I’m wise to think that happiness comes from inside myself and not from outside. Happiness, if we are fortunate enough to be happy, is part of who we are and not what we have now or might have in the future. Looking to the future for our happiness makes happiness a very fleeting feeling, and what happens if we never get that “something to make me happy” thing? Will I then be unhappy? No, for me happiness is built inside me. It’s part of who I am. I realized this today when I was looking in the mirror. I thought I looked terrible. I was unhappy with how my hair looked although it was the same as it is every day. I saw an unattractive guy looking back at me. I was internally UNHAPPY. But then I realized that yesterday I looked at the same guy in the mirror, at the same time of the day, and I was thinking that I was looking terrific. I was happy to be the guy in the mirror on that day, unlike today where I was not too happy about being me. It was at that moment I realized that the mirror saw me as exactly the same on both days. My mood, and my attitude was the difference. My happiness had nothing to do with how I looked. It had nothing to do with anything on the outside but did have to do with everything on the inside. If your happiness comes from outside yourself it can be lost, or taken away. That seems like a precarious way to live. If it emanates from within, it is mine, always mine, and I can have it for as long as I have my awareness.
Yesterday was #67. My birthdays have come in all sizes and shapes. One of my first, which I still have the video of, was in apartment 6J on Burnett Street. It was the 1950’s and my parents had their friends and their friends’ kids there. A party in our small apartment, with cake, birthday hats and what looks today like very odd clothing. (Do you remember that day, Lloyd?) I never imagined at that time what lay in store for me in those next 66 years. While I try to live in the moment, when I do look back, I cannot believe the things I have done, been through, experienced, and felt. I’ve loved, been loved, am still loved, and for this I am so grateful. I share my life with Pat, someone who if I created the perfect person to be with would be her. I share my life with children and grandchildren, who give me love and joy to the fullest measure, and who give me so much, that I only pray I can give back to them what they give to me. And I share my life with friends, from all the corners of my life, who have seen me through trials and tribulations I never imagined I would go through, as well as sharing all the goodness my life has been.
For this I have the highest amount of gratitude.
I watched a movie last night called “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russel Crowe. He played a math genius, John Nash, who was suffering from schizophrenia. He would see people that didn’t exist and for much of his life he didn’t realize that these people, so important to him, actually were figments of his imagination. Some were positive influences like a best friend named Charlie, and his adorable young niece, who John felt he had a close relationship with. They were supportive, and loving. Another fictitious character was a CIA agent who pushed John in directions that made him act totally paranoid, and made it so he could not live a normal life. How John Nash coped with his illness was what made this story so incredible and for me something I can relate to.
After a few years of John living his life with these false characters, his wife finally figured out that her brilliant husband was living in a world of his own. He was not functioning properly, as a professor at Princeton, as a father or as a husband. She had no choice but to have him institutionalized. This took place in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, so part of his treatment was brain shocks and very mind-numbing medications. After being released he no longer had the fantasies but was unable to function. He went back to interacting with the fantasy people and acting as if they were real. His wife realized that John needed to be reinstitutionalized, but instead of going back into the hospital and being committed probably for the rest of his life John had a better idea. He asked his wife if she would support him as he tries to live his life alongside these characters, who he knows to be fictitious, and would be there forever. She agreed, and so he would live his daily life with these fantasy people trying to influence him, as they did in the past, but this time he would ignore them, hoping that as time went on, they would affect him less and less.
And that is exactly what happened.
They were always there, in his vision and in his mind. Constantly speaking to him, they would implore him to react to them as if they were real. But he was strong enough to ignore them. He actually went so far as to tell each one goodbye, and then he never spoke to them again. This worked. He went back to teaching at Princeton and years later actually won a Nobel Prize for Economics. While accepting the prize, he visualized these fictitious people sitting there, in the audience, but was able to ignore them, knowing they were not real.
