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was in the kitchen of my home when news of Jack Kennedy's assassination came through on the radio and I cried as though the end of the world really had come. Mytransition into adolescence is marked by the murder of three great men, Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Then there was Vietnam and my childish faith in the integrity of government evaporated in the face of a screaming child burning in a hell of napalm. South African segregation could be described as the final nail in the coffin of sadness and grief in which I was trapped. Sadness and grief became the lenses through which I viewed the world.

I lost my beloved grandmother to a long painful dying from cancer when I was just sixteen and a year later one of my friends was gone in five short months, a victim of leukaemia. I wanted to save the world and everyone in it with a passion I can hardlydescribe. I could not bear to see pain in those around me and I absorbed it all as though it was my own.

At the age of 19, away from home for the first time, I became so distressed by both the state of the world and the turmoil of the individuals around me in the hedonistic, free "love", drug culture of the seventies, that I reached a point where I decided I was of no use to the world. Nothing I could do would change it and that robbed my life of any meaning. I think you could safely place me on the far side of the pessimist scale at that point in my life.

Some of you will remember a previous issue when I discussed my near suicide in the light of the words we speak to one another. In short I made the decision to put an end to the misery and kill myself. With the logic of the damned, I reasoned that although my family loved me, they would get over my death. I placed so little value on my life that I really believed this to be true. Having worked for over ten years with the suicidal and the families of suicides, I know that this is something they never "get over". They learn to live with it and in spite of it, but it is always hauntingly present. I am forever grateful that I did not put my own beloved family through that particular circle of hell.

On the night I had planned to swallow down my bottle of codeine, the words of one person reached out to me and stopped me. There was no blinding light on the road to Damascus, just a glimmer of hope that penetrated the thick clouds of depression. I made a decision that I would stamp my own meaning on life. It was up to me to create a new direction. I could not save the world but I could start with myself. All that was necessary for me was to live my life lovingly with respect and compassion. I did not have to save the world but if I made even the tiniest difference in one life, then it was worthwhile. Those were my rules and I have lived by them ever since.

The climb back out of the pit took a while but each day there was something new to notice, some natural beauty, some small kindness, some little positive difference I created through some words or an action. I disciplined myself to look for that beauty, those acts of kindness, the positive life affirming words and deeds. With that deliberate choice, I found myself noticing more and more the wonder and joy in the world. I made myself a promise that no matter what happened in my life, I would never consider suicide again. I chose life and found it in all its sweetness and imperfect perfection.

When we make the choice to look for the light, the more it finds us. The focus shifts. We view the world through clearer, brighter filters. Over the years, I have learned that we have choice over how we feel. We are not corks bobbing in the tides of the ocean, carried at their whim. We can swim and we can chose to strike out in our own direction. Fate does not drive us; our own internal choices do. There are uncontrollable elements in life.We could not hold back the Tsunami or the floods that destroyed large parts of New Orleans, but what we do have is a choice over how we respond.

There is ugliness and evil in the world and it needs to be faced and dealt with, but what I see just as clearly is the goodness and the love which stands against it. I see what gives me joy and I keep looking in that direction. When I contemplate the past , that brief time of suicidal depression and the years of challenge and growth that followed, I understand that the good outweighed the bad because I made it so.

Every sorrow of my life has given rise to joy, not always at the time but later.With time and practice, something miraculous happens when we live a life focused on the positive.Even when we are living in the centre of great pain, we find that we can shelter in that quiet joy filled place and find peace and comfort. It is only a thought away. The trick lies in allowing ourselves the space to reach for that thought.

Shifting from the negative to the positive has almost become an unconscious process with me now. It has become part of who I am. I can only describe the journey to positivity as one which one must practice. Seek what gives you joy. Spend time each day, simply appreciating what is around you and what is within you. Create a treasure chest of good memories which can be opened to give you courage when the clouds gather. Be mindful every day of all that you have to be grateful for. Take some time to be still and silent. In the stillness and silence you find who you truly are. I promise you will not be disappointed.

When you think of old painful experiences, remember that regardless of how hard it was, it only has the power over you that you chose to give to it. Whatever it was, however awful, you survived or you would not be here now. Some people wear their "survivor" badges like a cross of martyrdom; the choice to wear it as a joyful celebration of their courage and their resilience is just that thought away. It takes work; it takes focus and it takes a relentless determination to turn away from darkness into the light. You can turn it into a game, the game of reaching for the higher, brighter, most positive thought. It is a game with great rewards. The rule is that for every negative thought that enters your head, you must seek the positive counterpart. Then each time you make a positive choice, you create powerful inner reserves of peace which become more and more easily accessible. Then one day you will find that it is natural; you don't have to try any more; you simply are a positive, happy person.

I don't have heroes but there are a few individuals whose light shines so brightly they come close. One is Viktor Frankl who survived the Nazi extermination camps to bring the world a school of psychotherapy which looks to the creation of meaning in life as the way to happiness. Unlike other schools of thought it is less about the pathology of our pain than a way of using it to find our road to peace. My favourite quote from him is this:
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

I chose to be positive. Maybe it is all smoke and mirrors and I have become a master of illusion or perhaps delusion. It makes no difference; it is the reality I choose. Bad things happen but it is what we make of them that determines whether they will destroy us or raise us up. I prefer to be at peace with myself, to allow happiness. When we allow the behaviour of others to rob us of our peace, we give them the final victory. Why?
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