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Activation and Happiness

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Frederick Bruechner

I most recently read this quote in David Brooks’ compelling book, ‘The Road to Character.’ Brooks’ theoretical persons, Adam I and Adam II, move through the world motivated, in the first case, by success—material and otherwise—and in the second by the development of character. Brooks calls Adam I the man of the resume. Adam II finds motivation emanating from his higher, rather than baser self. Adam II lives the life which his eulogy would express.

Brooks describes the lives of individuals whose heroism and sacrifice are truly remarkable. He differentiates theoretically, the motivation that derives from “inside” us from the motivations that constitute our response to calls from “outside” of us.
At times this can get a bit confusing, because the conversation about inside/outside or interior/exterior often takes a decidedly opposite direction. As an example, we read that the reliance young people have on the opinions of others (outsiders) causes depression and anxiety. While we human beings inherently want to give and receive love, to belong, and to participate meaningfully in the life of family, community and the world, we have not, before this current period in our history, sought so much validation for the smallest of things from “outside” ourselves—what we ate at a restaurant, what clothing we wore, the scene we captured on camera at the ocean, the crowd in which we danced. The reliance on numbers of “followers,” or “friends,” has led to inflated senses of importance on one hand and to terrible emotional falls from social grace on the other. Comparing oneself to others—even those whom one does not know personally—has created much self-deprecation and reinforced the Adam I resume mentality. In this sense, the “outside” reference is the superficial approbation of others.

Brooks, however, means something of a different order by the world ‘outside’ the self. To him, discrete motivation from the interior represents self-absorption and selfishness, a kind of self-determination in a vacuum, whereas the outside calls to a person, and our higher selves respond to that calling. In Brooks’ view when we generate our careers, or our behavior comes from our interior world, then this expresses ego-based behavior.
In Brooks’ own words: The core question is not, “’What do I want from life?’ but, ‘What does life want from me?’ ‘What are my circumstances calling me to do?’” (page 21) Brooks argues that “In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstance in which you happened to be embedded.”(pg 21)

I think that Brooks runs into a problem trying to distinguish an interior world from an exterior world. They are inextricably intertwined as a whole. By interacting with the world in various ways, whether or not we are conscious of it, things come to us, as if from the inside, or as if from the outside.

Sometimes the dictates of our external environment are experienced as more pressing, such as being stuck in a concentration or internment camp. But we all grow up in some environment and there is weight and nuance associated with that, let alone with the random things that occur around us, whether they constitute blessed events or horrific ones. The notion of following one’s passion does not in life exist as a separate, interior wish or thrust either conceptually or in the trenches.

My “I” is inherently part of a “We.” My “I” exists within a culture, a period in history, a family, a community, etc. There is some functionality that looks independent, and that I call mine, but I swim in a sea of air—our earth’s atmosphere—as well as a sea of others—our human atmosphere. One’s passion or intelligence or skillfulness will rise to the surface of whatever the demand, whether it appears to us as more interior or as more exterior. We cannot help but exist as part of the living fabric around us. The weave of a particular self is knitted into the warp of the world.

In an extension of the interior/exterior divide Brooks the search for happiness with the more interior, ego-driven Adam I. The more exterior Adam II searches for meaning. He writes: “The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam I realm can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false. Adam I’s desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved. Only Adam II can experience deep satisfaction. Adam I aims for happiness, but Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient. The ultimate joys are moral joys.” (page 15)

In my view the distinction between ‘moral joy’ and ‘happiness’ does not increase our understanding of living a good life. It seems more complete to understand people’s happiness as inclusive of what Brooks calls moral joy. When we engage in some kind of service to the world—even a tiny niche of the world—we benefit in multiple ways and hopefully we have benefited some recipient(s). It feels good and pleasurable to help, and that layers onto the goodness of helping. Brooks tends to regard happiness as the superficial cousin of moral joy. Happiness at the expense or exclusion of another tends to be short lived. At an extreme, some people, who might well feel happy surviving a war, a car accident, or a layoff, experience survivor guilt instead (“Why me and not him?”)
This gets beautifully summed up in another Frederick Bruechner quote: “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”

Guest saddle: What activates you? Do you feel more aware of motivation as coming from inside yourself? Soul searching? Contemplation of personal strengths? Or do you feel “called” by what you perceive as external circumstances or the needs or concerns of others?