After watching this film, and absorbing this true story of a man who lived with insanity every day, but whose mind was strong enough to ignore the negative, I realized that this is similar to something that I do. I’ve learned a long time ago that my thoughts are not under my control. Thoughts just pop up in our heads much like John Nash’s fantasies. Our thoughts tell us we are not good enough, or successful enough, or make us worry about some future problem that might never happen. Think of how often our mind has thoughts. They never stop. But if we realize that these thoughts are not real, not in this moment, then we can ignore the emotional reaction they elicit and not “feel” badly. This is what I do every day to keep myself happy. Not only to find my happiness, but to be able, as John Nash did, to control my negative reactions to things that are not real. My reactions to thoughts which reflect the past or future, is truly a form of insanity. Why do I suffer over and over again for things that might have happened to me decades ago? An example might be that in a previous relationship someone did me wrong and it hurt me deeply. When something occurs in my life similar to the past an emotional switch goes off, and I perceive in the present that this is happening again. Then I feel the pain from the past. As if today was the past and not the present. But it’s not the past, and I am not the same person from the past who felt that way. Yet the reaction is the same as when I first felt that pain years ago. Meditation teaches me to be aware of my thoughts as they are nothing more than random thoughts, and not truths.
Much like John Nash, I can now be aware that while I cannot control my thoughts as they pop into my mind, I can control my reaction to them.
He “knew” that what he was seeing, and feeling was not real so he ignored them and it didn’t affect him as much anymore. Meditation teaches me to be mindful (aware) of my thoughts, and to realize the untrue nature of the thoughts and the emotional reaction that might follow. Now, for the most part, I am spared a negative emotional reaction that might make me upset, anxious, and unhappy.
I have learned from all this that the beauty of our minds is not that we have thoughts, which so often are negative, continuous, and ego driven. The beauty is that we can be aware of all this happening, and this awareness will allow us to ignore the false, the negative, and the ego driven part of our mind which is truly NOT who we are. What is left is love, gratitude, and compassion. This is what makes our mind beautiful.
My Unnatural Life with my Mother
I once listened to a meditation where the leader was saying that we should find that warm, comfortable, safe place you have stored in your memory. The place where you felt you were good, loved, safe and felt the warmth of the light. He gave suggestions about where to find this in our past and the first suggestion was to think of your mother, and what she gave to you. It’s reflective of the natural course of events that a mother will unconditionally love their child, give warmth, love, support, safety and strength to their child. However, the words of this meditation leader didn’t resonate with me. He was not speaking of my mother, or my relationship with her.
For as long as I can remember I was anxious, and worried about pleasing my mother. As a child I always believed that her happiness was my responsibility. I needed to please her all the time. To do or act the way she thought I should. I never saw her as an ally or asset. I never got strength from her. She was never someone to turn to when I had one of the many normal problems of a child growing up. My father felt this way as well. He was dedicated to making my mother happy. I had no allies. I only had myself. For others in my family it was much worse. One of my brothers was tormented by my mom. He was unable to make her happy or give her what she needed so she was more negative towards him than to me. I realized something was missing in my life during my middle years and got help. With great therapists I figured it all out and this led to self-awareness that has made me someone who is able to give love. I’m still a loner on many levels, but I enjoy close relationships with family, and friends, and most importantly with myself.
We all learn how to BE from our parents and mostly our mothers. I am okay today because of my mother, but not because she taught me to be this way but because I learned from her what not to do in relationships, and how not to act to my family and friends. In a Buddhist group that I attended one time I asked, “How can I get along with people in my life that hurt me?” The teacher said that I should thank them for the lessons I am learning from them such as how to tolerate pain from others and realize through the pain I’m feeling from them that I am learning how not to act to others. This great lesson helped me get along with my mother for the rest of her life. Because of how my mother treated me and as I watched, how she treated the others in my life, I was able to learn from her how not to be, and I became a better father, husband, brother and friend.
In this unnatural way of growing up, with the pain I have felt through the years from my mother, and as I watched her hurt so many people close to me, and as she goes towards her final resting place, I can say thank you mom for making me the man I am today. It’s an unnatural path to take in finding gratitude for my mother.
I write this to myself to help me find closure and with the idea that this is something she will never know or could ever understand.
I’m sitting here listening to the shallow rhythmic breathing of my mom. We are waiting for the ambulance to come to take her home. That realization has the ring of going home to Portofino Place but also of going to her eternal home. Very soon my mom will be going home.
