Mary Beth Writes

(I preached this sermon at my church, United Unitarian Universalist, in Waukesha. 3/3/2019)

...

 

One day a young Buddhist on her journey to find True Happiness, came to the banks of a wide river. Staring at the great obstacle in front of her, she pondered and pondered how to cross such a wide and mighty barrier.

  Just as she was about to give up, she saw a Great Teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yelled over to the Teacher, "Oh Wise One, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?”

 The Teacher thought, thought some more, looked up and down the river and finally yelled back, "You are on the other side of the river!"

A few months ago, I was reading some random Internet essay by a guy who was writing about his life. His early life and early adulthood had been difficult, and he had lived most of his life with crippling depression and self-doubt. A crisis happened to him. He started meeting with a therapist. He started taking anti-depressants. He practiced changing some of his responses to stress in his life.

Then one afternoon he realized something was wrong. Something was going on in his stomach that seemed to fill his torso. It didn’t hurt, but it was a symptom he didn’t recognize, and he wondered if his medications were messing with his digestive system.

An hour later, he stopped in his tracks.

He realized the feeling was happiness.  He was happy - and had not recognized the feeling.

Reading this stopped me in my tracks. I laughed but it also made me emotional.  Many of us have become so used to how we always feel that we have forgotten that waterfall sensation of happiness - that physical sensation of being completely and repletely at home in our own skin.  Those moments when the heavy things we carry lift for a while, when the sun comes out and the lights turn on and we remember that we are mortal beings here for just a short while -- and that part of the deal of being alive … is being happy.

We have spent so much time and energy trying to get to the other side of the river – we forgot that we ARE on the other side. Now.

..

I remember lots of happy moments in my life. As a kid when my beloved dog Sheba got lost – but then came back home (and later had puppies). Hiking the woods and fields and country roads where I grew up. Receiving acceptance letters to publish essays I wrote. The night my brother came home from Vietnam. Lots of moments with Len and our kids.

You know those moments and days. You realize you can get yourself another cat; you don’t have to ask permission. You can have friends your mother wouldn’t approve of (like Unitarians!) You wake up in the morning and it is SUNNY and NOT SNOWING!

But we get so used to our life we forget to look for it. Why do we pursue so many things other than happiness?  Why will we spend three weeks researching a new refrigerator, and yet not spend 20 minutes figuring out what to do that will make us genuinely engaged, happy, and tickled to be alive?

So what is happiness? Well, first of all, happiness is chemicals doing a 2-step in our brain.

Neurochemicals called endorphins are produced in the brain's hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Endorphins are structurally like morphine; they activate opioid receptors in the brain that bring feelings of medium well-being to “Wowzers that’s so cool!” Endorphins dance along reward circuits paths related to such lovely activities as eating, drinking, sex, and those nurturing feelings that bloom when you see your kids, other peoples’ kids, and all the animals you like best. Ask any of us about, say, our favorite cats or dogs and chances are our endorphins will flood and we will grin and tell you far more stories than you really wanted to hear.

Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard University, has worked to understand how human networks work; how we affect each other.

His team followed nearly 5000 people over 20 years to discover this. People who are happy infect others with happiness also.  Happiness spans separation – if you go for a walk and stop to say hi to people along the way - perhaps neighbors who are getting into or out of the car – their happiness will affect you and your happiness will affect them.  You can literally make your neighborhood a safer place to live by walking around in it, smiling when appropriate, and engaging in a little pleasant conversation.

Maybe this coming summer our congregation should adopt the spiritual practice of – everybody going for a walk every evening and saying hi to people we meet.

The study also indicated that when one person in a network becomes happy, that person’s friend, sibling, spouse or next-door neighbor will become 8-34 percent happier! The effect continues through three degrees of separation. So if your out-of-state kid calls in the morning, in a good mood, that will increase your happiness. Later you talk to your neighbor, she is pleasant to the check-out person at the grocery store and he will be a bit more polite and helpful to a random customer later in the day.  Maybe that 4th connection is you – and you are delighted at the helpfulness of the kind clerk. We are interconnected this way.

Unhappiness also appears to be catching, but not as strongly. Also, while having friends is important for a person's happiness, the benefit appears to be canceled out if they are unhappy.

As anyone who has parented teenagers can tell you.

….

So happiness is a thing. It is powerful. We can catch it or share it. What’s going on in me WILL affect what’s going on in you.

If we want to journey (the Unitarian Universalist theme for March is Journey) to happiness, what should we do?