Web Camel Transport 15

The Happiness of Admiring

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

In our world we repeatedly experience the pulse of competition, whether with others or to achieve our personal bests: Run further and faster, climb the corporate ladder skipping a few steps, get ahead of the next company’s patent on new technology, have the biggest party, make the most money, travel to more countries, bag the most peaks, garner the biggest audience for. . .whatever. Ambition has jazziness and energizes, and makes us work hard. All good. But that driver, when unbalanced by other ways of living, will keep us too focused on THE PRIZE. And prizes, when received in the moment, can certainly make the heart sing. But the song, sadly, echoes for only a short time before it enters the door of silence. After the handshake, or the medal, or the check. . .well, even after the champagne and mushroom pate, comes another day in which we inch our way toward old news.

Meg Kearney, of the Solstice writing program at Pine Manor College in Boston, Massachusetts, shared some sage advice upon our entry into the MFA program. Following in the Frost tradition she said something like: “When given a choice between being intelligent or being kind, choose being kind.” No amount of critical insight held enough value to slash a fellow student’s work. The staff at Pine Manor not only fostered a supportive relationship among writing students, but went well beyond. The second directive: “Fall in love with another student’s writing. Study everything they write, and learn more about writing, including your own writing that way,” had an even more profound effect upon the climate while studying. Every single writer, by flexing their mind into the writing of another person, gained perspective, nuance, and invaluable editorial experiences.

But the big plus? Falling in love! Falling in love with a person, with a piece of writing, with a garden, with anything. . .that offers up a big slice of happiness.
Admiring someone else takes us joyfully out of ourselves. Momentarily relieved from our pinched self-absorbedness we can spread our wings and take in the beauty someone else’s being offers.

As a therapist, I enjoy the privilege of sitting across from someone, my eyes open, my ears open, my heart open to them. I do not need to advance myself as a friend or as a colleague. The only requirement involves utilizing expertise, experience and willingness for the benefit of another, as that person describes it. Seeing someone’s beauty, admiring their strengths, happens naturally and effortlessly as conversation unfolds.

By getting to know someone and the circumstances in which they try to live the best they can makes it easier to admire that person. Vulnerability and openness bring people closer, and the close-up view promises much to admire.

Guest Saddle:

Whom do you actively admire? What beauty do you see in this person? What has it taught you about yourself? About anything?

Web Camel Transport 14

Awakening Happiness

Monday, February 15, 2016

The camel rises, all angles and cantilevering of long bone after long bone. Craning his neck he looks around and stretches. Long and tall or short and squat each living being naturally stretches, moving from platform to platform—earth to air, belly to legs. Yawn. Stretch. Awaken. Focus. The dimmed world of sleep and the sadness or spookiness of dreams burn away under the throb of sun overhead; and the body and mind rearrange themselves, open their doors and windows to let in the sensations of the day and attend to other beings in their surround.

Awakening slowly, delicately, diligently moving the articulate joints, flexing the feet, stretching out the increasingly arthritic fingers feels better than bolting out of bed, alert and anxious with anticipation for the demands of the day ahead. Awakening as if this were the only moment takes practice. As if. As if no future called like a bird outside the window heralding whatever comes. As if no outfitting for a big responsibility need take place.

In child summers days stretched long, like beings themselves, and I remember awakening with excitement, wondering what the day would bring, as if every day were Christmas and gifts lay ahead, the second I bounced out the door of the house. Maybe tadpoles near the pond, maybe neighbors out and about, maybe the building of a fort or a tree house or picking apples from the next door orchard; maybe later in summer, blowing sylph-like seeds from milkweed pods that stood tall in the marshes at the end of the road, holding our wishes captive until that very moment when seeds fluffed and spun toward the sky.

