Inspirational Lessons for a Joyful, Loving Life
Wisdom of the Ages
Prescriptions for Living
"This book is a continuation of the work I began when I became Bernie. It is a collection of stories about how to deal with life's difficulties. Most of the people in these stories have not had the great wake-up call; that is, they are mot facing life-threatening illnesses. So in a sense, this book is preventive medicine. It is a prescription for living that gives you effective and healthy ways of dealing with the adversity that occurs in everyone's life. I want to help you learn to accept your morality before something catastrophic brings you face-to-face with the end of your life."
-- From the Introduction
What happy people know that unhappy people don't
Our son Jeff lives a half mile from our home. I frequently stop at his house after my morning run or bike ride. We sit on stools in the kitchen and talk about life, both its practical and its philosophical sides. One morning not too long ago, we'd been chatting long enough for me to catch my breath when Jeff asked whether I was writing anything new.
I'm fortunate, I thought, to have a son who is interested in my work. "Yes," I told Jeff, "I'm writing a book about spirituality and how it helps us in difficult times."
"Well," he said, "you should call your book Holy Shit."
Walking home from Jeff's house, I thought about Rodney Dangerfield's line, "I don't get no respect." Rodney's complaint is a double negative, and if you think about it a minute and untangle the negatives, you'll see he is actually saying he does not get a lack of respect--so presumably he does get some respect. That seemed fitting to me, because sometimes what appears to be disrespectful ends up being very respectful. That is certainly true in our family, which has always done a lot of teasing. It isn't unusual for the children to remind me not to take myself too seriously, so I was not offended by Jeff's words. They had me thinking, though, and I remembered another time Jeff had offered an enlightening title for one of my books.
A few years earlier, in the same kitchen, he'd told me I should call my next book Out of My Mind. My reaction that morning had been to laugh at what I figured was his way of getting in a dig. Why not? He has a father who shaves his head, goes around telling jokes, acts like a child in airports, and writes books about love. But then I realized Jeff's Out of My Mind suggestion really was an excellent title. After all, what is there in our lives that doesn't come out of our minds? I've often said that our minds create our feelings. These feelings, depending on their nature, either take their toll on our bodies or help us to remain healthy. How well we deal with difficulties, the quality of our lives, our happiness or misery--it all is determined by what goes on in our minds.
So our son was right, I am out of my mind and that would be a good title. But Holy Shit? I thought that one over as I walked home. Yes, Jeff had done it again. Tossing off what sounded at first like an off-the-cuff insult, he'd summarized my message again. Life is holy shit. God may prefer the term "compost" but it amounts to the same thing. We all have our problems but those problems redirect us and teach us to grow. Our difficulties fertilize our lives. The enlightened individual--and the happy family--knows that possibilities grow out of problems. People who know how to be happy say, "Thank you, God, for the fertilizer," while the unhappy cry out, "Oh God, why us?"
As for me, I say, "Thank you God, for our wise son's respectful disrespect."
Tolstoy said that all happy families resemble each other, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Why is that? All families have problems. Happy families don't escape adversity, they just deal with it better. If they resemble each other, it is because there are only a few ways to be happy in the face of adversity. But there are many unhappy ways to respond to problems--enough that each unhappy family can find its own unique way of being miserable.
Novelists tend to be interested in the unhappy families and the choices they make, just like doctors tend to study patients who get sick and die. But there is more to learn from studying patients who don't die when you expect them to.
As a doctor, I studied survivors--people who got sick but exceeded expectations. Many of those exceptional patients had been given little time to live, yet they were some of the happiest people I'd ever met. They knew, or they discovered through their illness, which became their teacher, that if you want to be happy, you must answer some key questions. What are you here for? And how do you want to spend your limited time? If your answer is that you are here to love, to serve others and not to be served, then you already have everything you need to be happy. If you wake up in the morning, that's enough, you are grateful for life and the opportunity to contribute in your way.
In happy families, loving means accepting. Robert Frost said that home is the place where they always have to take you in. Grandparents know this. A loving family accepts each member as he or she is--even accepts the anger of those who don't feel loved. This can be difficult and it is why I don't recommend having children until you are sixty.
Acceptance won't make the problems go away, and it won't prevent other problems--nothing can do that. As long as your family exists, it will have problems; that's the nature of life and love. Many of your problems will involve your family because you feel safe and can be open and honest with one another.
While you cannot avoid difficulties, you can choose how to deal with them. You can hope that troublesome family members will change and the problems they are causing will go away. You can try to persuade them of the need for change and end up creating a fine story line for a novelist. Or you can accept them the way they are and choose to love. I have learned you can be devoted to changing someone, or devoted to someone. The latter works better.