Let’s start with this observation, which another scientist named Dan Gilbert describes on YouTube. (By the way, if you want to learn more about moods and minds, go to Ted Talks and search for happiness. There are a dozens of them!)

What do you think would make you happier? To win a million dollars or to suffer a terrible accident and become paraplegic?

What kind of a mean and stupid question is this? 

Gilbert surveys individuals’ lives after extremely good or awful fortunes – and he brings us a surprising truth about happiness. A million dollars or the rest of your life in a wheelchair – there will be BIG differences in the first months after these occurrences – but as time goes along –by about a year later -you will be approximately as happy as you were before the money or the accident.

Despite the way so many of us organize our lives, there is very little evidence that having more stuff will make us happier. If you and the people you consider your family have a secure place to live and enough to eat - your happiness quotient won’t change much with added materials goods or a changed destiny. 

There are TWO kinds of happinesses. We know this intuitively, but it is interesting to consider it.

There is the happiness of getting exactly what you want.  When I was a kid my family often shopped on Friday nights in downtown Muskegon, Michigan. Good times…. There was a year when my sister and brother, 7 and 5 years older than me, told me they had seen a three-foot-tall pink stuffed poodle toy and they thought about whether I would like it for Christmas - I LOVED stuffed animals. I was agitated beyond belief that they had seen such a cool toy, told me about it,  BUT HAD NOT BOUGHT IT FOR ME!  I mourned that lost giant pink poodle.  My heart was slain with grief.  I’m laughing, but even now, describing this, my soul roils.

Christmas morning, I woke first and walked down the hall to the living room. There, under the tree, was that amazing pink poodle. They had been teasing me that whole time. I burst into tears because it wasn’t a loss, the poodle was here, now, in my life.

I felt pretty much the same the night Len and I decided to get married.  Who knew one could get what one exactly wanted?

The other kind of happiness is subtler. We don’t get what we want, or we lose someone, or circumstances take away instead of adding to our lives. Our beloved lover says they no longer want to be our other. Our kid breaks our heart. The brand-new car gets a big scratch the first week we own it. (That was me.) The fabulous job doesn’t come through.

This is where humans are fabulous and dear. Most of us get on with getting on. We suffer through the loss and grief, frustration and weariness - but we keep moving. We slowly make our peace around the loss – like a tree in the forest that grows a burl around the thing that hurts.

My Dad died young, leaving me and my then 46-year old mom with a world of loss. It was several years later. ((My sister and brother were already young adults out of the house.) My mom felt badly that she could no longer “give me big vacations”, so she proposed that she and I do a 1-day car trip a hundred miles up the road to Traverse City, and then back home.

That day we stopped three or four times to eat. Lunch at one place. Candy bars when we bought gas. Cherry pie with ice cream in Traverse City. Dairy Queen late afternoon for chocolate dipped cones. We were laughing at how poorly we ate. Because this was the 70's there was, of course, no air-conditioning in the hot car. The chocolate coating on that last DQ started melting off my mom’s cones as she drove. She tried to lick fast, then faster, she couldn’t keep up. She started to laugh, chocolate fell into her lap, and the wind from the open windows blew paper napkins everywhere.

50 years later and that is still one of my favorite memories of my mom. We laughed so hard we were crying into our ice cream. I had that day a vulnerable, easy-going, girlfriends’ kind of relationship with my mom - I would never had known if my dad had stayed alive. Relationship grew out of the loss of relationship. Unsuspected happiness grew from bottomless loss.

..

We deal with loss and sadness for short or long periods of time, but we don’t have to stay there forever - as many of you know.  Many of us have come from difficult stories, big losses, and struggling situations. And yet we find ways to revel in the moment we are in, the people around us, the animals we live with and care for, memories that are sweet and the hope of spring and daffodils. This capacity and determination to live forward is so amazingly human.  It is a triumph of spirituality, wresting happiness from disappointment and loss. Connection to others is a path to happiness.  

College students were given $20 bills and told they could either give the money away or spend it on themselves – and then researchers did MRI’s to see what happened in their brains. The happiness corner of the brain lit when they gave the money away. And not only did donating the money increase their happiness - a month later, when the students recalled giving away the money, their happiness increased just with the memory.

There is a neural pathway between connection, generosity, and happiness. Obviously, there are edges and boundaries to pay attention to – don’t give away your supper, but maybe share it with someone.

As wise humans have always told us. If you are riddled with unhappiness – find a way to give to others.

 A Zen master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

The old wise one returned from his day and caught the thief.

