AND: A Reflection from A Short Course in Happiness After Loss
“We think the world apart,” wrote Parker Palmer, perhaps the West’s most astute educator of educators and in so doing we create separations where none need exist. We become caught by either/or or black-or-white thinking and fail to hold what Nobel Prize winning physicist, Neils Bohr, proposed: “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” In the physics of recovery from loss we find happier-ness in this knowledge and do best when we let go of rigid thoughts or rigid patterns of emotion and behavior and step into the and of possibility. We can be shattered and heal. Hearts do break and grow in love and courage and capacity. Our pain may be excruciating and there is a way to live such that life shimmers with meaning and joy and we find ourselves laughing and dancing and celebrating even as we deeply miss what had been true. And, and, and.
I often do this exercise now with my students. At the beginning of a day-long retreat on happiness I’ll draw a rough looking circle on a large piece of flip-chart paper and ask the audience to shout out words that define their current stressors. Phrases fly toward me at the speed of falcons: “overwhelm,” “the to-do list,” “my boss,” “paperwork,” “back pain,” “my broken car,” “aging body,” “not enough money,” “not enough time,” “fear,” “abandonment,” “stuckness,” “my marriage,” “my divorce,” “my kids,” “death,” “illness,” losing my mind.” In five minutes the circle is overfull and we christen the thing “the swamp.” The swamp holds our pains, fears, worries, stressors (real and imagined), and disappointments. Simply labeling the swamp brings the energy in the room down and with each new word added I can see the students become sadder, heavier, weary.
I continue the class. We learn tools and principles of positivity, we discuss the freedom to choose and the possibility of the and. We begin to offer stories of those who have risen from tragic circumstances and highlight in our own lives when we too have grown, put ourselves back together with a bit of gold lacquer and duct tape. Laughter bubbles up. We’ll exchange stories of the absurdity of life – the “you can’t make this shit up” stuff – and they’ll begin to top each other.
“My mother died, and then the dogs ate poison and croaked right on the back porch, and in the same night, the night of her funeral, I found out that my spouse had been cheating on me with my best friend.”
“Really?” someone else will shout out. “That’s nothing; let me tell you about my last three years.”
And the game is on...whose life has been hardest, who has seen the most?
The laughter continues, how could it not, this stuff cannot be invented and when the room has had its fill of the ludicrousness and cruelty of it all, I’ll turn the swamp page of the flip chart over and on the very next page draw a rough outline of a circle. I’ll ask them then to share with me what they are grateful for in their lives. New words emerge: “sunshine after a long winter,” “my partner,” “the fact that I’m still living,” “friends,” “acts of kindness,” “meaningful work,” “birthday parties,” “music,” “dancing,” “the gate guy at work who smiles every morning.” And old terms show up, this time from the perspective of appreciation: “my kids,” “my marriage,” “my boss,” “my body.” The terms overspill. There is not enough room for all we appreciate.
I then flick the “swamp” circle page back on top of our gratitude circle and begin to move it up and down, like a cartoon flip book. As I do so the students quiet. What is true becomes obvious. It’s the same life. The swamp, the pond of gratitude...it’s the same life, same days, same elements. Our stressors and our happiness co-exist.
What matters is the and here...we can focus on what makes life hard and miserable and stop there or we can acknowledge what makes life hard and miserable, work with it, make healthy choices about the swamp and see the good as well. Tal Ben-Shahar, world thought leader in the field of positive psychology, teaches us about the and when considering growth and healing during dark times in his books Happier and Being Happy because it enables us to live into paradox. We can be in pain, experience despair, make mistakes, be filled with anxiety or fear and choose practices and perspectives that sustain us.
This wisdom is seen as well in the work done by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their exploration of great organizations and their leadership. In their work, “Built To Last,” they refer to this as the “genius of the and,” explaining that truly visionary companies are led by those who embrace both ends of continuums: continuity and change, predictability and chaos, heritage and renewal.
Two profound truths do appear then to co-exist when considering how to live life well despite it’s ups and downs: Suffering does not negate what is good and rich in our world; what is good and rich in our world exists bounded by our suffering. Both are real. Both are valid. Both deserve attention. To rise after loss, to find that which brings about a life worth living even with its despairs is to attend to both and keep our minds open to the possibility of And.