So my attention is caught by a list of fifteen things we must give up in order to achieve happiness.
Nearly all of them, as it turns out. In order to achieve happiness, I must stop being myself. I’ve long suspected this, of course. Just hadn’t seen it laid out in a perky little web-lite list before.
The #1 hint for happiness is, “Give up your need to always be right.” Now, being right is one of the few perks of my existence. I may not manage my own life very effectively, but I generally know how everyone else should run his. My instincts are good. Even Husband will grudgingly admit that I am usually right (although he is sometimes somewhat surly and slow about doing so).
The article quotes Wayne Dyer. He instructs me to ask,“Would I rather be right, or would I rather be kind?”
I would often rather be right. Does the foaming-at-the-mouth driver who road-raged me deserve my kindness? No. He deserves to be flipped off and to flip over in the ditch at the next intersection.
Did I say that out loud? You see my problem. I don’t wish fatal injuries upon him – just a totaled car without replacement insurance and perhaps permanently lingering whiplash and sky-high interest rates on all future car purchases. I am in the right, here, and he is altogether in the wrong, screaming and trying to force me off the road for no discernible reason.
People expect me to be kind. I look like a meek and mild middle-aged matron who never cussed aloud (or even to herself). It’s a curse. My first impulses are indeed generally kind ones. But I’ve learned that people mistake kindness for weakness and are quick to pounce and take condescending advantage. I am right about this. Wimps are kind; winners aren’t.
Not everyone deserves kindness. I am right about this, too. “Do Unto Others” does not mean “stab someone thirty times, slit his throat, shoot him in the forehead, drag him into the bathroom to rot, lie about it, and then expect to have your hand slapped for being naughty.” The Golden Rule does not say “shoot up a crowded movie theater” or “attack school children with assault weapons.” It does not mean “bomb a marathon.”
Wouldn’t it be refreshingly wonderful if an evildoer stood up in court and said, “Yes! I did it, I’m glad I did it, I’d do it again, and I’m ready to take responsibility for it?”
Now, don’t you quibble and suggest that celebrity murderers chose their own versions of being “right” over being “kind.” You know perfectly well what I meant.
Happiness rule #2 reads, “Give up your need for control.” I just finished telling you what to do, which made the manager in me happy. Yet I’m supposed to abandon control of everything that happens to me and around me. I’m to smile placidly at loved ones, coworkers, and strangers I meet on the street, and “just allow them to be.”
Did you ever hear of such nonsense? If one is always right, then one should be in control. It’s a merit-based system. My father taught me that someone always has to be Chairman (and, yes, we call him The Chairman, even to his face).
You’re stiffing the tab and our waiter’s tip, and I should shrug it off? You’re surreptitiously switching tags on second-hand junk to save a buck at Goodwill, and you don’t think I see you? You’re my beloved son and you’re a slacker, and I’m not supposed to care? You’re cutting the line in front of that old woman with the walker, and I should smile and let you? You’re my esteemed husband and you’re neglecting your health, and I shouldn’t say a word? You’re a mouth-breathing schoolyard bully, and I’m to let you be? You’re a fit and trim woman parking in a handicapped space, and I shouldn’t mind? You’re an affluent man tossing fast food trash out of your sports car, and I should nod graciously and wish you peace?
That does not make me feel better. Even writing it down makes me twitch. I’m no Buddhist (despite my belly). I’m a Virgo. A perfectionist. A librarian, even. I see messes and meanness and inequity and ignorance and incompetence and laziness everywhere (starting with myself; perfectionism is its own punishment). Perhaps, sometimes, “controlling” means “caring.”
To be happy, I must also give up “the luxury of criticism” (tenet #7). Now, criticism is not a luxury. If one is right and one cares enough try and control chaos, then one is entitled to criticize. Often, it’s the little things that get under my skin, the things I actually could meddle in for the betterment of all and for my own righteous satisfaction.
Petty public greed, for instance. A week ago, I’m part of a big public awards breakfast – 400 people gathered to celebrate student accomplishments. We provide free coffee and muffins and bagels and fruit and cheese. There is an abundance of nice food, and as a gesture of goodwill the emcee says, “Be sure and take a muffin back to work with you. We have a lot left over.”
An acquaintance whose kids grew up with mine is there. As people are leaving the room and we’re starting to clean up, she grabs one of the large deli serving trays and goes around the food tables with tongs, piling all the most expensive fruit and the fanciest muffins and the best cheese on it. She takes her time. She picks out blackberries and strawberries and blueberries, and leaves the cantaloupe. She takes the Swiss cheese and the extra-sharp cheddar, and leaves the American. She takes the dessert muffins, but not the dried-out bran ones. I chat with her, picking up trash, bustling about officiously, but she is unperturbed. I follow her around, more or less in astonishment. I am a grunt; it is not my place to ask questions. When the tray is heavily heaped, she finds one of the plastic dome covers, snaps it on, and waltzes complacently out of the building.
I ask around, wondering if perhaps someone has given her permission to share a small banquet’s worth of food with some other organization. Nope. She heard “help yourself to an extra muffin” and decided that meant “hog all the free food you can possibly carry.”
Number six on the happiness list is, “Give up complaining.” Please note that I am not complaining about this woman’s greed. I am indulging in #7, the luxury of criticism — there’s a big difference. Complaining is for passive-aggressive whiners; I am a conscientious objector.
The tenth commandment is, “Give up labels.” I suppose that means I shouldn’t say things like “passive-aggressive whiner” or “greedy pig of a woman.” But I can’t help myself – blame rule number nine, “Give up your resistance to change.” I like using phrases like “passive-aggressive whiner” and “greedy pig of a woman.” I don’t want to change.
I am saved, finally, by the fifteenth precept: “Give up living your life to other people’s expectations.” This unhappy happiness how-to list was written by other people. I will therefore give it up.