Most days awakening and anticipation lie next to each other in my morning bed, sharing a pillow. The trick: to welcome the anticipated responsibility with open arms, as if “she” were a bride. Play the fanfare, smile and clap and sing. Whatever comes, let me be of good service to it. Let me host the future hours like the most welcomed of guests. And let my curiosity lead like an outstretched hand, open and ready to take hold.

Guest saddle: What draws your anxiety upon awakening? Is there another way to welcome what meets you on the road ahead? What lovely features, or challenges can you greet with curiosity, with respect, and with diligence?

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The Right and Happy-Accountability

Sunday, February 14, 2016

In twelve step programs, one principle (as differentiated from an official step) for living a wholesome life, “Do the next right thing,” holds a lot of power. Merely by asking oneself to define the next right thing, an engagement of the whole person must occur in which emotions, thoughts, values, and finally actions get expressed. The power of wondering about, and coming to some conclusion about the next right thing, constitutes a sturdy platform to support sound judgment, good decision-making, and a reduction in compulsive as well as impulsive behaviors. When we bring to bear on any situation the entirety of our personhood, the conversation of our inner parts have to result in some consensus. And usually that integration of parts, that agreement among our inner selves, produces actions that are consistent with our highest values. Accountability implies an inner process of orienting ourselves and making decisions that house our responsibilities as we define them.

As a therapist, I often experience inner tugs about the extent to which accountability to my clients supersedes accountability to myself in terms of self-care. It is important to be “off duty” sometimes. The therapy hour functions as a heightened period of time in which rapport with my client(s), working through the issues important to them, and co-catalyzing the energy they bring out into the world to continue this work takes place. When I get phone calls to referee a couple’s argument or to coach someone out of a downward spiral, I have to be careful not to give the message that I have 100% availability. As an outpatient therapist I do not perform emergency service functions. There certainly exist “extra” responsibilities to clients, outside of the therapy hour, but these responsibilities require some bounds. The delicacy of navigating these boundaries in my own mind, and communicating them to others, keeps me on my toes, and frequently aware of accountability. I feel good, as do most people, when I take accountability for my role in things. Sometimes I must face my smallness in the scheme of things—I have no ability to take hardship away from someone, or to give suggestions that are always brilliant and enlightening, or even to comfort the most acute grief. Sometimes all I can do is to be on the other end of the phone, listening, understanding, providing some warmth and perhaps an endorsement of the person’s resilience. Sometimes I cannot be there at all. Sometimes I prioritize accounting to a family member, getting some sleep, or stocking my refrigerator.

As accountable people we feel aware that our words and deeds affect others. When we think through our responsibilities and account for our words and deeds, we can then stand behind what we do. We feel happier in that sturdiness than we would by blaming others for our mistakes, letting our jealousies inflict damage on others, or use others to our advantage in a way that diminishes or disadvantages them.
Trust that when you account for yourself this is pretty great! You are pretty terrific.

Guest saddle: For what did you not take responsibility? (A fight, a missed appointment, a fumbled positive opportunity). If you did take responsibility now, account for your part, and what would you do or say differently to function more effectively and more helpfully?

Web Camel Transport 12

The Onion of Happiness:  Appreciation

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mindfulness offers the refreshment of momentarily leaving our egos behind and extending the boundaries of our “I” to include the larger surround. In the “Flow Experience,” we may write poetry, play music, sculpt, or plant a garden, but we experience a oneness of consciousness and action, a relief from the felt sense of time passing, the vitalizing sense that ‘now’ is everywhere and infinitely expansive. We do not chatter to ourselves. We live in boundary-less wonder.

Appreciation is wordier. In order to fully appreciate, our parts of consciousness behave more distinctly, though in concert with one another. A harmonization rather than a confluence. When we smell the perfume in a flower garden, gaze at a painting, admire a well-crafted machine, and so forth, we utilize our ability for psychic distance to step back from in-the-moment apprehension. Somewhat outside the experience we can describe how it feels; we can tell ourselves the story of our intense encounter. So, we have, first, the immediacy of sensory and kinesthetic interactions with the subject of our attention, and secondly an intellectual encounter as well. To savor is to allow consciousness to linger beyond the moment of the engulfing encounter. To savor and appreciate means to create some narrative about our experiences. When we describe what happened—the bird eating out of our hands, the child finally walking after the physical therapy, the dance under moonlit skies—we cloak it in meaning. WE are meaning-making creatures who live among other creatures, and want to share our great experiences.

