I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking “Once X is over, I can be happy,” for varying values of X. Once my kids are a little older and more independent. Once I get rid of my chronic pain. Once my Mum’s dementia is diagnosed and managed. Once my Dad’s cancer is under control. Once this term is over. Once I get this marking done. Once the weather is better. Once my allergies sort themselves out. Once I finish this latest onerous task in a long list of onerous tasks.
It has finally dawned on me that I am indefinitely postponing my happiness, and making a lifetime habit of stress. Today on facebook I saw a friend’s newly created “meditation space”. In it, she had framed this quote: “The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now.” It struck me how incredibly apt that was, so I googled the quote and found the full version:
“Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.” Robert Green Ingersoll.
It doesn’t roll quite so trippingly off the tongue, but in its entirety it is profoundly poignant. Here and now is all we can be sure of. Five minutes from now anything could have happened, but right here, right now, we are alive. We have friends. We have loved ones. And whatever frustration and trauma we are experiencing, or more often predicting and hence dreading, we are here. Alive, vibrant, loved, and loving.
It’s so easy to get caught up in a state of perpetual stress and panic. Too much to do, things moving too fast, and, especially pointless, too much to fear. Things that might happen. Traumas that tomorrow might bring. People who might give us trouble. Pain that might result from our actions.
So often, these things don’t come to pass, yet a roaring river of moments rushes by unnoticed, because we are so busy being churned up by our expectations of things that never happen.
Mindfulness is a great way to pull yourself back to the present moment, but sometimes mindfulness is pretty difficult to access. Even when you know it’s worthwhile. Even when you know how much it helps you. Sometimes you just don’t feel like there is time or energy for it.
That’s where the last part of the quote is almost miraculous. “The way to be happy is to make others so.”
I know of no better way to get your head out of your own… troubles… than to focus on alleviating someone else’s. To care about someone else. To make the time to wonder how someone else is doing, and how you might improve their day.
Recently I had cause to wander through the city of Melbourne with my two gorgeous girls, one at a time, a week apart. The first time was with my newly minted 11 year old, who saw a vendor of The Big Issue and insisted I stop to buy a copy. I commented that I had wondered whether to wait until I saw my usual vendor, Gordon, and she said “Just buy one while you see it, Mum!” The time to be happy is now, indeed. This particular vendor could not speak clearly, not manipulate his copies of the magazine with his fingers. I asked him for change and he gestured towards his money bag. I hesitated, not wanting to take liberties, and it was my daughter who knew what to do, who quietly took charge and sorted the situation.
A week later, as I walked past a different vendor with my 7 year old I noticed that it was a new issue of the magazine, just as my 7 year old nudged me expectantly, and pointed towards the vendor. It was clear to her that it was time to buy a Big Issue, because she knows that’s what you do. The place to be happy is here.
Today I was home with that same 7 year old, who was mildly unwell. She oscillated between being pretty miserable, and wanting to play. I spent the day half heartedly trying to work, while actually feeling pretty tired and miserable myself, until I gave in to her pleading, and we sat down and played Connect 4. I applied myself to trying very hard not to win too fast, and quickly found that she was far more astute than I gave her credit for. I actually needed to concentrate, and once, as I was smugly preparing a “learning experience” for her, she won before I realised I was under threat. We both spent much of the game laughing and complimenting each other’s sneakiness. There were giggles, high fives, and a great sense of companionship. I felt better than I had all day.
I hadn’t wanted to play Connect 4. I wanted to read, or work, or do other solitary but oh-so-virtuous pursuits. In making her happy, I wound up much happier myself.
Here and now I am alive. Loved. Loving. Fulfilled. And here and now is all there is. I must remember that, next time I am stressing about there and then.