Letting go can be difficult especially in the case of letting go of a loved one. Death, divorce, a move across the world, the end of a close friendship – these are things that cause us pain and it’s usually hard to see the positive side. And in some cases, there is no positive side.
But letting go can also be a joyful experience, particularly when we let go of things that no longer serve us.
I remember the day I decided to let go of worry. I knew in my gut that worrying didn’t prevent bad things from happening nor did it immunize me against the pain that accompanied an unfortunate event. But I come from a family of worriers who were incapable of saying goodbye without adding “Drive carefully -watch out for the other guy – call the minute you get home”. In fact my mother had the habit of calling to warn me about the dangers lurking in mall parking lots, microwave ovens, and “good samaritans” who might try to pull me over to tell me my brake light was out. Worrying was as second nature to me as drawing breath. But when I read a question in some random book asking to identify a single situation in which worry had a positive effect, I must admit I was stunned. I thought. And thought some more. I tried to make connections between being a responsible adult and worrying but I couldn’t get anything to stick.
I started paying attention to people who didn’t worry. It was a revelation. They seemed so light and carefree. Yet they were still responsible. They put on their seat belts, took their sick kids to the doctor, paid their bills, went on vacation. But they did those things without the constant voice in their heads warning them that their house might burn down while they were on a beach in Mexico, or that if they didn’t get their 5-year-old with the sore throat to the pediatrician he’d develop meningitis, and they’d have a full blown medical emergency on their hands.
How did I know these thoughts weren’t running through their heads? Because I asked them. I polled my friends, coworkers, and acquaintances about worrying. A few of them were world class worriers. But not the majority. Some of them admitted to a little fretting at night when they couldn’t sleep, some claimed not to worry much at all. When I started asking “but what if” questions, they shrugged. “Why worry about something I can’t control?” a good friend said. “It seems like such a waste of energy…”
How much energy had I wasted worrying? Too much – that was obvious. From trotting into my newborn’s room to make sure he was breathing whenever I woke at night to waiting up for my kids to get home from evenings out, I figure I put in a good twenty years. And that was just worrying about my kids. When I included worries about oral book reports in 6th grade, getting invited to the prom, my spouse, money, careers…..
Enough I told myself. And just like that, I quit.
It was so easy. All I needed to do was let go.
What makes you happy? Dark chocolate? Great shoes? A week in Paris? Okay, those are the easy ones – the low hanging fruit. But what are some of the less obvious things that bring you joy? Things that might be 20-50 on your list? Things you forget about?
I tend to forget about music. I’m not in the habit of listening to music at home or in the car. When I remember to turn on music, I always feel a rush of happiness and say to myself – I should do this more often. Then I forget. Again.
So I’ve decided to create a joy list. A simple list of things that bring me joy that I can easily look at and add to. This morning I’ve added the following things:
– breakfast parfaits (plain yogurt, granola, fresh fruit)
– eating outside
– an uncluttered handbag
– reading a mystery
– fresh oregano
Each of those items creates a positive feeling, yet they aren’t part of my routine and are easily forgotten. But if I write them down, then post the list in a place where I can see it everyday, hopefully I can add more moments of pleasure into my daily life.
I’m wondering how many things I can come up with. What if my list consisted of 100 things? Would that make my joy increase ten-fold? It just might. It’s certainly worth a try.
Don’t forget, what we pay attention to grows. So instead of focusing on the petty annoyances of life – traffic, junk mail, the milk carton with a single drop of milk someone put back in the fridge, I’m going to grow my joy list.
– orange flowers
– walking in the rain
– outdoor concerts
Maybe you should too.
A friend shared a brilliant idea with me. Occasionally when she has a day off and feels the need to get away she takes herself on a twelve hour vacation. She hits the road early enough to make it to her destination in time for breakfast. Then she finds a diner and treats herself to a leisurely meal as she reads the local newspaper and plans her day. She sits at the counter so she can talk to residents about the local attractions. It could be a museum, a historical site, a great hiking trail or a beach – doesn’t matter what – she’s there to explore and be a tourist. (Which means buying postcards.)
After several hours checking out the main attractions she finds a welcoming cafe where she can relax, write out her postcards, read for a bit, before she strolls through the downtown, does some window shopping and explores a couple of neighborhoods.
If she’s lucky she might find a concert in a park or a flea market or farmer’s market. With no set agenda she’s open to any and all possibilities. She makes it a point to have dinner at a local restaurant before she heads home.
She told me that the day never disappoints. There is always something interesting to see and friendly people to talk to. She loves coming home with a souvenir – a bag of peaches, a jar of jam, or – one time – a rescue puppy. Listening to her talk about these mini vacations makes me think she’d be an excellent person to travel with, but I know that her day trips are a solo pleasure.
One of my greatest joys is exploring new cities on foot. I’ve logged many miles walking through London, Paris, New York. But listening to my friend I realize that instead of waiting for the big trip that only happens once in a while, I can be a tourist in my own backyard. Living in Los Angeles it occurs to me that I could have days and days of 12 hour vacations without ever leaving the city. No baggage, no airport security, and I get to sleep in my own bed every night.
What a way to travel!
I love spring and as this is the first spring that I’ve been home in the past few years, I was determined to plant a garden. The thought of walking into the backyard to pick fresh tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, mint is exciting, and now that I have everything planted, I find myself obsessively checking my garden’s progress.
While this might not come as a big surprise to experienced gardeners, I’m amazed to see the little plants I’m watering and clucking over, grow and blossom. And I wonder, is it really that easy?