Artists and writers often talk about work as involving 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. The 10% represents the awe factor; the moment when the Muse grabs you and without balking you take your marching orders and go, go, go. But then comes the light of understanding, of the elaboration and appreciation for what is there, separate from you. As if the “work,” like another being, takes on a life of its own. And of course, beyond appreciation, is the grunt work, the cutting and nailing and fitting it all together in some sensible whole.

Attention itself, the beam of it when focused on a child, for example, has no equal as a gift. The beam of one’s attention lights up another being, drapes someone in the warmth of your curiosity and interest, your appreciation. And when you speak to the child—‘I see that you are building a very tall castle—the child feels seen and blooms into being for that moment like a flower opening to the morning light.

Appreciation beams light on what we already hear or see or feel, amplifying the experience, and making it more indelible. The experience requires a confluence of parts of consciousness. Like dream-maker, dreamer, and interpreter, our wide-ranging niches of consciousness come together when we appreciate an experience. We mark the moment and personalize it with our description, our second look.

A stanza from Li-Young Lee’s poem, ‘From Blossoms,’ stands as an example of what most poems do—offer a moment of exquisite savoring:

“O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.”

And part of Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Fish’

“He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime. . .”

In the end the narrator lets the fish go, because of an intense appreciation of the hard won victories of freedom the old fish has accomplished, its jaw decorated with old pieces of fishing line.

To appreciate is to love something all over again, to layer an experience with a membrane of intelligence and gratitude and story. Experiences, like onions, can have many skins, in the immediacy of savoring, and retrospectively—as many times as we tell the story to ourselves and to others.

Guest saddle:  What or whom have you truly appreciated recently?

Web Camel Transport 12

Adversity, the Martian of Happiness

Saturday, February 13, 2016

In the recent movie, ‘The Martian,’ starring Matt Damon as the astronaut, Mark Watney, adversity provokes an enormous utilization of the character’s powers—emotional, intellectual, and physical. Left behind for dead by his astronaut crew members, he works every day to improve or remedy his situation, in the midst of overwhelming odds and unexpected disasters. In order to survive he uses every scrap of intelligence, know-how and grit that he has, injecting bits of humor and monologue into his ultimate journey home from the depths of space.

At the end of the movie we see him sitting on a park bench at a university as students pass by jogging. He rises, and looking down, spots a small green plant shooting up between pebbles on inhospitable ground. The determination of this small living plant serves as a visual metaphor for the character’s entire story.

Adversity produces every kind of stress to the human person. I have spent time in conversation, sometimes in tears with clients who have lost their homes, lost their jobs, witnessed in agony the near death of their adult children who overdosed on opiates, been divorced, faced discrimination, survived physical or sexual abuse, faced rejection from their children or siblings or parents, driven vehicles intoxicated which resulted in another passenger’s death, come back from war missing part of an arm but experiencing flashbacks and nightmares, or faced immanent death due to cancer. There is no end to adversity.

And yet, because I am a therapist, the people who come to speak with me represent part of a self-selecting group. They are the transformers, the ones who will not be shut up, who will not give up; who will acknowledge what has happened in their lives but reclaim some parts of their experience for good use.

Adverse circumstances change our lives irrevocably. But after our bodies and minds and hearts have knitted, even just a little bit, we start trying to wrap our minds around what has happened in order to reorient ourselves. We feel shaken in our beliefs, we feel shifts in our perspectives on many things, including our priorities—what’s important, what we want, how much mind-time we spend in the future, the past and the present.

