In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. Brother David Steindl-Rast

10 Aug

I am slowly learning to be happy, to stop grumbling, to accept the Cross of the everyday struggle.  I came home exhausted, suffering from cramps, sleep deprived, running from Parkway to expressway from arranging and preparing job interviews , jumping on the cross town bus to the uptown subway to go to a job I hate.  So this is how the internal monologue starts—“Oh Lord, I am so tired of the struggle. I asm so tired of bearing the Cross.  Why do I have to work so hard while other people stay home? Why did I quit a perfectly comfortable post in an overachieving suburban school to teach in the at-risk ghetto in the South Bronx? Why couldn’t I have a four-bedroom Victorian overlooking Pelham Bay? Why am I stuck with an unemployed husband and a spoiled stepson who couldn’t care if I lived or died?  Why can’t I be a renowned international correspondent with a lucrative book contract?  If only I – – – pooh pooh me. Woe woe woe.”  And on it goes.

And then I stop myself. I stop my pity party in its tracks.  This is acharistia or ungratefulness.  This is grumbling about the Cross.  I’m like those old Jewish women in in some joke who do a lot of bitching and complaining that nitpick everything on the menu.  I am not happy with anything.   It is a real struggle for me to be satisfied, content, and grateful, not bitching all the time.  It has always been my struggle—even when I had it good, in hindsight of course, I always found something to complain about.  Let’s be honest: if you look hard and long enough you can always find something to bitch about.  Always.

It’s a matter of perspective and changing heart.  Before when I was younger, I thought happiness was some mythic Eldorado that you had to search for and stay in hot pursuit of.  I trekked down many highways, scaled mountains, and perused complicated maps in search of the stuff.  I thought you had to look for happiness across continents like some buried box of treasure.  It was something out there, somewhere over the rainbow, under a 4-leaf clover; happiness was what happened to other people, never to you.  Unless you went after it in hot pursuit, it would escape through the tips of your fingers like so many tiny minnows.  I went looking for happiness by moving from one city to another, passing from one border into another.  But just when I thought I’d found it, it moved like the sun’s shadow; it encroached ever so quickly into another’s time zone, into another neighbor’s lawn, leapt up in another’s bosom, sprouted from another’s patch.

But  now that I have matured I’ve realized joy is not some elusive province in a far-away country, it lies within you.  It is buried deep in the confines of your soul’s closet.  It is not something you search for 1000s of miles away but like some burnished tin box you buried somewhere under your kitchen stove whose cover you brush off with your fingertips and see the brocade work.  And you open the box to find little toy soldiers from your childhood, a half-eaten candy bar, a photo of your first love, and a penny from 1942.

Happiness is something you have to work inwardly for.  Instead of grumbling because this two-year-old dumped a tube of yellow paint on the plants, smeared her hair and the dog with it and now I have to pick it up.  Instead of saying how tired, exhausted I am to have had a child so late in life, to thank God for the gift of a healthy, exuberant child, to thank God that I am still able to walk and work and be exhausted for everything in my life.  I get so caught up in wanting to live someone else’s life that I forget that I am living my own and that this is the only life I will know and live.  That my neighbor with the three kids and the huge house and the BMW convertible in the garage with a loving productive husband—that’s not my life.   Someone sent me an email once that went something like this—

A group of graduates, well established in their careers, were talking at a reunion and decided to go visit their old university professor, now retired. During their visit, the conversation turned to complaints about stress in their work and lives. Offering his guests hot chocolate, the professor went into the kitchen and returned with a large pot of hot chocolate and an assortment of cups – porcelain, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite – telling them to help themselves to the hot chocolate.

When they all had a cup of hot chocolate in hand, the professor said: “Notice that all the nice looking, expensive cups were taken, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress. The cup that you’re drinking from adds nothing to the quality of the hot chocolate. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was hot chocolate, not the cup; but you consciously went for the best cups… And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.

Now consider this: Life is the hot chocolate; your job, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain life. The cup you have does not define, nor change the quality of life you have. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the hot chocolate God has provided us. God makes the hot chocolate, man chooses the cups. The happiest people don’t have the best of everything. They just make the best of everything that they have. Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. And enjoy your hot chocolate.

I have to remind myself this everyday.  Not to look at the chips around the rim of the cup but to savor the life within.  Whether you drink out of a golden goblet or the plastic blue-and-white Greek coffee cup what matters is the stuff inside.  That is the elixir.  Lord, help me find joy in the everyday things, in the quotidian nuisances of picking up dog poo and toddler sneakers from behind the stove.  Let me find the crumbs of unexpected joy—the ones you find while walking across the street and hear a cardinal twitter above you, the unexpected joy of sneaking a swig of mint between your breasts so you smell fresh all day long.  The sneaky little happiness that wiggles on tiny mouse feet when you are sleeping on the couch watching an old version of Sanford and Son and you remember the match trap you made to get rid of the baby mouse when you were ten.