This kind of understanding took a while to sink in. She came to the hospital 2 weeks ago and we never thought the end was so close. We never had a reason to think that. But now finally it is sinking in. When the gastro doctor said she cannot eat anymore without a feeding tube the truth didn’t sink in. When her team of doctors said that I need to speak with the hospice team it didn’t sink in. When I asked the doctor what she can eat when she gets home, he said anything she wants. It doesn’t matter he told me. Just let her be comfortable and as happy as possible. For some reason it just sunk in. She hasn’t stopped sleeping since I got here. When she wakes up for a few seconds it’s unclear what she is saying. Reality has sunk in.
I’m sad that soon I won’t have a parent. Even her being the protagonist she always was, it will be odd to live in a world without her. She was the protagonist of so many people. I think Ron will miss her the most. She beat him up daily and yet he is taking it the hardest since his life will change the most.
My thoughts go back to the death of my father, being in the hospital and having so little to do with the decisions and I think I was detached from the emotional pain of it. I am thinking of that a lot the last few days. I wonder why it was like that. Dad had Harriet to make the decisions. No one ever asked me what I thought. Now I, being the healthcare proxy, am asked so many questions and yet for some reason I know to confer with my brothers and with Ron to keep them involved. It’s not because I need their input but because they need to have input. I get it. With my mom’s impending end upon us, this will be a time we all remember as a time of sadness, of course, but also of having so much support while being part of a large family. Positivism came from that because we all went through this together.
I suppose the reality of mom’s condition is written all over my face. Dr. Cheuk just came into the room to sit with me and talk. She gave words of encouragement and deep respect for our family. She told me that mom’s kidney creatine level is higher than it should be so she can’t take the blood thinner for the blood clot she has in her leg. She asked if that’s okay. Another decision. She asked when she gets home and gets sick will we be bringing her to the hospital. Another decision. The doctors at Huntington Hospital are extremely caring. She just sat quietly with me for quite a few minutes, silently, and then slowly stood up. We hugged, I thanked her, and she left. I will always appreciate those moments with Dr. Cheuk.
This realization is clear. The end is approaching.
I’M NOT THE SAME PERSON I USED TO BE, OR EVEN THE PERSON I ALWAYS HOPED TO BE.
I’M NOT AS STRONG, OR AGILE, OR QUICK WITTED; NOR ACCOMPLISHED AS I HOPED TO BE.
AND I DON’T HAVE THE SAME PHYSICAL PRESENCE THAT I ONCE HAD.
BUT YOU’LL HEAR NO COMPLAINTS FROM ME.
AND THAT’S BECAUSE I LIVE IN THE MOMENT.
AND I’VE NEVER HAD A MOMENT AS WONDERFUL AS THIS ONE.
I HAVE NO FEAR. NO UNREALIZED GOALS. I’VE BEEN MORE THAN FORTUNATE.
I MIGHT NOT BE AS SHARP AS I USED TO BE. MY MEMORY NOT AS CLEAR AS IT USED TO BE.
BUT MY UNDERSTANDING IS SO FAR GREATER THAN IT EVER WAS OR I EVER HOPED IT WOULD BE.
CLOUDY OR SUNNY, THE LIGHT SHINES BRIGHTER EVER DAY.
THERE’S NOTHING I NEED. NOTHING I WANT.
THIS MOMENT, AS THE ONE BEFORE IT AND THE NEXT ONE FOLLOWING IS THE GREATEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Strength to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The Serenity Prayer was written by an American theologist, Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr and then made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, and other self-help groups many years ago. The poignancy of its simple message makes it a mantra for many of those in recovery and helps when things feel tough and out of control. It’s the strength to draw upon when strength is needed. It’s the understanding they receive when they don’t know why things are so difficult. It’s a great perspective to use when change is needed but so difficult to achieve.
The discovery of this simple prayer has changed my life.
Serenity is defined as the state of being calm or serene. It’s the state of being that I ascribe to as often as possible. For me, happiness lives in that state of being. It is in the moment that you feel that way. If you are calm or just plain happy, it can only be NOW that you feel that way. The future hasn’t come yet and the past is behind us. So, if I can feel serenity and I am living in the moment, then for me that is the clearest perspective I can have.