Sunshine, water, good soil, and a little daily attention seem like such a small price to pay for fresh food – throw in the added joy of watching it grow and it seems like an incredible bargain.
Here’s the thing. My garden is planted in a long planter on the side of the garage. For years I stared at the ugly planter, which was overgrown with weeds and thought that I should use it to grow vegetables. But I did nothing about it. Well, that’s not quite true. I actually thought about it a lot. But took no action. (Except for not liking myself for taking no action.)
You see where this is going, right?
Why is it so much easier to focus on the negative than to take a positive action?
Maybe it’s because we’re hard-wired to have a negative bias, which was crucial to our survival as a species. Or maybe it’s because negative thoughts are energy draining. Or maybe it’s because we’ve let negative thoughts become habits. Or all of the above.
All the time I spent hating the ugly planter made it harder to take action than if I had been able to look at it and think “what a perfect opportunity to start a garden!” Or if I had visualized myself picking ripe tomatoes and proudly serving them at dinner. Or if I had broken the task down into bite-sized pieces rather than getting overwhelmed by the whole process. Or if I had simply stopped procrastinating.
I always feel better when I take positive action. Always!! Yet I have to learn that lesson over and over. And that’s a big waste of time and energy.
So I’m figuring that if I give the lesson as much attention and care as I give my garden, by midsummer I should have a firmly rooted take-action positive mindset to go along with my ripe and juicy homegrown tomatoes. Pretty good harvest, don’t you think?
The first Monday of the New Year. I had a friend visiting whom I promised to drop off at the airport before going to work. We got up on time, got ready, loaded the car, then nothing. The car wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. Six-thirty in the morning, my stress was sky-high. A couple of phone calls later, a taxi was on its way to pick up my friend, AAA was on its way to jumpstart my car, and I was remembering to breathe.
“Smile,” my friend said as she cheerfully got in the cab. “Smile as much as you can today.”
The advice seemed strange but since my friend is wise, I took it to heart.
I smiled when the man arrived to jump my car. In fact, I made it a point to chat pleasantly and offered him coffee. He declined, but he couldn’t have been nicer. He advised me to stop at a gas station a couple miles away to get the battery tested. I pulled in noticing that the station wasn’t open yet. But someone was inside so I knocked on the door, grinning foolishly. The man who answered said the station wouldn’t open until 8:00. I felt a rush of anxiety as getting to work on time was not going to happen, but I smiled and said okay. He smiled back and told me to leave the car there and go to a cafe on the next block to wait. He promised to have the mechanic test my battery the minute he arrived, and advised me to order a cappuccino and relax. As I walked to the cafe I called work to say that I’d be late. I smiled as I left the message at the front desk.
It was surprisingly peaceful in the cafe, and I spent the unexpected half hour preparing for my day’s classes. At 8:20 I got the call that my car was ready. It was a beautiful San Francisco morning- clear blue sky, gentle wind. I enjoyed my walk to the station, thanked the man profusely for taking such good care of me, we smiled at each other like old friends, and I drove to work feeling peaceful and centered.
Walking in to my classroom nearly an hour late, my students were eager to know what had happened. I told them the story of my morning, and one girl asked why I was smiling if my car wouldn’t start and I was late for school. I told her of my friend’s advice.
I probably smiled more that day than I had in weeks. It required a conscious effort at first, but seemed to get easier as the day wore on.
It was a wonderful day.
My students brought it up often in the months that followed. “Remember the day your friend told you to smile?” they’d ask. I nodded, and they told me of their own experiments, grinning from ear to ear as they talked.
How easy it is to underestimate the power of a smile.
Sure, I felt joy on my wedding day. And I certainly felt it when I held my healthy newborn babies. I felt joy when something wonderful happened to me or someone I loved – my sister was nominated for a big journalism award!! -my dad got a hole in one!! – my kids got big fat envelopes from colleges!! But to tell you the truth, I’m pretty new to feeling joy in everyday life. Or maybe I’m just new to recognizing what joy feels like.
One afternoon, about five years ago, I was in the 6th grade classroom where I had been teaching for several years. As classrooms go, this was a beauty – brick walls, high peaked ceiling, old windows opening onto an inner courtyard, lots of colorful posters, and kids work covering every available space. While I always appreciated the space, as any teacher will agree, some days are better than others. On this particular afternoon the room was quietly humming with activity. The students were working on a big project and each small cluster of kids was engaged in some aspect of the work. They were clearly invested in what they were doing, quietly talking, sharing, helping each other out. They had little need for my help or attention, and it occurred to me that they had taken on full ownership of the work. I felt a warmth and peace envelope me like a favorite old sweater as I watched them. A feeling that I later recognized as joy.
Another afternoon I was lying on my son’s bed, both dogs at my feet, listening to him play the piano. I felt warm, comfortable, totally content as he played song after song and the dogs snoozed snoring in unison. There was nowhere else I wanted to be, nothing else I wanted to be doing, no way the experience could have improved. I felt that warmth, peace, and contentment again. I felt joy.
Once I recognized that feeling as joy, I began to be aware of it more often. And it turned out to be easy to find. I found joy walking home from work in snowy London; joy playing with my dog on the beach in San Francisco; joy in a family dinner eaten in the backyard; joy in a book, a skein of yarn, a crisp cucumber; joy in raucous celebrations and solitary moments.
Seems like joy is everywhere. I just needed to name the feeling.