In Jonathan Haidt’s book, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ he says that research has shown that extremely adverse situations produce three benefits: The first is that, as in ‘The Martian,’ some heretofore “hidden abilities,” are “revealed.” (page 138) And along with that Haidt says that “self-concept” improves because of recognizing these strengths, and, in addition, surviving traumas, including earth quakes, fires, crashes, etc. results in something of an “inoculation against future stress.” (page 139). Haidt quotes Paul’s Letter to the Romans (5:3-4): “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

A second benefit concerns the annealing of relationships. People, who have suffered greatly, often find others around them willing and able to help, and in turn, when we have suffered greatly, we spend less time obsessing over minor slights and misunderstandings. More water can flow under the bridge undisturbed, because small ripples in the larger scheme of things do not seem worth the trouble to mention.

Haidt writes about the studies of people who have ultimately gleaned benefits from the perspective and sense of self and relationship changes in the aftermath of adversity. They are the ones who have directly experienced these adversities. But there is an important sense in which, because we are selves-in-relation (as opposed to entities existing in an interpersonal vacuum), adversities are also experienced by us when our loved ones live through painful life events. I believe we are not so bound by our skin, our cranium, and our daily lives as to be impervious to the suffering of others. We have, through our empathic ability, the capacity to keep another company in their suffering, as well as to help.

In a larger sense, when we embrace the suffering of others as partly our responsibility—both for the harming if we have contributed to that, as well as the bettering—then we can also grow from adversity.

Nietsche’s quote (inexact), “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” is a shorthand version of what happens when we rework our stories by incorporating our suffering in a meaningful way. Our sense of self coheres (as well as our sense of self-among-others) because of the way we understand our story. We have sub-parts within our totality and coherence helps us bind those parts together in a self-community, but coherence also helps attach us to the band of others to whom we belong.

Guest saddle: In what ways have you grown stronger and more resilient from an adverse experience? How have you helped someone else going through a difficult time?

Web Camel Transport 11

Running with the Ball:  Autonomy and Happiness

Friday, February 12, 2016

Throughout childhood the human brain explodes with new synaptic connections and an increasing mastery over the movements of the body, and the way the multitude of sensory stimuli get organized. We turn this multiplicity into words and specific impressions, into likes and dislikes, into comforts and scares, into food and not-food. Sitting upright, pincer grasp, and every other maneuver is practiced and practiced as finer connections get made and operations get synaptic linkages forged. Finally mastery. And mastery upon mastery—tying shoes, riding a bicycle, describing an experience, applying a math formula to a problem, making a deal—strengthens our autonomy, all the I-can-do-it-myself business.

Developmentally we strive for autonomy, for the ability, in a nutshell, to keep ourselves alive. Our wiring directs us to continue to strive for higher levels of autonomous behavior with its attendant rewards of experiencing ourselves as masterful, as skilled, as independent, as contributors. The happiness of producing by one’s own hands an apple pie, a complex puzzle, a bookshelf, or more complicated things, is matched by our joy in thinking new thoughts, creating more efficient processes by which to accomplish something, and so forth. In couples, families, communities and workplaces, most human beings of any age feel happiest, I wager, in settings where both cooperation and team work get balanced by having one’s own voice valued and incorporated.

If we view autonomy as embedded within a matrix of associations, then notions of trust, competence, and respect come into play. We like to feel that our competencies have garnered the recognition of our families and our supervisors and managers so that we can take our assignments and run with them, suggest and make changes to processes or outcomes within reason, and have the trust of others that we will do our part. Virtually no one likes a micro-manager because micro-managers suffocate their reports, and seize opportunities for those reports to flex their muscles and their autonomy. Children who can already tie their shoes do not appreciate parents tying them instead. Autonomy implies the power to do things by ourselves, without close supervision. And managers who see the strengths of their reports, and empower them to do their jobs with some imagination and an eye toward improvement, will garner more respect from their reports than will managers who imply, by heavy handed management, a lack of faith in the abilities of their reports.

Difficult moments in life–divorces, job loss, death, etc.—often prompt us to develop additional autonomous behaviors. A widow learns to pay the bills or mow the lawn; a son learns to change a tire or run a load of laundry, a new home owner learns how to replace a toilet (not that these jobs are gender specific; just examples). Curiosity also propels us toward new learning, new acquisition of skills, and autonomy with regard to the operation of things such as new technological wizardry.