The Lord in His mercy has taught me a hard lesson.  You see, I’m the type of person who complains—a lot!  My entire life I have tried to find that mystical and mythical pot at the end of the rainbow—I have been searching for the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect school for my kids, I have been a restless soul always on the lookout for the next big thing.  No matter how many blessings the Lord has bestowed me with I have had cause to grumble.  Why can’t I be happily married?  Why can’t I live in a big house in the suburbs? Why oh why oh why?  Why can’t I have a well-paying respectable job? Why me?

In my thirst to better myself I have trekked around three continents, changed addresses 35 times, dreamed of paking my belongings and moving to jungles in Costa Rica or island villages in India.  I am absolutely nuts!  I have never been happy with what and where I was.  My daughter who has suffered through all my mad dashes to “get ahead” which have resulted in her changing elementary school four times before she got to middle school(changes that included a mid-transcontinental move to the Midwest and a transatlantic move to the Middle East) has summed up the matter for me very succinctly-“Mom, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you do, you will never be happy anywhere.”  She is absolutely right.  I am so restlessly unhappy I cannot find fulfillment anywhere.  I keep circumambulating the globe thinking I can find that place I yearn for where people are connected , where they share sympathy and apple pies along a long picnic table.  But this place doesn’t exist.  I used to think in the rosy glow of youthful idealism that I found that place; it was called Barcelona and the Costa Brava.  But then the man I had married at that time relapsed into drug addiction and I had to abandon a great job and a great apartment in a chi-chi section of that city to escape in the darkest midnight with a 5-month old baby swaddled in a hanging baby carrier under the threat of his killing me and denouncing me for kidnapping.  I lost everything in a matter of a couple of weeks.  Hell kind of blew up in the middle of what heaven I was concocting.

Now that I am older, the glasses are off and the stark reality of hard won experience has set in.  There is no heaven on earth.  A woman can travel the whole world over looking for something but in the end has to return home to find what was missing.

That “home” is the true heaven, the one we can only find through a close intimate connection to God.  Christ has taught my soul a deep lesson—that one thing I was looking for was Him.  No one can find peace without the only peace possible and necessary.  It is the peace that lies within.  Every attempt by human beings, however ideal and well-meaning, to create a communal utopia, a heaven on earth, has ended in delusion, disappointment, and worse, tyranny.  The closest I have seen to utopia is a monastery.  And that is because the focus of such a community is God.  “Our souls will not rest until they rest in Thee” St. Augustine remarked.  Our soul will not find fulfillment till it has established a home for the Holy Spirit within it.

Now that my life has become really brutal—now that I have come to grips with really a bitch of a boss, with real economic uncertainty, and real deprivation—I look back at my grumblings and want to kick myself in the butt.  How stupid! How foolish I was to confuse blessings for troubles.  How ungrateful! What an overbearing grumbling tiresome woman I must have sounded to the Lord.  No wonder He’s put me through “hell” to make me see how in all things I must glorify God.  Now when people ask me, “How are you? How’s your job? How’s your kids?”  I stop myself from complaining and say, “Doxa to Theo,”  “Glory to God, I am good.”  For now I have learned that it is not what troubles and persecutions you are put through that determine whether you have it “good” or whether you can have peace or not, but rather the spirit of holiness, of patience, and gratitude that makes you happy.”  The kingdom of heaven, the Lord has said, resides in you.  And in order to acquire heaven, peace, or “home,” I have had to learn to stand still.  I cannot move anymore.  I have neither the money nor the time and three children act as pretty good anchors.

I have been taught the hard way to seek the Lord quietly, methodically, patiently—like a bird watcher or one who wakes early to see the sunset creep and then explode in majesty before them.  Through my daily prayers, through the cycles of the seasons and feast days of the church, through my obedience to the counsels of my spiritual father (he warned me about moving to faraway places), I am learning to make heaven out of this plot of hell I am standing on at the moment.  And there is no heaven without listening to the voice of God, that whispers in the secret chambers of silence that curl into sinuous swirls of eternity like some Caribbean conch .  Only by learning to bless even the darkness of my pathetic, sin-filled life, only by learning to bless what I once cursed, can I find the heaven that exists in the everyday hell I live through.  “Be ardent in your labor and you will find God in your cooking pots,” St. Theresa of Avila said.

And I know the closer I come to the Lord, the more the spirit of peace I will acquire and the joy, that ineffable joy that I lost through the dark journey through Mordor and the valley of the shadow of death, that joy will return again. And I will with a joyous heart filled with peace cry out to the Lord for the whole gift that has been my life—“Doxa si Kyrie”—“Glory and thanks be to You oh Lord.  I am truly thankful.”

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