At this time of year, when so many people are celebrating Thanksgiving, it’s a good opportunity for us to pause and think about what we have to be thankful for in our lives. Now please don’t say Yuk! – I know what I just said might sound like a truism, but very often it’s the most obvious things that are the easiest to forget.
According to the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, there are eight pillars of joy. And, if we try to stick to them, our lives will be so much more … well, yes, you got it. Joyful. Of course it’s one of those easier said than done things. But worth a try.
I’m no expert on this, but I do actually try to reflect on the eight pillars at times when I’m feeling particularly down. Or, even worse, when I’m in one of those dreaded Why Me? moods. You know the kind of mood I mean? When you want to shake your fist at the sky, just in case You-Know-Who is up there listening, and yell: Why ME, for f…k’s sake? Why don’t you pick on someone ELSE for a change?
When my first marriage broke up, and, twenty-one years later my second marriage followed suit, I did a lot of that internal fist-shaking and yelling. (Normally I’m of a very polite and respectful British disposition – I blame the over-emotional lapses on my fiery Slavonic genes.) I suppose you can’t really blame me for feeling just a little pissed off. But when, about two years ago, a very kind person took pity on me and gave me a copy of The Book of Joy, I started reading it and, after a period of reflection, started trying to put things in perspective. Which is the first pillar of joy.
But watch out here! I can tell you straight away that this Buddhist-style thinking does NOT work on days when the pain in your heart is so raw, it literally feels like the proverbial knife is cutting away at your insides. It’s only when you manage to calm down, at least a little bit, that you can start ruminating about each of those precious pillars. Because if you handle them right, they really are precious.
Okay, let’s take a look at each one.
- Perspective. So you think you’ve got it bad? Your long-term relationship has broken down? You now live alone? The future looks bleak? You worry that in a few years’ time the remains of you and your dog will be found in a mouldy, putrid pile in your abandoned house? Perspective, my friend! All you have to do is switch on the TV and listen to the latest news headlines. You’d rather be in war-torn Syria, would you? Where marital relations and the prospect of dying alone are the least thing on anyone’s mind?
- Humility. How dare you think that your own peculiar problems are worthy of such special consideration? If the God you’re not sure you believe in has apparently ignored all your shrieks of why me? thus far, perhaps it’s because he’s been too busy dealing with other, far more urgent, cases. Just waiting for you to calm down and bloody well show some self-respect and humility.
- Humour. If you don’t laugh at yourself from time to time, and don’t see the funny side in unwanted situations that life has a habit of throwing at you, then what’s the alternative? Wallow in misery till the day you die, hoping it will be quite soon, please? My earlier blog posts about the demise of my marriage were full of black humour; it was my form of therapy. What is life without laughter?
- Acceptance. This is going to sound like another truism, but basically, there are some things you can change, and some things you can’t. Agreed? So the obvious advice here is to get off your backside and do something about the things you can change, then sit back and relax over a cup of coffee while you reflect on the things you can’t change. Some of them will just never come your way – whether it’s being mega-successful, famous, beautiful, having the perfect partner, children … whatever. Fighting against the cards you were dealt at your conception is only going to make you grow old and bitter before your time.
- Forgiveness. If we all went around life never forgiving anyone, the world would be a pretty grim place to live in, don’t you think? I internally ranted for months after the break-up of both my marriages. You know the type of internal ranting I mean? – all those demented rages in your head when you’re out walking the dog or doing the shopping or washing the dishes or whatever. How COULD you!? And ANOTHER thing … The wise biblical adage: let he who is without sin is very welcome here.
- Gratitude. I try to dwell on this pillar a lot while out walking my Mad Belgian Malinois every morning and evening. It’s easy to get carried away with all that’s wrong with your life, and it’s certainly true that some of us have worse luck than others. But surely everyone has at least something to be grateful for? Unless they’re on the brink of suicide, I suppose, in which case all eight pillars of joy by that stage will have been inverted into pits of hell. But let’s not go down that road.
- Compassion. There’s an old homeless guy I often bump into on my dog walks, shuffling along with his knapsack on his stooped back and muttering away unintelligibly to himself. Lately I’ve started smiling at him and looking him directly in the eye. One of these days I’m determined to say something nice to him. He’s an obvious case for compassion. But sometimes it’s the less obvious people who need it, perhaps even those closest to you, and you just haven’t been noticing their needs. That’s what Hubby No 2 said to me, when it was too late.
- Generosity – this is another easier said than done. If you’re unemployed or in debt and scraping to make ends meet for you and your family (you should watch the amazing Ken Loach film, Sorry We Missed You, to find out about making ends meet) then yes, generosity is a bit on the theoretical rather than practical side. But there are other types of generosity, and – here we go again, prepare for another truism -generosity of spirit is probably the most precious one of all.
So, can you see how all eight pillars kind of loop together in the end, just like DNA? Some of my examples might be obvious, but very often life is about the obvious rather than the arcane. I mean, come on, we’re all searching for happiness, aren’t we? Isn’t that everyone’s ultimate goal, regardless of the different roads we travel along on the way? Is there anyone out there who actually strives to be unhappy? As in: Hey, God, thanks for all the good things in my life, but could you please just take a few of them away so that I can suffer a bit more? Does anyone actually wish that? Well okay, maybe if you’re a martyr by nature, but…
I suppose my Thanksgiving message to anyone reading this post is that if we pause to give thanks and reflect on the eight pillars of joy on a regular basis, not just on special days of the year, then our frantic search for happiness will gradually, bit by bit, become a little less onerous. Never mind if you keep getting it wrong while doing all that searching. Just remember the old adage: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!