In his book, ‘The Power of Habit,’ Charles Duhigg quotes a researcher on will-power:  “When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons–if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else–it’s much less taxing.  If they feel like that have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster.  In both cases, people ignored the cookies (this refers to the experiment).  But when the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower.” (page 151)

Autonomy connects us to our energy sources, as in the above paragraph, and connects us to our environment, the little and the larger moving parts. Without autonomy we find ourselves disconnected, unplugged from how things work, and unplugged from imagining how new things might work.

I distinguish autonomy from counter-dependence. Autonomy does not mean that we have to do everything ourselves. We require the flexibility to ask for help and to give it when needed. We want to comfortably depend on others and offer our dependability to them. Even if your partner drives, it affords more security if you can drive too.  Autonomy implies making choices and energizing ourselves to muscle up for the follow-through.

Guest saddle: Where in your life could you operate more autonomously? Where have you neglected to give someone else enough room to develop their own autonomy?

Web Camel Transport 10

Happ-adaptability

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Living beings adapt to their environment in order to belong to it more felicitously. Much that constitutes an environment is living too, so perhaps most adaptation involves mutual or synergistic adaptation.

I call it the elbow dance, the way we shimmy and shoulder our way with one another, making room for ourselves even as we allow space for those others with whom we share a domicile, a work space, a conversation or a loaf of bread. Babies and their mothers adapt to each others’ rhythms, develop a communication of eyes, of arms and heartbeat, a lullaby of swaying hips and soothing vocal tones. Long time partners in life influence one another, rise and fall with waves of energy sighed or chugged into the surrounding air. Our ideas bounce from each others’ brainstorms, or infiltrate with the silence of ozone, insinuate with a snake’s silence. We are permeable, bendable, and mutable within our interpersonal environments.

Have you ever seen a river S’ing its way through a landscape, encroaching on a steadfast tree whose determined roots hang on as the bank recedes? The trunk bends out over the water and up so its crown can still sip the sun. The roots nearest the water are naked and vulnerable.

Vegetation draws certain animals and insects, and those creatures draw others to the region until the most fruitful and densest population consumes or changes the landscape and another shift occurs—desertion or re-population of a different species, perhaps.

Adaptation is not without destruction. And mal-adaptation causes destruction, on smaller and larger scales. Have you seen the recent footage of the coast of Pacifica, California, where the high sides of cliffs cascade back into the ocean, leaving apartment buildings hanging over the precipice?

We have familiarity with erosion–of land, of air quality, of harmony, and of our spirits. Even heavy footprints get washed away in geologic time. So in the brevity of our “blink,” how happy to flex and stretch, to bend and lift the edges of ourselves among and in between.

Guest saddle: To what have you adapted well and happily? When do you see yourself in a mal-adaptive mode? Where and when has your spirit eroded? When have you washed away an opportunity?

Web Camel Transport 9

Nomads of Happiness

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The hieroglyphics of stars and winds and waves seem indecipherable to most of us, but not to sage islanders of centuries ago with their rugged, hand hewn canoes serving as fishing vessels and transportation.

Nomads read the sands and pastures, forage or hunt, find or raise animals, dealing with scarcity by moving around. Although my family drank dark, murky coffee with Bedouins once when we ventured too far into a desert in a vehicle without tires for such a trek, we lived a metaphorically nomadic life.

By the time I went to college we had moved seven times. We were neither pushed by poverty, illegal activity, military service, nor job transfers. Looking back, my parents’ ideas moved us. And after some nomadic circling within a geographic circumference, my parents sold their camels and we leapt across the air, and navigated seas bound for exploration and adventure. Of course, our unfamiliar destinations and future lives unfolded with their share of tragedies as well as inspirations, and from those experiences there is no going back to the earlier, safer life, the smaller circle of a known territory.

Ideas: invisible and dimensionless, yet unshakable as a boulder or shifting like sand, propulsive, convincing, rallying, uplifting or devastating. Ideas have sail power, loft power, engine power. My parents had ideas about a better life and we were borne by those ideas wherever they led.

