Where do parking tickets fit in the whole idea of being switched-on?  Sprained ankles on the first day of holiday?  Being horrendously late for your child’s school performance?

These are all things that have happened to me recently…the normal stuff of life, I dare say (OK, maybe more organized parents wouldn’t have screwed up their daughter’s school performance time).  They’re not difficulties compared to serious illness or real loss, but they’re the kind of thing that can shade a day into grey and make one feel more irritated or guilty than alive and engaged.

I’ve been thinking about this issue on and off for a while, and it came up for me yesterday when I accidentally smashed a beautiful antique plate that belongs to a friend.  I felt sick about it.  You can tell me that people are more important than things and I would agree with you wholeheartedly…but it was still awful.  It seems to me that our actions are portrayals of our feelings, so to break the plate signals indifference and carelessness when in fact I feel anything but.  But accidents happen.

So where does the idea of the beauty of feeling alive fit here?  Is the goal to feel switched-on most of the time, but accept that there will be times when we just feel crummy?  Or do we try to get through the crummy stuff by intentionally doing things that will restore us to feeling alive and uplifted?

The answer is probably both.  One thing I know for sure though is that our “cultural scripts” for moving through hardship tend not to be very useful.  Traditionally, we are encouraged either to be stoic (“suck it up”) or to try to rise above it all by a sheer act of will (“let it go”).  This is the kind of Nietzchean claptrap debunked in All Things Shining.  It’s pervasive though, so much a part of our culture that its heavy hand is invisible.  Think of the lyrics of the song from which I’ve stolen this title, “I simply remember my favourite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.”  It’s a nice idea, and brown paper packages tied up with string are delightful, but you get the underlying message:  you ought to be able to think your way out of anything.

Here’s a different idea: try experiencing your way out of negative feelings.  Yesterday, I was in a funk about having let down my friend by breaking her plate all morning.  Then, around lunchtime, I happened to hear an exquisite piece of music on the radio:  a new recording of Bach’s St. John Passion produced jointly by Les Voix Baroques and the Arion Baroque Orchestra.  It was so beautiful, and somehow so unexpected, that I pulled over by a park and just listened to it.  I didn’t have to will myself to get some perspective, it gave me perspective.

A plate is just a plate, even when it’s antique and beautiful.  My friend will still love me;  I will still love my friend.  I will try to have it fixed, or to find something as elegant and lovely to replace it.  I gain nothing by wallowing in guilt.  Living is something else.  And living is the goal.

Of course, you also have to be able to forgive yourself…for doing something stupid, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for doing whatever you perceive your transgression to be.  I am extremely gifted at punishing myself, and I recently caught myself trying to instill exactly the same trait in my children.  Now, children need to learn feel remorse (we don’t want to raise little sociopaths) and we all need to be able to express it.  But by the same token, there’s remorse, there’s atonement, and then there’s remembering to live.  Pain and guilt might make you feel alive, in a way, but they’re never uplifting and they’re never gifts to others.  Some experiences pain us, some heal us.  So when the dog bites, don’t just think of your favourite things, go live them.

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