When I was a teenager, my Mom had a friend named Gloria who lived in the same building as we did. Gloria worked long, long hours in some kind of financial/accounting capacity and could be rather tight with her money. This, she explained, was due to her looming retirement. Once that blessed day arrived, she promised that she’d splurge on vacations, meals, etc. She’d finally have the “free time” to catch up on all the books and movies and experiences she missed while working non-stop. You may have guessed by now where this story is going.
Very soon after Gloria retired, we got the news that she had died from a sudden heart attack. This episode made quite an impression on me. It was definitely one of the many factors that have led to me living an, um… atypical life. As time has passed, I’ve been better able to reframe this mindset as “not holding your happiness for ransom.” This is not to imply that I’m always able to adhere to this rule. Far from it. However, it long ago became a “guiding principle” of mine.
You know the drill. We all know the drill. It’s like we’re writing ourselves a ransom note. “If you ever want to see your happiness again, you must [fill in the blank].” We’ll be happy as soon as we… find the perfect partner, graduate from school, get a raise, lose ten pounds, find a new job, write a book, or, as Gloria planned, retire. These days, that ransom note usually begins with: “Once the pandemic is over…”
The postponement — of joy, of ecstasy, satisfaction, peace of mind, gratitude, and so on — is precisely that: a postponement. The present moment is being traded for some future promise. We all have to prepare for the future, of course, but at what cost? How can we be practical yet still reduce the number of times we hold our personal pleasure for ransom?
It may help to accept that life is not about a destination or a finish line. It’s a journey, a process. It can only be experienced and lived and felt right now. To expand on this concept, I’ll offer three tips built around three quotes:
We can’t plan life. All we can do is be available for it.” (Lauryn Hill)
What in the world does it mean to be “available” for one’s own life? If you’re alive and breathing, isn’t that availability enough? That’s for each of us to decide but for me, I’d venture to say that Ms. Hill is highlighting the reality that life (or consciousness) rolls on whether we choose to participate in it or not. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you/While you’re busy making other plans.” Or while you’re busy scrolling on your device instead of making other plans. To become more available for your life would mean to not postpone the essence of the moment and instead, stick your neck out to live that essence.
“Let everything happen to you: Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)
The tricky part of sticking your neck out is, well… you know the rest. Rilke reminds us that at times, we’re riding high and other times, we’re down in the dumps. We have virtually no control over what happens next but we almost always can control our reaction to it. We can decide how receptive we are to the beauty and the terror and everything else across the spectrum. Become available for everything because “everything” is precisely what your life is made of. And “everything” can (and often will) change in a flash.
“Life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)
I’d suggest we just arrived at our destination except, as stated above, there is no destination. We don’t “graduate” into the present moment. It’s here whether we make ourselves available for it or not. The practice is to embrace the here and the now as often as possible. The best any of us can do is strike a healthy balance, which brings me back to Gloria.
Despite her tendency to defer her goals, I have sweet memories of her sometimes bear-hugging the Present Moment. For example, she befriended a local blue jay and named her “Bea” (after her loud call). Gloria would yell “Bea!” from her second-floor window, prompting the bird to fly over for peanuts. Also, each Halloween, Gloria dressed up in a very silly, full-body bunny costume and could be found hopping down our block — handing out candy to the kids.
No feeling is final but, only in the present can we make ourselves available for life. Availability is not something to be saved up for some amorphous time in an amorphous future. That’s basically what these quotes and contemplations mean to me (at least, for now). What I’m wondering is: What do they mean to you? Pro tip: Don’t wait until “after the pandemic” to start answering that question. Your happiness must not be held for ransom.
Photo of John Lennon by Getty Images