Earlier this week, one of the bartenders at my favorite watering hole remarked that I am always in a good mood. "Of course," I replied. Beyond the fact that I'm typically enjoying a cold pint when she sees me, and that I've more than likely just returned from a refreshing swim on one of several gorgeous beaches here in Maui, the fact of the matter is I always choose to be in a good mood, especially whenever I'm in public interacting with other folks. Note that I said I "choose" to be in a good mood. While she might have assumed my mood was a result of my great job, or the fact that I can head down for a pint at 4pm on a Thursday - the fact of the matter is while those details might make the act of happiness easier to obtain, I am a firm believer that happiness is something we create, not receive.
For many folks this doesn't seem to be the case. As a particularly good listener, I've been a shoulder to cry on or a stranger to vent to for numerous folks over the years. Perhaps it's because I generally avoid arguments, so even folks I don't necessarily agree with I'm still able to maintain a conversation with and see things from their perspective. Or perhaps the fact that I love striking up conversations with strangers at the bar puts me in a position to acquire more tales of woe. More than likely, that same positive energy the bartender was remarking on leads people to seek out what I have in the hopes of finding it for themselves. Whatever the case may be, there are a few things I've noticed over the years when it comes to the sadness and frustrations people lament in their lives.
Typically the causes of the majority of problems folks present to me fall into two categories - events and people. Events almost always exist in the past, and typically not even the recent past. It's pretty rare someone says "I'm currently going through this..." Often there is something that happened in the past, and for whatever reason they feel that it shifted their life into its current trajectory. This includes jobs they didn't get, break-ups they didn't see coming, financial problems that resulted in a loss of property or social standing, business deals gone awry or just plain bad luck. Many times in addition to the event itself, there is also a person who caused that event - and so often these two primary issues combine into a single cause for all that is wrong.
A few months back I was sitting at a bar, and an older woman beside me was putting back shots of tequila. On Maui you certainly see folks knocking back shots - but rarely in the "I'm trying to forget about my life" sorta fashion that you could tell she was partaking in. Try as I might to avoid conversation, tequila shots make folks pretty darn social, and so soon enough she was talking about how tough her life was. "Last week I sold my house and horses to my ex-husband. Can you believe that?" she lamented. I got the impression that in her divorce she got the home, but without the capacity to earn the income her former husband brought in, she was unable to keep up with payments. Not wanting her children to lose the spot, she had decided to sell it to him. "My ex-husband is such a dick," she continued. "He's getting married next month, and guess what, he's coming to Maui to do it! Can you believe that? My ex-husband is getting married here, and he knows I'm here. He just wants to hurt me," she slurred, ordering another round between various declarations of all the cruelty he'd unleashed on her. It was the ex-husband who took her home, it was the ex-husband who ruined her life, it was the ex-husband that had her drinking on a perfectly lovely sunny day in Maui.
Finally at one point I said "What's this man's name?"
"Andrew," she replied.
"Do me a favor," I asked. "From now on, just call him Andrew. You can't have an ex-husband. You either have a husband or you don't have a husband. You are either his wife, or you are not his wife. You can't be an ex-wife... you can not be in a state of non-being."
Suddenly there was a light in her eyes. It was as if a giant weight had been lifted from her shoulders. You could feel the ease sink into her soul - and it wasn't just the tequila anymore. "Thank you..." she said. She finished her last shot, and said she was going for a swim. I've seen her several times around the island since that day, and she's always happy to see me. I doubt she's sobered up, and I won't pretend her life was forever changed – but at least for that moment she escaped the torture that she herself was inflicting upon her life.
