During the embattled years of law school, a friend and I clung together in our metaphorical fox-hole, confiding to one another all that was scary, going wrong, or likely to go wrong. We’d spend hours (over nachos and margueritas) pep-talking one another into persevering. Then, one day, she and I were together and I realized that I had nothing to talk about. Just at that moment, nothing was scaring me, there was nothing to complain about – and I was at a loss. What would I talk about? I had nothing interesting going on.
“Nothing interesting going on.” That thought got my ATTENTION. Did I really believe that if there was nothing going wrong then there was nothing interesting happening? Then I began noticing that most of the conversations I heard revolved around some point of unhappiness; and if I began to talk about being happy (about things going right), the shift seemed to cause discomfort.
I believe it is profoundly important to catch and savor the happiness that quietly rests in the overwhelming majority of our moments. Just as an experiment, risk being a “Pollyanna,” and try watching for what is going right, what is at ease in your life. We miss so much of our happiness just because it is so ordinary.
Happiness is only elusive if we never notice it; and noticing requires breaking out of habitual perspectives that direct us to look for what isn’t right, what is missing or shameful.
Advertisers teach that we inhabit a life of lacking that can only be cured by acquisition. Mass-media offers relentless tales of enemies, imminent danger, and insurmountable odds. Our unthinking acceptance of these premises binds us to their perspective.
We are convinced we must be vigilant at the frontiers of possibility, watching for the threat forming on the horizon, reaching conclusions about what it all portends, and preparing our defenses and shelters. It would be dangerous to look away, to pay attention to anything else! It is a fear-filled mindset, full of misery and anxiety.
Exhausted by anxiety, I risked focusing on something other than the hitch, the rub, the lack, the blame, the shame, the wrongness of circumstances, persons, and possibilities.
There is a special world adjacent to us that we rarely consider. Without its presence, generosity and passion, our actual world would be pale, numb and empty. This world rarely draws attention to itself. It subsists in silence. Though the actual world owes it everything, it is never tempted to push it aside in order to emerge and claim the light for itself. Attention and exploration it never seems to encourage. Yet no thing, no form, no colour, no animal, plant, no ocean, star or human being could ever have emerged without the infinite fecundity, limitless creativity and unbounded generosity of that world. This is the world of possibility. * * * The facts of what we have lived stand out. We take them as given and real. Yet all these facts have issued from that huge adjacency of possibility, that neighbouring world that shimmers invisibly behind all that we take to be real.
John O’Donohue, The Poetics of Possibility (Dublin Centre for the Study of the Platonic Tradition, 2007)
When my gaze focuses on the things in my life that are going well, gratitude flowers and my confidence lifts. I’ve discovered that when gratitude and confidence are my companions, the invitation of possibility can be welcomed rather than feared.
With all that glorious possibility woven around and through a world where happiness is so ordinary as to be unnoticeable, why are we so blindly certain that only answers can lead us? And how can one not fall madly in love with the questions?
The Voyage is Discovery
We believe we need answers, conclusions about ourselves, our jobs, our relationships – about life-truth-god-death-love-and-reality – so we can create order, safety, happiness. But a brief moment’s reflection reveals that conclusions can be only fleeting before they decay into falsity. Circumstances are ever-changing. People and weather are unpredictable. Complete knowledge of facts and ramifications are beyond our reach.
There is so much more responsive liveliness in the questioning and wondering. It really is possible to live along the questions rather than by the answers.
Take a moment to ask yourself, what are you wishing? Is there a certainty, a conclusion, that you’ve taken for a solid obstacle to the quest for your wish’s fulfillment? What happens if you aren’t so certain of that conclusion? What then? Go ahead. Keep asking. Wonder. I dare you.