A couple of days before my 5th birthday, I got the chance to perform on a stage for the first time. It was in a talent review put on by the Wabaningo Club of the Sylvan Beach neighborhood association. That was where my grandmother owned a beach cottage on Lake Michigan. I rehearsed the song “Happiness Is….” from the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and performed it with 13 other little kids, including my sister, a second cousin, and the two daughters of my parent’s friends, the Pulvers. I know these details because I found the program online in the Wab Club’s archives. All I remember is standing on the stage and looking out at people’s faces, smiling at me. I saw a photo of this group performance hanging on the wall of the Pulvers’ cottage in 2007, 40 years later. I stuck out. I was a step in front of the whole line up, my eager face displaying a huge, open mouth. I guess I was kind of a ham.
The songs lists a bunch of cute, juvenile reasons for happiness. Two kinds of ice cream, five different crayons, getting along — “everything and anything at all that’s loved by you”. It rather assumes that things outside of you are what will make you happy. I bought into this idea pretty thoroughly, and I know a lot of others who did (and do), too. My list included having approval, good grades, someone who loves me, kids who are successful, good health, and a bunch of other stuff. I would get anxious, upset, and sometimes downright terrified if I felt that any of these conditions might end. In moments of loss, when something that had made me happy changed, I would often hear people comfort me by saying, “God loves you. It’s OK.” But again, that felt like something outside of me that I could lose, another idea of happiness that made me fret about whether I possessed it or not.
In a videotaped speech of Anthony de Mello’s, I heard about the idea of “attachment” and how we suffer from it. We suffer in the loss, the impermanence of our attachments. I’ve been thinking about this for about 10 years now. I think back on how the attachments I had to certain ways of being affected my parenting. We went through a lot of suffering as a family. I felt so angry that we couldn’t seem to do things according to my expectations. I rejected the way things were and tried to fix them. I asked God to fix them. And we kept suffering. Slowly, I began to loosen my grip. Finally, I prayed that I would be able to accept things as they are and be strong enough to accept the things that were to come, even though I was terrified of what that might be. Yes, Jim died. That was what I was fearing the most. Interestingly, when that became a reality instead of a fear, some of the suffering was relieved. More suffering was relieved when I began to look at other realities with less judgment and more acceptance. I am still working on the practice of non-attachment and the understanding of happiness. Here’s a quote that puts it quite simply:
“The Kingdom of God is also said to be like a treasure that someone finds and hides in a field. Then, in his joy, he sells all he has and buys that field. If you are capable of touching that treasure, you know that nothing can be compared to it. It is the source of true joy, true peace, and true happiness. Once you have touched it, you realize that all the things you have considered to be conditions for your happiness are nothing. They may even be obstacles for your own happiness, and you can get rid of them without regret. We are all looking for the conditions for our own happiness, and we know what things have made us suffer. But we have not yet seen or touched the treasure of happiness. When we touch it, even once, we know that we have the capacity of letting go of everything else.
“That treasure of happiness, the Kingdom of Heaven, may be called the ultimate dimension of reality. When you see only waves, you might miss the water. But if you are mindful, you will be able to touch the water within the waves as well. Once you are capable of touching the water, you will not mind the coming and going of the waves. You are no longer concerned about the birth and the death of the wave. You are no longer afraid. You are no longer upset about the beginning or the end of the wave, or that the wave is higher or lower, more or less beautiful. You are capable of letting these ideas go because you have already touched the water.” — Thich Nhat Hahn Living Buddha, Living Christ
Anthony de Mello quoted Kabir, an Eastern poet, saying, “I laughed when they told me the fish in the water was thirsty.” I keep thinking about that one…