Dr. James Johnson left a comment on my post about Being Awesome the other day – he’d commented once before about a post I did on exercising while sick and provided some much needed clarification. I checked his blog out and ran into a post he’d written entitled “Top 5 Life Regrets of Those In The Last Days Of Life”. It’s an excellent post and I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but there’s one that really struck me:
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
Allowing oneself to be happy is extremely important but exceedingly difficult. I learned early on in recovery that one of the keys to happiness is carefully choosing what is important to “worry” about and what to let go – that’s how it was described to me back then. Today I would change that to choose what is important to take action on and what to let go, but that gets a little bit into splitting hairs, as accurate as the revision may be. The general rule is this: Will whatever is currently bugging me still be an issue in three months? If the answer no, then it’s not worth the worry. This isn’t to say that we should allow ourselves to be lazy – we can look at any small task and left uncompleted, it will most certainly be an issue in three months – take the simple act of bike maintenance. If I were to allow my drivetrain to accumulate a bunch of road grime and excess lube, over time it will most certainly break down. That’s a metaphor for life. If I refuse to clean up after myself, whether physical, mental or spiritual in nature, that front end laziness will certainly breed much larger issues down the road. So the first piece of the happiness pie must be taking care of my responsibilities.
The second important slice has to do with our interaction with others. There are a lot of stupid things done that can really rile us up. Our significant other or kids can say or do things that have the potential to send us reeling. We deal with all manner of crooks, thieves and liars on a daily basis in business – whether its those above in the corporate food chain or those below. Add to that, a number of friends and family members, all of whom we could find reason to be angry with at some point or other. We could take this down to the smallest interaction, a driver on the road who cuts us off or is too busy conducting business on the phone to notice how poorly their driving is (or applying makeup for God’s sake). The question must be, is that situation going to affect my life in three months? If the answer is no, it’s not worth carrying on about – or holding on to. I can’t imagine anyone has ever found true happiness through being angry at someone else. Or more to the point, I’ve tried and it just doesn’t work for me.
A good rule that’s never failed me, also learned early in sobriety, is that I have no room for righteous indignation in my life. It’s not the “righteous” part that catches me up, it’s the “indignation”. I don’t do indignation very well – it ends up as “pissed off” and if I slam that together with “righteous”, I end up with “righteously pissed off”. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is an oxymoron. It’s an impossibility as far as I am concerned. Does this make life difficult to swallow from time to time? You bet it does. Just last night, at the bowling ally one of the older fellows, let’s call him mentally challenged (he really is slow), came up to my daughter and asked her if she wanted a v-8. When she said “sure”, not knowing what a v-8 is (hell I completely missed it), he gently thumped her on the forehead. They both chuckled and he walked away. I didn’t take it so well (I could feel my blood pressure rise all over again just writing this out). It was everything I could do to keep from beating the hell out of the guy, slow or not… Instead, I stared him down a bit to give him the message that this wasn’t cool and he got it. Did his little tap on my kid’s head necessitate a pummeling? No it didn’t, but I could have justified it in my head. And had I gone through with that, I’d have likely ended up in jail for assault, my kids would have seen their dad absolutely lose his bananas and get arrested, my wife’s evening away from the kids would have turned into a disaster and I’d be calling a lawyer this morning. What I used to do with righteous indignation looks exactly like that – and then, to make matters worse, I would relive that anger over and again for weeks. My fault in that situation would have been snapping. Having had anger issues in the past, I was one “f@ck it” away… All because he was trying to share a joke with my kid, a joke I’d performed a hundred times on other kids when I was younger. I’m here to submit that one cannot allow oneself to be “happy” in the midst of that kind of anger. Righteous or not. We should likewise not allow ourselves to become human doormats. This is a delicate balance and takes much practice.
So what does it mean to “let it go”? First of all, letting it go is all mental. It means ceasing to relive, or replay, a situation that bothered us over and over again. Sometimes I like to “give it to God”, as if I wrapped my anger at a situation up in a box with a bow on it and handed that box to Him. Other times, it’s a mantra, “I am not that guy any more” or, “I love my wife with all of my heart and this/that is not a path I want to explore”. The trick is to do whatever it takes to break that recycling of emotions. There used to be a time when my wife and I couldn’t have an argument without me going through the roof. Today, I am much better at keeping my cool and it has absolutely nothing to do with my wife – it’s that I’ve changed.
In the end, allowing myself to be happy has everything to do with changing that in myself which is keeping the happiness at bay. I cannot be happy and consumed by anger, righteous or not, at the same time.
Of course, if all else fails, a 30 mile ride will fix damn near anything.