So why do I find these simple words so powerful?
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” I say this to myself, repeatedly, when I am full of anxiety, and suffering emotionally over something that is beyond my control. Too often I get an automatic negative emotional response to something happening to me. I never decided to let it bother me. It just comes over me like a wave, and for that moment encompasses me. I find this line, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, is a prayer unto itself. We all need to accept the things we cannot change. These are the things that by their nature have nothing to do with us. They come from outside ourselves. I don’t use God as the focus, but solely myself. I ask myself to accept the things I cannot change. However, if praying to God works then that’s great. I get relief from most negative emotional states by just saying these words.
The rest of the Serenity Prayer leads me on a path to make the changes in my life which I desire. Unless you are living a perfect life, a person needs change to make improvements. It takes courage to make changes. Courage to change the things I can, reminds me to look within myself for the courage, and gives me the understanding that it might not be easy but it is doable. It is easy to leave things as they are. Working towards change gives me the hope that one day I will get to where I want to be.
I know that if I can develop the wisdom to know the difference between what I can and cannot change then I will be happy.
By Pat DePalo Jablon
Here is a simple toast, for a very simple man.
Who lives his life daily, following a very simple plan.
He lives his life in the moment, For today is all he sees,
Never dwelling on what was, never worrying what might be.
He is simply always happy, Always calm, an inner peace like zen,
And if something goes wrong, it won’t be long, before it’s a good day once again.
This simple man truly enjoys, the simple pleasures that life brings,
Kicking back with a beer, riding his bike, the simple strumming of guitar strings.
This simple man is always grateful, says he has everything he needs and more,
Good friends-good health-good fortune, and a family that he adores.
This simple man is my husband, and for that I am very glad.
And if I can quote this man it would go like this,
“Today, this day, is the best day I have ever had.”
My son Eric just finished graduate school. After more than seven years of college, and after starting at the ripe old age of 22, he achieved his lofty goal and received his master’s degree in special education. His accomplishment is huge being that he was never a student who found it easy to study, and in his previous educational endeavors he was not very successful. He changed the paradigm within which he lived and went on to success. He proved that change is possible if you want it bad enough. My joy and pride for his accomplishments well up from within me whenever I think of it. But this essay is only partially about Eric. It’s also about people and the basic commonality we all share.
I found myself outside Queens College in a crowd of people, waiting for Eric to arrive, (some things never change) and while feeling the excitement of the approaching event I noticed something even more profound. I noticed the incredible diversity of the hundreds of graduates and family members surrounding me. They all spoke so many languages, were of so many skin colors, and yet they all had something in common. Something that was so pervasive, throughout this environment. They all just glowed. Where else can you be and find so many people together in one place who are all just so happy, proud, and excited, celebrating an accomplishment for themselves or someone close to them. It was a universal feeling of joy. I didn’t see any negativity anywhere. And then at that moment a truth became evident to me.
What I was witnessing was not just a happy time for those involved, but a universal sharing of joy, between people whose origins are as diverse as a bed of many different beautiful flowers, and who for that moment in time forgot their daily trials and tribulations, and just basked in their happiness. Within the diversity of people from all over the world I was witnessing America at its best. This was not what I see on TV most nights. There was no anger or fear between races and populations of strangers like we see on CNN. No talk of philosophical political differences being stressed more than the similarities we all share. It was just a sharing of happiness. “Can I take a picture of you all together?” “What was your major?” “That’s an interesting dress you are wearing.” Everyone was interacting, smiling, and making eye contact.
There is a dichotomy within all people. Our daily routines are stressful, and this stress translates into anxiety, fear, feeling of separation and general negativity which sometimes make us unhappy. We fear the future, and lament the past. It’s not who we are, but it is how we think. The other side of our minds is our TRUE selves. It’s the understanding of human universality, and not division. It’s the interaction between people through love, and not fear. Our true selves filter out all the bullshit which tells us we are different from each other.
I was witnessing hundreds of people being their TRUE SELVES all at once, and all together. It reminded me not of the dichotomy of what we are, but the reality of what we can be. It was a hopeful and invigorating experience. Thank you Eric and congratulations on your wonderful achievement.