After college I made seven moves until now in my adult life with the family of my own making; an interesting symmetry in number but clearer as occupational migration than the moves of my childhood. Except this last move; a return to the tribe. The return a happiness idea—proximity to kin a multiple of pluses.

In my early career as a therapist I worked with a Cambodian man who had escaped the Khmer Rouge–having had to witness the slaying of his parents, and conscripted to serve as a child soldier. But he came in to talk about discontents in his present life as opposed to the PTSD symptoms which still plagued him. Naively, I asked him what he wanted to do in his life, what was his dream?

“Put a permanent roof over my family’s head and food on the table,” was basically his answer. As a survivor of war, he had not come from an environment that supported any navel gazing, any exploration of a bliss to follow, any list of signature strengths. Success and even happiness seemed simple to explain—safety, ownership, food—but more than that, the strength and ability to provide for those who counted upon him.

Home is that happy place toward which our wandering gravitates, however far it takes us, however long the journey, however tired the camel.

Web Camel Transport 8

Everyday Euphoria

Tuesday February 9, 2016

In David Brooks’ compelling book, The Road to Character, he says in the introduction, “We can shoot for something higher than happiness. We have a chance to take advantage of everyday occasions to build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world.” Through the theoretical characters of Adam 1 and Adam 2, he speaks about the more egotistical, resume-driven self versus the more interior, eulogy-driven self, the egotist versus the other-minded person in whom reside the virtues we associate with a person of exemplary character.

In thinking about the positive psychology literature on happiness and well-being, it seems there is not such a great divide as Brooks suggests, between happiness and good character (although he does say that folks of maturity, commitment, humility, and dependability radiate a kind of “moral joy.”) According to Martin Seligman and colleagues, there are tiers of happiness—the frivolous, full-of-pleasure kind, the fulfillment of expressing one’s signature strengths, and the most meaningful sort of happiness in which one’s outputs contribute to the purposes of the broader community.

Before our granddaughter, Minna, was born, my husband and I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Brooklyn, New York, helping to ready the small apartment in which our hardworking daughter and son-in-law would welcome their baby. Inexplicably, a great sense of excitement surrounded us as we rode the train from Boston, as if this were an exotic adventure to a foreign land.

It was a small service in the scheme of things, but an intimate one. I felt gratitude and a sense of privilege for their trust in us, and for their permission to negotiate, handle, refold, and re-place their material belongings.

The modest apartment would welcome and nest their first baby, our granddaughter. It is hard to describe how pleasing it felt to participate in these tasks: wiping down woodwork, my husband bolting together two bookshelves, stuffing clothing into giveaway bags, taking trash down three flights of rickety stairs, re-rolling towels and sheets into a pantry that doubled as a linen closet, completely reorganizing the tiny kitchen’s cabinets to make things accessible without a landslide. We helped plan where furniture might move in order to convert a little office into the nursery.

We chatted, we laughed, we sashayed around the apartment surveying our work; we ate snacks from the small but well-stocked grocery down the block, took laundry to the laundromat for washing. By the end of this nothing-short-of-euphoric day, it seemed impossible that anything other than the baby herself, could rival such happiness.

I can’t stake a claim to “moral joy,” or even, as in the Positive Psychology literature, a truly meaningful happiness from utilizing personal signature strengths in the service of a greater community than myself.

This joint undertaking felt simple; an earthy roll-up-your-sleeves kind of joy: Was it about helping our grown children? Or simply about sharing a hardworking but easygoing day with them? About participating in the transformation of their habitat? Was it the gift of their trust in us to help with this clean-up effort? Or the anticipation of this baby who would so grace our lives? Maybe it was just that we participated with one another in a vitalized and fully present way.

But we had fun! We played. We used our muscles. We reveled in the companionship. We worked on a cooperative project, and felt awe in the transformation of a couple’s apartment to a home suited for a family of three.

Don’t you notice how the mundane and the miraculous tend toward each other with love as their seam?