There are two types of people in this world, the folks you choose to be with and the folks you sorta have to be with. The folks you choose to be with would be friends and partners (boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands/wives). The folks you have less of a choice being around would be family members, co-workers, neighbors, and generally people you didn't choose to engage with, but for any number of reasons still have to interact with on a regular basis. The first group is one of the most important choices you have to make in life. Numerous studies have shown that we are the average of our five closest connections. Thus, the people we surround ourselves with shape our own character and personality. I have always sought out wonderfully passionate individuals and tried to avoid folks with "drama" as much as I can. I try to find folks smarter than myself (I know, tough, but somehow I manage) who are engaged in fields I know little about. I find this expands my appreciation of life, and pushes me to learn more. This isn't always the case for many of the people I meet. How many times have I heard a gal completely trashing her boyfriend. "He's lazy..." "He's unfaithful..." "He's not good around people..." Why on Earth would you spend that much time with someone you can't rave about? Beyond the fact that it must be embarrassing to constantly have to defend or explain the actions of your significant other – those characteristics inevitably start appearing in your own personality. If someone you spend a lot of time with has a short temper, those constant arguments will eventually shape the way you deal with every conversation, and suddenly you'll find that you too have very little patience for conflict in your life. While both positive and negative characteristics can be transferred, negative energy typically outweighs the positive when two personalities are merged. Even the best intentions of "I'll change him (or her) for the better..." rarely work out. If your friends are not inspiring and encouraging you at every turn – then end the friendship. I'd rather have a handful of positive acquaintances I hardly know than a crappy best friend.
The other group, folks you don't have much of a choice about being around, can be tougher to deal with or avoid. While bad co-workers should probably make you look for a new job, and a horrible neighbor or community might be good cause for relocation, those aren't always viable options. With these folks, I generally try to accept things for what they are, and do my best not to let emotions and opinions make the situation worse. If someone is particularly critical, then you needn't take their opinions to heart. Rather than engaging in an argument, make use of one of my favorite expressions - "Is that so?" I find folks don't work so hard to convince you of their opinion if you offer little opposition. The key is to watch your own ego, and realize you don't have to defend your beliefs to everyone. That's not to say you shouldn't speak up from time to time if the situation demands it – nor should you give in to unfair requests or abuse. But realizing not every battle needs to be fought, and that saying sorry doesn't mean you were wrong, can go a long way I've found. And at the end of the day, if I've upset someone without intention, it is true that I am sorry for them. I'm not being disingenuous to apologize, even though I know full well that I really didn't do anything.
One of the best techniques I've found, and this applies to just about every interaction in my life, is to recognize yourself in all living things. As I've spoken about on this blog before - I truly believe we are all one single intelligence – one life experiencing itself in an endless variety of ways. I am I – I am you – I am everything. At our core, we are all the same. However, an endless combination of nature and nurture forces, biological differences, DNA, cultural issues and countless other factors take that one universal life force, and shape it into the menagerie of life forms we witness. When I meet someone who is particularly unpleasant, I have no choice but to imagine what would have occurred to make me become that. I'm not looking to see what aspects of my personality exist within them – I'm looking to see what aspects of their personality exist within me and why I was able to overcome those. This goes beyond sympathy, and points rather to empathy. This doesn't make the personality any less unpleasant, nor suggest that you should engage in more time with this individual – but rather allows you to realize the pain others experience and how that manifests itself in how they see the world and experience others.
Your experience of life could be described as an individual sitting inside of a home, looking out their window. Some days it is going to be rainy and cold outside. Bad weather happens just as bad things occur. Some folks will say "man, it's a really crappy day..." Others, warm inside their beautiful home will simply witness what is occurring outside those windows but take comfort in their private abode and find something else to enjoy until the storm passes. For folks who haven't taken care of their home (their mind, in this thinly veiled metaphor) it doesn't often matter what the weather is like outside, it's still a crappy day. And when that rain falls, their roof leaks, and the heater is broken - and life really is a miserable experience for them. If you can clean that house and cultivate the beauty that is your inner-soul, you'll find that what's happening outside is almost entirely irrelevant.
In the end, you choose how your day is going to be. You choose who to engage with and the experiences to fill your time with. Blaming others or past events might help rationalize your current situation, but it certainly doesn't improve it. Only when we accept that we create everything in our lives and look to start making real improvements (cleaning the house) do we begin to create the happiness that others hope to find. You choose what things mean and you choose where life will take you. If it doesn't feel that way, then you're engaged in unconscious choices – but you're still choosing. As Henry Ford famously stated – "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you are correct." The choice is yours.
"If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."
- Wayne Dyer