Preface to the Happiness
We have talked a few times about getting along with individuals at work and a passage that meant a lot to me a couple of years ago came to mind. I came across this during that period in my life when I was just beginning to make the transition from a cynical, pessimistic, and miserable smart-ass to someone who has experienced, and been transformed by, true joy.
This is from the writings of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and philosopher, in his Meditations:
“Put yourself in mind, every morning, that before that night you will meet with some meddlesome, ungrateful and abusive fellow, with some envious or unsociable churl. Remember that their perversity proceeds from ignorance of good and evil; and that since it has fallen to my share to understand the natural beauty of a good action and the deformity of an ill one; since I am satisfied that the disobliging person is of kin to me, our minds being both extracted from the Deity; since no man can do me a real injury because no man can force me to misbehave myself; I cannot therefore hate or be angry with one of my own nature and family. For we are all made for mutual assistance, no less than the parts of the body are for the service of the whole; whence it follows that clashing and opposition are utterly unnatural.”
Because I spent so much time as a meddlesome fellow myself, when this affliction was taken from me I was able to truly see it as an affliction and my heart flooded with empathy for my meddlesome brothers and sisters still suffering out there. I have since realized that just as it is our duty to care for the sick and the poor, so is it the duty of those of us living in the joy of Christ to be gentle and loving in the midst of the angry and nasty.
Each moment throughout the day when we encounter these meddlesome fellows, we have the opportunity to conquer a small piece of the darkness that is present in the world, and in ourselves – simply by refusing to allow that darkness to touch us. Your story of smiling in that line at the store is the perfect example of this.
Your smiling face was a healing presence to the lady trying to serve her customers, and she expressed gratitude. Allowing God to be present in the world through a simple smile had a measurable effect on the world and the response from the world was gratitude… what better evangelization is there?
A couple of years ago, before reading Aurelius, I made a vow to never get angry, impatient, or frustrated in traffic – ever. This works very much like a meditation of sorts, where you try to not think. Well, of course you are going to think! But then you realize that you are thinking and you stop (for a few moments at least). This cycle repeats and the point of the exercise is that it is an exercise. It is a practice. It builds focus, attention and self awareness, and therefore self control. Through continued practice, the thinking becomes less and something new starts to happen.
Well, this sort of exercise has helped me in traffic. When I find myself feeling frustrated, I realize that I am frustrated and I stop (for a few moments at least). I have been practicing this for a while now and I frequently find myself actually laughing out loud and having a wonderful time in moments of the worst traffic, when the frustration sneaks up on me. Because when this happens – when I am frustrated – I realize that I am being me too much, that I have left no room for God to be, and so I let go of me and God comes rushing in and I am grateful; I smile and I laugh – and it is genuine.
In this way, traffic often becomes a close moment for me in the same way meddlesome people can become close moments for us. I am reminded that God is with me, and for this I am grateful. So traffic leads to frustration which leads to remembering God which leads to experiencing God’s presence, which leads to joy and gratitude.
Bad traffic is sometimes the highlight of my day. I had a great laugh just recently… I was frustrated in traffic and remembered God – and then chose the frustration! Or, at least I tried to. But my frustration retreated like oil to soap, dark to light, in God’s presence. All I could do was laugh at myself for thinking that I could choose to hold onto that frustration in His presence.
This was truly an unlikely happiness.
Not only can we defeat these dark moments, but we can be thankful for them. Not because we are sadists, but because these are the moments of our spiritual growth which strengthen us for real suffering.
I am very grateful for my meddlesome moments, for in them I am witness to God’s love conquering the darkness; in these moments I am offered the opportunity to allow God’s work to be done in me. These moments build my faith. And all I have to do is to choose to allow it to happen.
When we find ourselves in long lines and everyone is miserable, these are the moments in which we need to remove ourselves to allow God’s healing presence to be. As you noted, this smile, this presence of joy in a long line listening to people complain, it is so easy and it makes a difference in the world. People do notice, and though they may not know it at the time, they are being touched by God, for it is not our smile but God’s that heals.
The Primacy of Being
I believe in something I call the primacy of being. I believe that above what I think (the primacy of thought) and above what I do (the primacy of action), is who I am (the primacy of being). This is a philosophy that reminds me that we are called to “be” like Christ – not just to “do” Christ-like things or “think” Christ-like thoughts, although these will certainly follow as all thoughts and actions ultimately proceed from being.
I began to think about this yesterday when you asked if there was anyone Christ did not like. I think that while the temptation to dislike someone may have been present to Christ, that He, being sinless, was not defeated by it. Which is to say, no.
This has profound implications for us, who are called to be “Christ-like.” Disliking someone is a willful act, and while it may seem involuntary to us at times, that is only because we are unaware of our willfulness, and in our unawareness, we make a choice that moves us away from God. I would think that Christ, unlike us, was aware of such choices and never chose any act that was in a direction away from God.
Moreover, this reminds me of Marcus Aurelius again. When we find ourselves disliking someone, we have in this moment the opportunity to grow in an important way, for it is in this moment where we can choose to let go of another piece of that dark part of ourselves and allow Christ to fill us more completely. The more we can do this letting go, the more fully we can live in Christ. And while it is easy to live in Christ during the happy, peaceful moments of our lives (sitting in Church), we will never fully live in Christ until we can live in Christ in the unpleasant, frustrating, and tormented moments of our lives. Our capacity for this grows each time that we conquer that part of ourselves that does the disliking. As such, these moments – standing in line behind a hostile customer, etc – are actual gifts given to us that we may conquer another small piece of the darkness inside of us. This was the realization that I came to after reading the Aurelius passage.
These tiny trials that we encounter are opportunities for us to strengthen and grow our joy through the exercise and practice of actively choosing the good. We retrain our instincts this way and as such, we re-orient ourselves more fully to God and we therefore live more fully in joy.
Everlasting Joy and Hope
There exists a joy and a hope that the world cannot take from us. Pope Benedict writes elegantly and profoundly of this in his encyclical on hope. If we can live inside of this joy, if we can stay in contact with it, then we can truly say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
In our meeting, I tried to recount the story of the of the lady whose husband told her he did not love her and in fact never had. The title of that book is. “This is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness” by Laura Munson.You can find the article that sparked the book on the nytimes.com site
I was drawn to the part about “unlikely happiness” and I read the first pages in which she describes her worst moment. When she wanted to “fight, rage and cry” she was instead, able to feel calm – because she had decided not to participate in suffering.
We can make that same choice in our meetings, in traffic, and standing in line. And because we are with God, we never have to do it alone. Moreover, when we rely on God to enter our being in these moments, we are transformed in new ways as dark, hidden cul-de-sacs of our hearts are washed clean with light. Through this, our capacity for “being Christ-like” expands.
I love the phrase, “unlikely happiness,” for that so perfectly describes the joy we are given in Christ, who transforms our meddlesome moments to profound moments of joy. And for this, we are thankful.
“In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone” – Paul Le-Bao-Tinh