I recently ran across a story from Mary Pipher in her book “Writing to Change the World.” Visiting her dying grandmother, Mary Pipher asked if she had had a happy life. Her grandmother responded: “Mary, I don’t think of my life that way. I ask, ‘Have I made good use of my time and my talents? Is the world a better place because I have been here?’”
Reading her grandmother’s words was like reading the answer to a question I’d not quite formed and hadn’t yet asked. Her response stayed with me, and gave me an understanding of something I had not before been able to articulate.
All through my years of life-coach training, there was this underlying philosophy that if you did the “right” things and got yourself and your life “under control,” happiness awaited you. Happiness was set up on high like the holy grail of a successful life. I continue to see it all around me, this emphasis on happiness. As if it is some achievement we all can reach with the proper combination of actions and attitudes.
This insistence on happiness as life’s definitive goal and accomplishment has left me feeling uncertain and uncomfortable. It is a bit simplistic, superficial. It seems to leave a lot of people out. In our world, with so very much wrong, and so many people suffering, it doesn’t sit well with me that I should single-mindedly pursue happiness when someone else is single-mindedly pursuing survival.
Being happy is not a bad thing in and of itself. But I do not agree with it being the ultimate criteria for which to measure one’s life. On the other hand, the outlook of Mary Pipher’s grandmother sits very well with me. Her queries are a compass pointer, a guiding principle, to keep on the path forward. It is fertile ground from which I learn how to contribute to my family, my friends, and my community.
I want to be clear that with this idea of making a contribution, I am not talking about one person saving the entire planet. The seemingly small things we do on a daily basis are what add up over time to creating a meaningful difference. Simple actions and attitudes are how we connect with our world: other people, animals, even plants. Krista Tippett, in her podcast “On Being,” discusses the practice of “taking in the good.” Taking a look each day to witness the goodness of others, the goodness happening right in front of our eyes. Here a few items I’ve “taken in” recently:
It is tempting to overlook or brush aside these actions as inconsequential. But that would be a mistake. Taking a moment to note these simple acts has the capacity to change one’s perspective on that minute, on the world within reach. There is the possibility of greater connection to the beings - human, animal, plant - right there around us. That sense of community in turn creates a sense of safety and comfort. Of hope.
Jacqueline Denny, ACC, CHPC, LMT