“You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my warm clothes and coat as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

The wise one sat shivering in his hut, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

….

 The other path to happiness is creativity.

Some of you have will have read “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronouced Mi-ha-i Cheek-sent-me-high-e)

Csikszentmihalyi was born in the 1930’s in Hungary, the 3rd son of a career diplomat.  His father wouldn’t cooperate with Mussolini’s government, so he resigned from his career and went to work in a restaurant. Two older brothers were killed, one in the Russian siege of Budapest near the end of WWII, the other in a Siberian labor camp.

Mihaly heard Carl Jung speak when he was still young. That led him into the study of psychology and eventually into the science and philosophy of happiness and creativity.  

He wrote: "The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." 

He became fascinated by what he called the “flow” state, in which a person is completely immersed in an activity with intense focus. He came to the conclusion that happiness comes from within oneself. He noted that the act of being deeply involved in a project seemed more important than the finished work itself.

There was an experiment where he gave beepers to dozens of college students. He would make their beepers go off at random times; the students then had to rate their own happiness in a diary they kept for that purpose.

The clear results were that the students were most happy when they were deep into projects, into studying. It wasn’t traditional “fun activities” that made them happiest. It was being lost in concentration.

When we are frazzled and unhappy, distracted or frustrated –– there are two paths to happiness

One is to connect to others and, as much as we are able, to help them. Be generous. Join activities that make our community and our world safer and better.

The other is to seek activities, projects and tasks where you lose track of time.  Sometimes this happens when we create art. Other times it happens when we pull weeds, read, study, spend time outside, nurture others. 

We are different, but we all have things to do where we lose our track of time, we lose our sense of being divided from the thing we are trying to do. We will experience happiness.

One day a young Buddhist on his journey to find True Happiness came to the banks of a wide river. Staring at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered how to cross such a wide barrier.

  Just as he was about to give up, he saw a Great Teacher on the other side of the river. He yelled over to her, "Oh Wise One, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?”

 She yelled back, "You are on the other side of the river!"

 

…...........

You Tube video. Dan Gilbert, teaches psychology at Harvard.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4q1dgn_C0AU

 

One of the articles I read in prep for this sermon:

https://www.edge.org/conversation/nicholas_a_christakis-james_fowler-soc...

 

Comments

I believe that the universe brings us what we need when we need it. This comes at a time when I needed to read this. So, thank you for writing it.

Thank you for this:) Peace be with you, Kathryn

I was on my Mental Health Day after a trying day yesterday with George. After lunch I went to the St. Vincent down the street and while in the book section I was thinking how nice it would be if they had a copy of "The Glass Castle"a book I've wanted to read since seeing the author in interviews. I got to the end of the roll where the guy who puts out music & books has a his picks section and there sat the book for.98. (Happiness) That sent my brain to a piece on the CBS Nightly News about a bored young girl at a nursing with her mother who works there... The girl decided to kill time by visiting all of the residents and ask a simple question "If you could have three things what would it be??" She figured that the answer would be a car or lots of money.(She would be wrong) She heard things like chocolate pie, Vienna sausages, candy...stuff like that. She took notes and room numbers and decided that she could grant those wishes so she bought the items on the list and gave the residents what they had asked for. What she received from the residents was hugs, kisses, and many a heartfelt thank you for remembering us... It made her so happy that she started a Go Fund Me page to pay for the stuff that she gives there people. She delivered that chocolate pie... I was crying happy tiers by the time it was over for this amazing girl, the residents and the Mother & Father that raised this wonderful child, And she made me happy knowing that she's out there changing lives.

I saw that same segment and was as moved as you were. I'd had just been writing this sermon that day and - BINGO - she got it!

There is a young woman in Racine who's family attends the flying saucer church where Michael is the organists... She was home schooled until she told her mother that she needed to go to regular school. She's in a art class taking photography.Mom and family volunteer at Halo the homeless shelter here... The daughter decided that it would be a nice thing to do to take family portraits of the families staying at the shelter... Now this is probably the furthest thing from these peoples minds considering the circumstances they are dealing with. The residents thought it was a great idea and have been having their portraits done. I saw some of the portraits at a showing at her house, they were wonderful and made me happy inside.... Mom works at the church and decided that the church needed to do some outreach to the community so she started a monthly sit down dinner for anyone willing to attend regardless of income ( I have attended ) They set it up like a restaurant with someone greeting you at the door and then someone in the lobby taking your name and number of your party... Someone comes and gets you and takes you to your table while Michael ( My ex ) plays background music... The tables have white fabric table cloths, fresh flowers and candles and seat six. The youngsters offer you something to drink and your waitress introduces herself and tells you what is on the menu that evening. You have the same waitress for your entire stay... When asked why this format I was told that there are several places serving food to the needy in a cafeteria setting and that's fine... What she wanted to do was to make the people feel special and pampered and it's working. ( People are getting all dressed up for this thing ) The smiles on the peoples faces as they are thanked for coming and handed a goody bag as they leave are priceless...

