I went to a lecture on happiness. The presenter spoke about his years of research on happiness and that the formula for finding it is linked to gratitude. The fact-loving scientist in me was mesmerized as he cited studies supporting the physiological changes linked to stress and how as gratitude and happiness correspondingly increased, stress inversely decreased to the point of reversing those changes. The theological behaviorist in me was somewhat bored. Really! Years of research were necessary for this? Isn’t this the basis of every major world religion – to live into and out of gratitude? And if we live within this sense of thanks to something greater than we are…whatever we call that force…we will find that elusive thing we refer to as happiness? Of course, our definition of happiness is also an important consideration. If it is based on achievement of status, power or authority as defined by our culture, happiness will tormentingly flutter in and out of our grasp. True happiness comes from something different.
Last night we watched one of our favorite television series. The plot involved two men. One caused the death of the other’s wife through a series of stupid choices culminating in an auto accident on the young couple’s wedding day…20 years prior. The offender avoided arrest and created a new life, becoming a model husband, father and business owner who frequently donated money to the local police department for equipment that would keep officers safe in the field. He lamented that not a day went by that he didn’t feel remorse and guilt for what he had done. The grieving husband spent his 20 years hating the perpetrator and thinking revenge was his only hope to finding fulfillment and happiness. 20 years of guilt and the desire to make things right through a life well lived was juxtaposed against 20 years of hate that led to the dark concept that only revenge could restore happiness after a horrible, life altering situation. Two men, forever linked together by one event. Sympathy went to both of them in the episode, however the greater sympathy seemed to surround the man who tried to make good come from a horrific event.
Most of us will never know the anguish of loosing a young spouse just as life together begins, however I will contend that all of us have unexpectedly experienced dreams that are so shattered that we find ourselves in a place of stress that we never expected to be in, let alone have the emotional tools necessary to navigate through it back to happiness.
Yet, in the midst of pain, there will always be a flicker of hope and goodness. It’s when we begin to see it and focus on it that it grows…like the mustard seed.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Matthew 13: 31-32
The beauty of this passage is that in reality, mustard seeds grow into shrubs…period. End of story. Yet, Jesus tells us that the mustard seed goes on to become a tree, which in turn offers shelter and security for another of God’s creatures. How can that be when to the best of our knowledge a mustard seed can only become a shrub? You see, the kingdom of heaven is not like anything we know or understand. Like the mustard seed, the kingdom of God can grow so boldly that we might become something beyond our wildest imagination…if only we let it.
Yet, as much as seeds need water and sunlight to grow, we need hope and gratitude. Hate is the equivalent of putting that little mustard seed in a glass jar and looking at it everyday to affirm to ourselves that it will always remain the same little, pebble-like morsel we put there 5 days, 5 years, 10 years…20 years ago. As we nurture it in it’s stagnant state, it takes on a twisted life of its own. One day it’s just a seed in a jar. Over time it becomes a precious possession, a part of our being that affects every decision we make. Where is my jar? Have I paid homage to my seed today? Its growth is insidious as its existence permeates our very being until we make choices as lifeless as the little seed itself. We might add more seeds to the jar as we list additional grievances responsible for who and what we have become. Blame, self-pity, righteousness and judgment build up in our jar and in our hearts until there is little room for anything else.
The good news is, all of that can change with a little nurture. We will always have those events and people in our lives that can lead us to living stressfully. But, what if we look at our mustard seed as a speck of hope. What if we put it in a little soil and give it a drop of two of water? Then, as it grows, we might find a cute little pot for it and give it a bit more water. We might put it on the windowsill where we can watch it reach for the sun. It will wither if we neglect it, or thrive if we care for it. Eventually it will become too big to contain it indoors, so we plant it outside. With continual care, it will be all that it was created to be and, as Christ tells us in this parable, even more than we can possibly imagine.
This brings us back to the young man who gave the lecture on happiness. His key to finding happiness? Gratitude. The simple act of seeking the good in a situation – no matter how hidden it might be – and focusing on it. Then, with time, we might be able to look beyond the situation to recognize a beautiful sunset or the antics of a puppy. Our heart might chuckle as squirrels romp playfully around a tree. We might see compassion in a neighbor who shares a meal with us or in a co-worker who tells us they understand. Then, we might see the need another has and respond to it. Little by little life changes. No – the situation causing our pain can’t be changed, but our reaction to its grip on our life can.
The picture at the beginning of this meditation has been floating around Facebook lately. I don’t know who to give credit to for it, just know it isn’t originally mine. The objective is to look at the picture and decide if you see a frog or a horse. It’s all a matter of perspective and choice – just like our personal attitude and the resulting happiness or despair. Life isn’t going to change simply because we want it to. All we can hope for is the happiness that comes when we see the beauty in creation and know that God walks with us every step of the way.
Our presenter asked us to list 3 things everyday that we are grateful for. Based on his studies, he promised decreased stress and increased happiness. I guess his studies just reinforced a simple parable given to us 2000 years ago – one that we need constant reminders to apply to the ‘stuff’ of life.