Citizen, Human

How are we to live?

How does one find joy in troubled times? How are we to live, when existential threats such as a pandemic virus disrupt our day-to-day activities and curtail our ability to enjoy our favorite activities?  How do we keep going when an unknown, hard-to-quantify threat to our health lurks in the shadows?

Some words from C.S. Lewis have surfaced that, despite being written in 1948 regarding a different existential threat, are inspiring to read:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

As Brad Feld noted on his blog, one could easily rewrite that last paragraph to apply to us now:

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by a virus, let that virus when it comes find us doing sensible and human things, but with social distancing in the near term to slow it down—working from home, teaching remotely, reading, listening to music on our stereos, bathing the children, exercising at home, chatting to our friends over a video conference—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about viruses. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Human, Leadership, Marketer

Puzzles

When your brain is fully engaged in a challenging puzzle, the rest of the world can fade away.

It could be a pencil and paper puzzle, like a cryptic crossword clue or “who owns the zebra” logic puzzle. It could be the situational puzzles that come up in complex board games, like how am I going to get the most points from these three moves, or which sequence of cards can I play to win on this turn. Or it could be work puzzles, like how to structure a fluid organization, hire and fire the right people, and what processes to put in place to get the most efficiency out your employees.

Whatever the challenge, fully grabbing your brain’s attention and finding flow is enough to melt away the worries, the stress, the what-if’s, and other chatter that can occupy thinking bandwidth and negatively affect your mood. Even if a temporary respite, it’s better at bringing joy than any drug could be.

Father, Human, Marketer

Savoring the announcement

When you have really great news that you want to share with everyone, you’re just bursting at the seams to get it out into the world. They’re engaged! He got the job! She got her acceptance letter! We’re expecting! Whatever it is, you probably want to blast it out to the world all at once and bask in everyone’s congratulations.

But there’s a calm before the storm. It’s a brief period for us to sit back and enjoy that emotion of triumph. Call it “congratulating ourselves first.” It’s a moment of reflection that’s worth taking, both to acknowledge the big win while also staying humble as we remember all the steps leading up to this point.

Once you start taking the victory lap — and yes, you deserve that victory lap of friends’ adulation and positive energy — it becomes more about the news itself than about you. So make sure to claim that joy quietly before the parade starts.

Friend, Human

The unexpected death of a friend

Of course there’s not much joy in death, especially an abrupt passing that gives no one time to prepare. Grief and mourning are natural and necessary. No one ever said a joyful life wouldn’t have moments of sadness, moments of outrage, and moments of despair. We each go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and at our own pace. That cycle is needed to get back to joy.

And there is joy, hiding behind those clouds. We celebrate our friend’s life. We see how the gap created from the friend’s sudden passing starts to affect those of us left behind. We feel our friend’s communities draw closer together. We are reminded of how precious our lives and friends are. We strive to think better, to do better, to be better, in our friend’s name.

It’s like little sparks of goodness, created from the friend’s transition, are now fanning out into the world and land on people to nudge them a little closer towards happiness and bringing joy into the world. (Fans of The Good Place will recognize this idea.)

Find those sparks and cherish them, and look for them in the darkness.

Fan, Father, Human

The relief of bad news

Nobody likes getting bad news. But sometimes bad news is a relief, because it’s not worse news. And bad news gives us an opportunity to count our blessings.

Your pre-teen wakes you up in the middle of the night because he’s feeling sick, and then vomits. But he made it to the bathroom toilet — five years ago, that would have been on the carpet. Ten years ago that would have been all over his crib. This is an improvement!

You take him to the doctor and find out he has strep throat. That’s bad news… but it’s great news, because that means antibiotics can cure him. And, it’s not the flu, which would have taken him out for much longer… messing up weekend plans and quarantining the house, not to mention probably getting the rest of the family sick.

There’s often a counterpoint that turns “regular” bad news into good news, without being disingenuous. Favorite team didn’t advance in the playoffs? Now you can enjoy the playoffs without worrying about your team winning… or just reclaim the time you would have spent watching. Work project didn’t go as planned? Cut your losses, learn what went wrong, and make plans for next time. Didn’t get the job/date/part/promotion/win you were aiming for? You know there will be other opportunities down the road, and with that experience under your belt you’ll be even more ready for them.

The song, written by Eric Idle, was taken from the controversial 1979 film The Life of Brian - which was banned in Norway and Ireland

Cynics may decry this look-on-the-bright-side attitude as a foolish kind of forced optimism. But consider the alternatives. Complain? Curse the world? Silently suffer? Spend your time worrying what will go wrong next? Throw a tantrum? Bemoan your luck? Become paralyzed with indecision on how to react?Some mourning for What Can Not Be may be called for, but then you have to move forward.

So make the best of it, and seek those hidden pockets of joy. It’s how we survive and press on to the next challenge. We don’t have to find a silver lining on every dark cloud. But, wouldn’t it’d be foolish to stand in the rain with a closed umbrella?

Friend, Human

Gifts

Both giving and receiving gifts are paradoxical activities. On the surface, they’re signs of generosity and gratitude. However, forced-gift-giving events (birthdays, Christmas exchanges, house warmings) can be troublesome.

When you’re the giver, you have the time pressure of buying something before the event combined with showing that you give a damn.  That adds a lot of unwanted pressure to your life and a chance to miscommunicate.

When you’re receiving the gifts, you don’t want to inflict that same pressure on your friends. Many of us have so much crap in our house already that adding more things just means more targets for a KonMari sparks-no-joy cleansing down the road. Invitations for birthday parties occasionally state “no presents except your presence” as a way to remove that pressure.

But sometimes. Sometimes, you receive a gift, and it’s so thoughtful, or above and beyond what you were expecting, that it warms your heart. And sometimes, you find the perfect gift, and the look of joy once the present is opened is immensely satisfying. Both are enough to make up for all the gift cards and useless tchotchkes cluttering your space.

Here’s to giving and receiving more of those joy-creating gifts.

Human

Joy is not all ponies and rainbows

The last two posts make it sound like choosing happiness is easy – just a matter of programming ourselves to always do so. Let’s be realistic, and not buy completely into the hype.

First of all, many people are playing life on “hard mode,” as they fight chemical dependencies, depression, or other neurological illnesses. Those require more than a personal choice. They require professional treatment, sustainable management, and the joyful support of friends. The choice is often to recognize and accept those requirements, and to take action.

Secondly, while we can reprogram our lizard brains with some success, it’s not a panacea for all emotional reactions. We get annoyed, we anger, we feel helpless, we worry, we mourn. That’s as it should be.

Finally, it’s hard. We’re not only fighting evolution, we’re fighting our own learned habits. We are constantly tempted to enjoy the short-term “joy” of recreational complaining, of vengeance, of being the victim, of blaming others. (The Internet is built on those instant dopamine hits.) It’s the easy path with a quick reward, but one that sets us on a programmed path for long-term unhappiness.

Optimism is not the opposite of realism. We can expect the best while preparing for the worst. We can seek joy in hard work. We can look for happiness in the face of suffering.

Finding joy can be hard. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.