I'm reading this in late June, but was wondering about the restaurant mentioned above. Can any visitors come? When and where? Do they take donations, or how do they manage financially? Do they have openings for volunteers? Thanks!

Hi. I don't know but here is their address. You could call to ask. Good Luck! https://spaceshipchurch.org/

A phone call was canceled this morning so I get to read some online stuff I've been saving to read. Yay! I like seeing the intersection of people I know (you & Nicholas), especially when they go well together. I'm curious about JOY. I see happiness as fleeting, joy as deep. Happiness as wrought by circumstance, joy as coming from within. What do you think about the difference?

You are probably going to laugh, but then you were raised in "women as second tier humans" religions also - so here's my take on Joy. I don't trust it! It was too often presented as a characteristic of Godly women who didn't care about anything except being subservient and calling their denigration "Joy". It's too spiritual and too likely to backfire. I'd rather be happy today and see how tomorrow goes... I totally agree I bring a lot of baggage to this...

I don't trust joy either. I grew up being told that the catholic religion my parents tried forcing on me would bring me joy. Instead it taught me that I was an abomination and somehow unworthy of being loved and that the feelings I was having even then were wrong and would get me a place in Hell. ( Not quite my idea of joy ) I was beaten as a child for not meeting expectations. ( still no joy ) Then after asking the powers that be that if the feelings I was having were how I should be I needed a sign... A few weeks later my Mother was crying and telling my Father that she couldn't be pregnant because she was too old... I looked at her and said it's a girl and she's going to be mine. Happiness!! ( It was the sign I needed ) The day Angela came home was a school day and I ran from the bus stop and beat everyone to the house, looked at this amazing little body in the crib and claimed her as mine. I was the happiest 12yr. old Gay boy in the world, and at 66 she's never brought me joy but the Happiness she has brought to my life is immeasurable...

This is one of the best things I have read in a long time. Your insights into the human condition resonate with my experience. We apparently grew up in the same part of Michigan -- I grew up in GR but my parents were both born in Muskegon and we used to go there every week to visit my grandparents. There were many trips to downtown Muskegon, often to a restaurant where we ate hot dogs and that had those little jukeboxes in each booth. For really special occasions, there was a fancy ice cream parlor. And one of the department stores was where I met my first Santa Claus. This sermon brought to mind a happy time when my girl friends and I were in our pre-driving teen years. A section of the interstate was almost ready to open, but had not yet done so and we got onto it and and rode our bikes for miles and miles. It was a free, joyful, and pleasurable summer eve and it makes me happy just to recall it.

Hardy Herpolsheimer's! My Mom bought her Singer sewing machine there. And I just looked and there are on-line sites about that store. Do you remember Kresge's and their pet dep't? All those poor little caged birds. I bought a tiny turtle there, it didn't live long.

I loved kresge's pet dept... We had one within walking distance at the west end of Elmwood Plaza and I would buy turtles and parakeets there... I also liked the small toys section... It was usually full of middle aged white women who worked there and would follow us around thinking that we were shoplifting ( racial profiling ) we were brown without parents supervising us so we were suspect. Even as little kids we knew this so it's how we entertained ourselves for most of the summer... They had a front and a back door so we could come in one way and out the other... The big anchor store there was also entertaining because it was two floors that we knew like the back of our hands and we'd have security chasing us all over the place... Thanks for bringing back those Happy childhood memories :)

This is great! Would have loved to hear in person. Happiness or rather what makes us happy changes with different aspects of our life. Enjoyed reading very much

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Where & What is Beauty?

This was this last Sunday’s service in the United Unitarian Universalist congregation in my town.  This was entirely written by five of us - the “United We Writers.” I told friends that I would post this on my website. The service was wonderfully received.

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The photo is of the sanctuary of Grace United Methodist in Chicago. It's the church in which Len and I met and then married. We happened to be driving by earlier this year on a Sunday morning. They were voting that day on what to do with their building. I took this single picture with my phone, capturing the affection we all feel for our friends and fellow-journeyers in our congregations. 

...

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