Most of us wander through life searching for a modicum of happiness. Just what brings joy will vary somewhat from person to person. There are those who need little more than the dawn of a new day of possibilities to feel a sense of satisfaction and others who appear to be constantly seeking some unknown evasive goal. As we go about our business each day we never really know what will happen to us. There are surprises and tragedies and routines awaiting us. Most of us work hard, plan, prepare, and even pray for blessings. We faithfully follow the rules, take care of ourselves and those around us and follow a steady course. In the back of our minds we almost always believe that we should somehow be rewarded for our diligence and good faith. The reality is that such recognition doesn’t always happen. We are not immune to disappointments, rejections, challenges, loss, and even death. All too often we have to shoulder responsibilities and hard times that seem unfair and may even prompt us to question every aspect of who we are and what we believe. Maintaining optimism in the face of severe hardships is a daunting task and yet we have all witnessed those incredible individuals who somehow find the strength and the will to do so.
It almost seems to be an oxymoron for me to assert that my mother who suffered from bipolar disorder and severe episodes of depression was one of the happiest and most content people that I have ever known, but it is true. Her general nature was to celebrate life almost as innocently and joyfully as a small child might do. It took so little to bring a smile of contentment to her face in spite of the fact that her life was so difficult that few would agree to walk in her shoes for more than a day or two. She didn’t seem to need any of the trappings of success to feel good about herself because most of the time she was centered on the needs of those that she knew and loved. For her a fabulous day would be spent reading her Bible, visiting her children, feeding the birds who lived in her yard, and listening to an Astros game on her radio. Luxury was having a bag of cookies so that she might have one or two with her coffee in the afternoon. A vacation meant that she got to ride along the seawall in Galveston and inhale the fresh sea air.
I attended school with the Cash twins, Cindy and Carol. I was so excited to find them both on Facebook a few years ago. It had been years since I had seen either of them, almost a lifetime. Each of us had worked and built families and traveled on our personal journeys. It took little time for me to remember how happy and generous of spirit both of these women had always been. When I learned that Cindy had been diagnosed with ALS I suppose that I went into a state of denial about the seriousness of her condition. She remained so upbeat as her illness progressed. It was as though she did not wish to alarm us. She posted her positive thoughts, her images of kittens, and wished us a good night before she retired each evening. We did not hear of the pain and the fears that she may have had. She was a happy person for us, an inspiration. Even in death she brought us together in a spirit of celebration. She had insisted on having a memorial dinner with her favorite foods where we might hug and reminisce and realize the beauty of lives well lived.
Cindy’s identical twin, Carol, is so much like her. In spite of her profound loss when her beloved sister died she worried over the rest of us. Even when her world crashed once again with the sudden death of her husband, Carol mustered a courage and a positive spirit that humbled us all. She is a remarkable caretaker who sends private messages or makes phone calls to those who appear to be enduring times of trouble. She loves freely and openly and her generosity is boundless. She keeps us together and serves as the voice of compassion for our Class of 1966. She has a way of making each of her friends feel special and loved. Her smile is a precious gift. I seriously don’t know how she manages to be as strong and thoughtful and happy as she is.
There are others that I know either quite intimately or from afar who like my mom and Cindy and Carol manage to find happiness even in the vagaries of life. I’m certain that they are not perfect. No doubt they have moments when they rant and cry and want to run away from the hurt and pain that they feel. Still they somehow emerge intact, strong, and ready to move forward again and again. They find the good in life and in people. Their glasses are mostly half full.
I think of Andriel and Tien who faced perhaps the most challenging of tragedies, losing a child. The pain in their hearts will never quite heal and yet they manage to carry on by giving of themselves to others in their work and in their private lives. They are indeed more sensitive to the needs of the people that they meet because they too have suffered. They counsel the wounded and embrace our humanity.
Zerin is yet another angel who even from far away is so attuned to the hearts and souls of her friends that even a small comment is a signal to her of trouble. She brings sunshine and joy to the darkest places. She exudes serenity and love. One might think that she has a perfect existence given her calm and her smile but that would not be accurate. She has simply learned how to look both inward and outward to stay on a steadying and positive course. She touches hearts and souls with her wisdom and her understanding of the human spirit.
Melissa and Madee used to live next door to me. As soon as I met them they embraced me and invited me into their world. They are a mother and daughter team that spreads sunshine wherever they go. When they see a homeless person they give comfort, support, and dignity. They minister to the sick. They notice those who are a bit off kilter and offer a helping hand to them. Where the rest of us might be unaware they notice those who are in need and then they do something about it.
Are the people that I have described born that way or have they evolved over time into the remarkable souls that they are? Is there a way for us to raise and instruct our children so that they will be able to handle all facets of living like they have done? What might we as a society do to insure that we pass down the kind of traits that will lead to loving, generous, and optimistic adults? God knows that we need more of such people. I seriously doubt that we would have to worry about wars or murders or any of the horrific happenings that daunt us if we only knew how to insure that everyone would have the capacity to deal with ups and downs with wisdom and grace.
Unfortunately we humans are so complex. Thousands upon thousands of genetic and environmental factors bear down on each of us. Sometimes the results are monstrous. We have very damaged souls in our midst. I suppose that the biggest problem is that we just don’t know exactly how to address their needs and so all too often we simply ignore them. They feel rejected, unloved, dispossessed. They become accidents waiting to happen and yet we instinctively know that we cannot give up on them no matter how difficult it may be to help them. We have to find ways to address the problems that they have whether it be mental illness or a lack of love.
It can be difficult to see the dark side of our humanity and still maintain a spirit of optimism. So often we grow morose and negative in our thinking. We fight with one another regarding solutions for our problems. We hurl ugly accusations and epithets at one another. We refuse to have difficult conversations and we grasp at easy answers. We want more people like my mother, Cindy, Carol, Andriel, Tien, Zerin, Melissa, and Madee but we refuse to begin with ourselves. Sometimes we are the problem but we don’t take the time to reflect on what we might do to make changes in our own hearts.
There is a song that I love that says, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” The people who have mastered that idea are the ones who have the best shot at helping the rest of us to begin the process of healing that our nation so needs. We can legislate all that we want but the essence of a beautiful life lies in an unselfish spirit that is able to see the good in our world but also the needs of the broken. They grasp the realities of our world and then take the time to reach out to those who crying out for a sign that somebody cares. Teaching our children this important idea is the key to improving the way we all live. It is a noble goal worth seeking. Our children are watching us. It’s up to us to show them what to do.