I’ll bet I’m not alone in wishing I was a little richer and a little more famous than I find myself right now. (A few pounds lighter, too!) I try to catch these wishes just as they arise in my mind and return to the moment I’m in.
I've learned this in kindergarten, and I've learned it on mediation retreats. But in between, I lose it.
Intellectually I know that being rich and famous is, for many, a hell-realm. Emotionally, I’m not there yet. I’m working at it. Teaching kindergarten helps.
The curse of riches and fame
I am certain that you’ve heard of the richest and most famous person I know. He sends me a Christmas card each year.
I don’t know him that well. He would not pick me out of the crowd in a restaurant, but I would recognize him. I would walk over and tell him my name. He would instantly know who I am. He’d be cordial and welcome me to his table.
Years ago, he was an ordinary person like me. He came to my house spent the night here with me and my wife. We talked a lot. We fed him, gave him a place to sleep on the floor, and the next morning made him some coffee and took him out to breakfast. He was just starting out. He had burning ambition, business acumen, confidence, drive, faith, and talent. He soon found fame and fortune in a field where most would be delighted to scratch out a meager living. The synergy of celebrity and wealth took over and he became the Barry Bonds of his field. If I told you what he does, you’d instantly know who he is. But this isn’t a quiz or a contest. I don’t want you to guess.
Have you gone nuts?
The reason I’m saying all this is to remind myself not to aspire to wealth and fame. Or ask my kids to. Yo, Ted, Elizabeth! Hello! I really mean this!
“What?” you might ask. "Have you gone nuts? You don't want your kids to grow up rich and famous?"
That's right. I simply want them to be happy. I wish instead, that they (and I) simply aspire to the happiness of being “good enough.”
Being rich and famous won’t bring me closer to happiness. My famous friend is also among the most unhappy people I know. (I must admit here that I am not absolutely certain he’s as miserable and lonely as I imagine him to be—I don’t know him that well—but the opprobrium he’s earned would make it difficult to come to any other conclusion. And I'm not saying he'd be happier if he were poor and obscure. Simply that wealth and fame are not happiness indexes.)
It can be a matter of life and death
I just read an article on this subject in January/February 2008 issue of UTNE magazine called “Have an Average Day.” It presents research done by Lyndon Duke who did a linguistic analysis of suicide notes looking for clues that might help people predict and prevent teen suicides. Duke concluded that what drives people to despair is “the curse of exceptionality.” Most of us aren’t exceptional. We’re regular. But if we try to be exceptional, we will begin to feel like failures.
To quote the Utne article,
“When everyone is trying to be exceptional, nearly everyone fails ... and those few who do succeed feel isolated and estranged from their peers. We’re left with a world in which a few people feel envied, misunderstood, and alone, while thousands of others feel like failures for not being good, special, rich, or happy enough.”
So, how can I find happiness? Through accepting myself and taking small steps to help those at hand.
Let's look in the wisdom taught to preschoolers: Acceptance.
"I like you just the way you are."
Mr. Rogers—remember him?— was such a treasure (a hero to me, but an ordinary man to himself). One of his main messages was “I like you just the way you are.” He expressed approval for people just as they are, not for what they might accomplish later. It was a message he got from his maternal grandfather, Grandfather McFeeley. (How sad that so many children would hear this message only on television! How much better from a living, breathing, human being, the way it did for Fred Rogers when he was a little boy.)
Or review what I've learned on adult retreats: help those around you.
Zen Master Suzuki Roshi asked his students “To shine one corner of the world—just one corner. If you shine one corner, then the people around you will feel better. You will always feel as if you were carrying an umbrella to protect people from heat or rain.”
So in 2008, I hope I can shine a little self acceptance my way. I would like to remember I'm good enough. A good enough parent. A good enough spouse. A good enough neighbor.
To be good enough to be good enough.
So I’m gonna go out there, and have an average day—what the heck?—an average year.
That's my New Year's resolution, Part 1.
Tomorrow, Part 2.