Fundamentally happy

Today I read a post called “Pigeons” in one of my regular blog-reads, Table for One by Solitary Diner. I stopped short at this:

But as I thought about it, I realized that despite having a long list of potential self improvement projects, I am fundamentally happy.  Not all the time, certainly not at 4 am on a night float shift when I want to toss my pager into the fires of Mordor, but overall I’m happy.  And with very good reason.  Balancing out my list of pigeons of discontent is a very long list of things to be happy about. 

And I thought – hey, me too! I am fundamentally happy. My next thought was – When did that happen? Without going into a lot of detail, I can say that I have had a lot of pain in my life. I’ve lost people I love; I’ve been betrayed by people I trusted unconditionally. I have experienced catastrophic illness in my loved ones and in myself. I have been in material need. I have been in spiritual desolation. I have borne intense physical and emotional pain. Somewhere along the line, though, I slowly came to the deep realization that even though I cannot always control what happens to me, I can control how I relate to it. Even though I cannot control what feelings come up in me spontaneously, I can choose which ones to allow to stay. I can choose how I react to situations and feelings. “Feelings are not objective reality; they are our subjective reactions to objective reality.”

Ten or fifteen years ago I decided to make being kind to people my default mode of behavior. Aside from the positive results one might expect – more friends, people enjoying my company, better relationships in work and private lives – I noticed my inner world changing, too. As I began to be gentler with the people around me, I somehow started to become gentler with myself.

A few years after that, I began to realize that “feelings are not the boss of me”. I can feel like moldy bread warmed up on a rusty shovel over a cow dung fire and still smile at the person who comes into the room. I discovered that I am not unidimensional or monotonal and that I can feel sad about something, can feel grief and pain, and be honest about those feelings without letting them take over my essential being. My fundamental happiness takes nothing away from being sad or angry at a person or a situation, and the sadness or anger do not destroy the fundamental contentment.

I am a deeply spiritual and religious woman with an intense prayer life. This, I have no doubt, plays an important role in my fundamental happiness. My Creator created me as a human being with emotions, “and He saw that it was good”. I am grateful for the ability to feel emotions, because I have also known the flat, internal deadness of depression. But just as I do not have to allow myself to be ruled by my appetite for food or sex or exciting adventures, I do not have to allow myself to be ruled by my feelings.

Just as I choose to “live with” cancer, I choose to live with my feelings, knowing that they come and go, ripples on the pond of my contentment.

In the 13th century, Clare of Assisi wrote to Ermentrude of Bruge:

Our labor here is brief, the reward eternal; may the excitements of the world, fleeing like a shadow, not disturb you. […] Gladly endure whatever goes against you and do not let your good fortunes lift you up: for these things destroy faith and those demand it.

Living intentionally and being the master of our feelings are far from new ideas. Having found my center, my fundamental happiness, I can afford to take a couple of steps back from the “excitements” of my inner world and decide where to place my energy.

I have no idea if I’ve made any sense in this post. I’d be grateful for some feedback.

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  1. This is a beautiful post, and I’m glad that my original post provided some inspiration for it. I think I really “get” this post, and I understand completely what you mean when you say that “feelings aren’t the boss of me”. I went through a major depression when I started medical school about 5 1/2 years ago, and the thing that pulled me out of it was realizing that I didn’t have to tie my internal happiness to my external situation. It was a fundamental change in my thinking, and I think it’s what’s allowed me to remain a generally happy person despite some major challenges and losses in my life.

    It’s interesting the tools that different people find to be happy in life. While religion is clearly an important thing for you, I’ve managed to reach this place despite (and perhaps in some ways because of) being an atheist. I think it just demonstrates that we all have different understandings of the world and that we can arrive at the same place despite taking different paths.

  2. It is a great post to remind myself that sometimes I need to control what I think and how I react/act – it makes me more calm and certainly, calm = power.

  3. Thanks for this post. You made perfect sense, by the way.

    Reacting to people, at least as a default, gently and kindly, helps me to fight back against stressful and sometimes even harrowing situations, to not let my environment dictate how I treat others or even how I feel.

    Patience and understanding have helped me, as you said, be gentler with myself.

  4. Thank you all for the lovely remarks.

    SD, some people might say I’ve reached this place *despite* being religious. Truth to tell, I don’t think being religious or atheist has much to do with it. It’s like that famous mountain with so many different paths to the top, no two paths the same.

    Ad2b, exactly. I can’t control my feelings, but I can control what I pay attention to (my thoughts) and what I do about it (my actions). I’ve noticed that very powerful people often speak in a low voice; I wonder if that is part of this.

    Biblio, I’m so glad I made sense! I was a bit worried. Please don’t get the idea that I’m unfailing kind and gentle, though. I’m still climbing that mountain – but it is the default and has become easier and easier over the years. Being gentle with myself is the hardest part.

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