Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.–Joseph Campbell
There is a documentary about a Holocaust survivor named Gerda Weissmann Klein that I have watched on several occasions with students. Her story is, like many Holocaust survivor stories, one of inspiration, hope, and even joy. One of the lines that often comes back to me is when Weissmann Klein specifically addresses how she survived a death march towards the end of World War II. Despite the fact this march occurred during the height of a brutally harsh winter, Wiessmann Klein was able to survive for a number of reasons, one of which included her ability to “occupy her mind.”
In simple terms, Weissmann Klein was able to take her mind’s focus off the cruel conditions around her. Rather than brood over the extreme cold, her hunger, her fatigue or any other legitimate complaint, she colorfully described her intentional deliberations that could last all day, such as spending an entire day planning out her next birthday party, even though she had not been able to have one since the Nazi occupation. However, it wasn’t so much the what of her thoughts, but the fact that she was able to focus/distract her mind away from the pain/discomfort that naturally accompanied her situation. Instead she intentionally directed her attention towards ideas/notions/thoughts that safely allowed her to “escape” and feel some sense of happiness if only cerebrally. It is this human ability to occupy one’s mind, or shift the mind’s attention/perspective, that is a powerful take-away from Weissmannn Klein’s story, and I believe is transferable to other, much less brutal situations.
Given the news, the pandemic, the major weather events, and all of the sobering occurrences from the past few years, it is easy to allow our mind to focus on the what-is-wrong-in-the-world, whether you are looking at the big picture or sometimes even your own personal circumstances. I know I can easily get wrapped up in the negative and get a full-steam-on gripe session with the best of them. On one hand, I know it can be beneficial to get the negativity off-your-chest; on the other hand, I also know that there is danger in dwelling or focusing on it for too long–at least for me.
In a similar manner, I’ve noticed that both positivity and negativity are contagious within myself and among others. If I enter work feeling grumpy, put-off, or focused on some negative happening, I tend to attract and may even catch myself seeking out negativity. It’s not per se always a conscious choice, it just seems to happen that way. As soon as I recognize it, I feel badly for having given that gray cloud permission to come along for a ride. The real danger, it seems to me, is when negativity is left unaddressed.
Negative mindsets have a tendency to spiral out of control. It may start with something as simple as an accidental spill or mess that throws off the morning routine, followed up by that s-l-o-w driver on the morning commute while listening to frustrating news on the radio. This may then turn into a later than planned arrival at work, followed by unhappy/unpleasant conversation, followed by a work-related problem in need of addressing for uptenth time, and by the time lunch arrives–which is often a working lunch–negativity can feel as if it is bursting at the seams.
I think Ms. Weissmann Klein was onto something when it comes to not defaulting to the negative. We must actively and intentionally teach our mind to choose joy. No, it’s not easy, and yes, it sounds cliché. However, I do believe that we have a choice of how we respond to our circumstances, but like all skills, it takes practice and thought.
I think the lyrics to a King and Country song entitled, “Joy,” best encapsulates this thought. It is oh-so-easy to focus on all of those nightly news headlines that vie for our attention. Easier still, is to become wrapped up in our personal headlines: illness, death, divorce, finances, job loss/stress, future uncertainties and so forth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself in the woe-is-me mind story; it’s so darn easy to do. Here is what I am learning when I catch myself having fallen prey to pessimism.
Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. –Thich Nhat Hanh
Believe it or not, the simple act of smiling can be a lightswitch for our mindset. I first discovered this through running, but I find it just as helpful in most other situations. Whether it’s my legs and calves aching from the exertion of exercise, or it’s my shoulders and neck tightening in reaction to stress, as soon as I catch myself responding negatively to stress–to the degree possible–I focus on deeper breathing, relaxing the tightened areas, and adding a smile. I smile at the sense of accomplishment I will feel once I have completed the goal; smile at the fact I am proud of myself for having caught myself slipping into negativity; smile at the fact that my body still has the ability to exercise, work, read–whatever. All of which leads to more smiling because, well, I am smiling–which leads to the release of feel-good hormones.
I was talking to a sister recently about how we wake up with the best intentions to remain sunny and positive, and then one thing might set off the day, and BOOM, there goes the mindset. My husband says, however, that is part of living in faith. He reminds me that it’s not about perfection, but recognizing your imperfections–your humanity–and then trying again.
In the words of King and Country, “. . . Oh, hear my prayer tonight, I’m singing to the sky/ Give me strength to raise my voice, let me testify . . . The time has come to make a choice
And I choose joy!
I can’t pretend to choose joy in every moment, nor am I not acknowledging the very realness of life, headlines, personal crises and all. Nevertheless, even in the bad times, sorrows, and heartbreak and loss, I can choose my response, and I can choose to find at least one reason to smile.