I was listening to a talk by Dr. Christine Carter today. I’ve heard her speak before, and I read her blog, but she said something in this talk I’ve never heard or thought about before that really resonated with me.
She pointed out that being comfortable is a relatively new thing for human beings. For the most part, our ancestors led mostly uncomfortable lives by comparison to ours – long days of manual labor, the constant threat of disease, early death by our standards. Even creature comforts like a warm house, readily available food, and comfortable clothes were not something they could take for granted.
Pleasure was an occasional thing. Not the focus of every day and every activity for most people. Folks were much too busy just staying alive to make pleasure a priority. Certainly they found pleasure in life, but it wasn’t the focus or the expectation. Those who survived were those who could tolerate and survive physical adversity. Until relatively recently humans didn’t have the luxury of considering their mental health – about whether they were happy or comfortable or leading a meaningful life – they just lived. They got through each day doing what needed to be done to survive to the next.
In some countries, this is still true, as well as for the poorest in this country, to some degree. But for most humans living now, life is relatively easy in those terms – our basic physical needs have been met and in many cases, exceeded. Now we are free to spend our time and energy pursuing pleasure – and we’ve gotten very good at it. Sugary foods, mind-altering substances, shopping, the internet, gambling, TV, porn, etc. are all readily available.
The trouble is that we’ve confused pleasure with happiness. They are not the same thing, and we’ve lost sight of the distinction. We’ve become addicted to pleasure, but we’re unhappier than ever. We’re too comfortable and we’ve become complacent and dissatisfied because it takes more and more to meet our need for pleasure. The “high” wears off too quickly. It’s not the robust, sustaining happiness we really need and that we think we’re reaching for. Pleasure is merely a brain receptor thing, not a soul thing. It doesn’t feed us fully – quite literally, pleasure provides only empty calories.
This was quite a revelation to me this morning, let me tell you. It caused me to evaluate my perception of my situation with my mother yet again in these terms. I realized that some of the things I’m missing by devoting so much time and energy to her care are things that really only bring me short-term pleasure, not necessarily happiness, and that being without them for a time isn’t that big a deal.
Further, my anxiety stems from the fear of discomfort in this situation. I’m not comfortable having her rely on me for everything. I’m not comfortable going to the emergency room every few weeks. I’m not comfortable being unable to solve all her problems. I’m not comfortable having another person, especially her because of our history together, determine the course of my days. I’m uncomfortable spending so much time with her because I’ve always been uncomfortable with her.
Life is uncertain. Life with my mother is, and always has been, uncertain. This is something I’ve struggled with all my life – I am never safe from having to deal with her. She has always been ill, she has always been needy. She has always been a big source of discomfort. All of my life.
I survived, didn’t I? The discomfort hasn’t killed me to this point, and it won’t going forward. As Dr. Carter said in this talk, human beings have survived for millennia being uncomfortable. I can make it through a couple of months, or in this case, years. Being with her and taking care of her now is still the right thing to do, and the fact that it makes me uncomfortable doesn’t change that. Having less pleasure in my life makes it dull, but that won’t kill me, either. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger is a real thing – adversity helps us learn and grow as humans. It’s hard-wired.
Having said that, there are a couple of things that I’ve identified in the past couple of months as being necessary to my health and well-being – my long-term happiness – and mom and I are figuring out ways together to insure that I have time and energy for those things. So that is easing the discomfort to a great degree and has raised the pleasure quotient at the same time. It doesn’t remove the uncertainty, but that’s just the way it is. Life is uncertain for everyone, all the time. Even under the best of circumstances.
This too shall pass is true of all of life – the good and the bad. The pleasure and the discomfort. The trick is to be happy through all of it. In each moment joy is available to us, and if we reside there as much as possible, focus on what’s good, even joyful, in each moment, we tilt our brain scale toward happiness. That’s a lot easier to say than it is to do, but it’s worth a try every single day.
In another talk I heard yesterday, Geneen Roth said she tells her students to list everyday the 5 things that aren’t wrong. It made me laugh when I heard it, but it resonated with me because it’s related to gratitude, but it’s not as hard as gratitude. Sometimes I find it hard to feel grateful for really difficult things, really difficult days. Often I look back on those times and realize what I’ve gained from going through those uncomfortable experiences and then I am grateful, but in the moment, not so much.
But even when everything seems to be falling apart, there are things that aren’t wrong, that are still wonderful and helpful and beautiful – friends, pets, books, flowers, bicycling – and focusing on those things and knowing they’ll be available to us again at some point, is very comforting.
I may not always be able to list 5 things on any given day that I’m grateful for, but certainly I can think of 5 things – even really mundane things like the hot water heater is still working – that aren’t wrong. A shift in thinking is sometimes all it takes to turn things around even when you’re the most uncomfortable and feeling low.
So. I learned a lot this week, and that makes me happy.
I’m grateful without reservation for these and other teachers who offer their wisdom and insight to us daily. Thanks to the Awake Network and the Shambala Mountain Center who sponsored Mindful Living Week, I have been able to listen to these speakers and others for free. What a gift. Definitely tops the list everyday this week of things that aren’t wrong, and how appropriate during this time of new beginnings.