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Entry Seventeen, October 25, 1997

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My Thoughts on Why Joy and Resilience Are Part of My Life

I have been thinking about the questions raised last week. As I mentioned in my last entry, I was particularly intrigued by the question on my personal resilience and happiness. (At least, that is how I interpreted the question). I have much to say on this point.

I do consider myself a very happy and very resilient person. I also get a lot of feedback on these qualities. I feel that I have at least a little bit of a handle on this. Many of us have struggled with profoundly painful, life-disrupting situations and events. I think one of the gifts of those events is that they can boil life down to its bare essentials. What is important in my life? What isn't? I've recently read an incredible book by Rachel Naomi Remen, called Kitchen Table Wisdom - Stories that Heal. This is a "must-read." There is a wonderful little vignette about "The Cookie" that states my feelings better than I can. A cancer patient says that all his life, he believed that happiness was having the "cookie." It might be the degree, the house, the new job, the promotion. It could be anything. The problem was that once you have "the cookie," it might be eaten, it might start to crumble, and so does the elusive happiness. His young son is even experiencing this, in his childlike way. And if you can keep the cookie, well, you worry about it, or anxiously guard it. So happiness is always out of reach. In this very moving story, the cancer patient realized that just being alive is the cookie.

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I've always read about the epiphany "ah-ha" experiences that terminally ill patients have, in which they realize that just being alive is so incredibly wonderful and precious. Being alive, and sharing your life with people you love is something to be celebrated and cherished. I am really glad these people have these experiences. I also have always thought that I don't want to be at the end of my life to be able to realize it. I'd rather be clear about this while I still have most of my life ahead of me!

So, I think the biggest aspect of my personal happiness is simply that I feel really happy to be alive. I think that carries me through disappointments and difficulties. For me, the bottom line is that I have another day of life, and I have people in my life whom I love, who love me. I think my painful experiences forced me to wake up, to open my eyes and truly see what I have. I have life. How can I keep from being joyful? I find personal meaning in being able to just experience my life as fully as I can. It may sound funny, but this mind set even helps me when I am in pain with a migraine. To be very honest with you, I often wish that some of my friends could open their eyes and see that they have life, and that they are so blessed, just like I am. Another "must-read" is End the Struggle and Dance With Life: How to Build Yourself Up When the World Gets You Down by Susan Jeffers. This is an outstanding book. She discusses opening our eyes, and seeing what we really have. She discusses the fact that all of our lives are filled with such pain, and disappointment, and also love, and abundance, that it is a matter of focus and mindfulness. I know that I can become really miserable if I focus on the negative aspects of my life. And I can feel so incredibly lucky if I focus on the positive. Our lives are so complex. I do believe that focus is a key. She also discusses practicing gratitude, which is another essential part of my own happiness.

Along a similar vein, I have found that joy lies in the present moment, no matter what I have or don't have, no matter what is going on. It is here, and it is now. As much as I want children (and I want them desperately) I know that children are not going to make me happy. Joy is now. Peace is now, no matter what my circumstances are. Another indispensable book is Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, who describes this eloquently.

Besides being clear that just being alive is a great cause for joy, that sharing my life with those I love is what is most important to me, besides seeking to be awake and mindful of the joy that is in the present moment, and besides practicing gratitude, there are other things that have contributed to my own happiness and buoyancy.

I personally don't know how I would have survived if it had not been for the support I have in my life. I am a "people person" so I invest a lot of energy and time into my relationships. And I have so much love and support that comes back to me. I am very, very fortunate to have the most wonderful husband, friends, and sisters in the world. From what I read, having a good support network is vital for good physical health, as well as good emotional health! I believe it. I also know from experience that being able to freely and honestly express emotion is absolutely essential. There was a time in my life when my basic strategy was to do my darndest to outrun my feelings. I bet I don't have to tell you that this is not a healthy strategy! I think the only way through grief, especially, is to be able to square off with everything we are feeling, and express it as much as we need to. I have wonderful caring friends, and my "paper" journals, to confide in. And I do confide in them!

I find that community service, giving love to those who need love, gives me a sense of meaning and purpose. I read that volunteer work has actually been studied, and found to be another component of good physical and emotional health! It certainly means a lot to me.

I personally have found a lot of stability, peace, and meaningfulness in feeling connected to something bigger than myself. I also have friends that have found this true for themselves as they participated in Twelve-Step programs, or in their Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian, Evangelical Christian, Buddhist (my aunt by marriage), Hindu (a close friend), New Age, Mainline Protestant, Quaker, or other spiritual practices. I think that connectedness to something greater than oneself is a highly individual journey, and I also think that it can be a journey of great joy and meaningfulness. It has meant a lot to me too.

In addition, I find a lot of excitement in learning something new, and in having something happy to look forward to. I try to build this into my life on an ongoing basis. Right now I am experimenting with my music, and, learning some new computer programming languages. I purchased some theater tickets for 1998, and know that I will get a lot of mileage from anticipating the show. I am planning a big party for my 20-year wedding anniversary next June, and am learning some new songs to perform, to surprise my husband. I think these strategies keep my enthusiasm for life fresh.

So those are the components of my own personal resilience and joy, as best as I can dissect it. I do suspect that I have a genetic tendency towards resilience. However, I have struggled through a great deal and wrestled with such painful issues in my life, to come to what I have described to you. So I just hate to chalk it up to good genes! I've got one last great book title for you. This is one of my favorites. It is entitled Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood by Wayne Muller. I must confess that the first time I saw this title, I was wrestling with some dark issues from my childhood in counseling. The audacity of the title made me furious. But it hooked me, too. The book is now one of my all time favorites.

Our lives are so individual and so different. But these are my thoughts on what has worked for me, and why I believe joy and resilience are part of my life.
Kay Grames

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