no matter the chaos, the clutter, the fuss
there is joy to be found
in the happy messes of life
if only we allow our hearts
to smile and embrace the wholeness
and holiness of it all
My husband Mel and I have a favorite toast. Whenever we are having wine with dinner, we raise our glasses and clink them in a toast to “happiness.” When our son Reid was about four years old, we were all out sharing a family meal one evening when he decided to raise his glass (filled with juice) to toast with us. What was so adorable, and revealing, was that the words that came out of his mouth were “happy mess.” I was about to correct him when I stopped myself, realizing that his toast was absolutely perfect. If we could learn to accept and live with—maybe even celebrate—all the inevitable happy messes along the road of life, we would be well on our way to enjoying a wonderful life. AHA! indeed.
What very young children, and those of us who have learned a bit along life’s journey, know is that things do not need to be perfect or pristine for joy to be present. As Martha Washington explained, “I have learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances.” Perhaps the whole point of life is simply to seek the happiness and fullness to be found moment by precious moment, no matter what’s going on.
Here’s another lesson learned by living. Life happens…and not always according to our best theories, ideas, and strategies. In fact, it mostly does not quite happen according to plan—or at least not according to our carefully laid out agendas, schedules, and lists.
What we learn to recognize as we grapple and grow is that the most powerful happiness strategy in our human toolbox is our capacity to apply thoughtful consideration, perspective, and compassion to whatever is happening when life is not going according to our idea of how it should be. By doing so, we reframe whatever is taking place in the most positive and inspiring ways possible.
I love Mark Twain’s suggestion to “Give every day the chance to become the most beautiful of your life.” Now there’s an idea capable of creating a profound shift. What would it be like to approach each new day as anything but ho-hum? My cousin-brother Howie and I used to go for hikes in the woods around Chappaqua, New York. He had the delightful capacity to stop mid-step or mid-sentence and absolutely revel at the sun coming through the canopy of leaves and shining on the tree barks…or the bird hidden in the branches singing his heart out. Each experience of beauty would be, in that moment, the most startling and wondrous moment ever because we were fully present in it. I treasured those walks and am forever grateful to him for the eyes wide open to wonder perspective he instilled in me. Life didn’t have to be perfect for the moment to be AWEsome. As a matter of fact, often one or the other or both of us were puzzling our way through some challenge or another, including life-threatening ones. It didn’t matter. There are still happy mess moments to be found.
I believe that the bottom line is that it is mostly about going with the flow…rather than sinking under the weight of the inevitable challenges inherent in living in the world instead of at a pristine retreat on a mountaintop.
Those who have active children and/or pets witness this whole idea at a gut level. My coach friend Doug Autenrieth, a martial arts black belt who models discipline and the value of exquisitely high standards, absolutely embraced the whole happy mess concept when I shared it at a conference we were attending. Now he regales me with happy mess moments that his children are adding to the daily chaos of their now life. As he observes, “Life is good! We are living life as the happy mess that it is.” So how can we each do that? I believe that the bottom line is that it is mostly about going with the flow…rather than sinking under the weight of the inevitable challenges inherent in living in the world instead of at a pristine retreat on a mountaintop. I remember hearing a devout leader making the observation that, if you truly want to practice living a spiritual life, give up on the idea that the best way to do so is to live in a quiet sanctuary. Instead, choose to spend your life in the whole muddled business of being in relationship with others. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We may search the world over for joy but unless we carry it within us, we will not find it.”
As we grow with gratitude, gusto, grit, and grace we finally come to understand this in our bones. There is a lovely story I have heard told about an elderly woman being moved into a nursing home. When she and her family arrived at the place, she declared, “I absolutely LOVE it here.” Her daughter asked, “How can you know when you haven’t even been inside yet?” Her wise mother replied, “Because I have already decided that I am going to!” Now there’s an attitude I want to emulate if the time comes for me to move on from my current familiar comforts. I do believe that, time and again, it is up to us to decide how much responsibility we are willing to take for the joy in our life.
Happiness matters. I believe that our personal happiness (yours and mine) adds to the joy of the world, tilting the scales, however minutely, one person at a time, toward a more blissful world for all.
In the end, the questions become…How much joy do you carry within you? How disposed are you to happiness? How much can/do you celebrate the happy messes? How are you creating joy along the way?
Here’s yet another aspect of the whole happy mess conundrum—stretching to the next level by actually embracing failure. I first heard Boston Philharmonic conductor Ben Zander speak at an International Coach Federation Conference many years ago. I was a newbie coach back then and wanted to belong, be smart, do things right and, above all, not open my mouth just to utter some particularly naïve question or observation. So, mostly I stayed quiet. As I soon found out, thanks to Ben Zander’s exciting presentation, playing small was a BIG mistake.
Being a certifiable perfectionist, I respect the challenge of celebrating failures. Since the alternative is a whole lot of frustration and suffering, it’s definitely been worth my while to practice embracing all the mistakes and goof-ups and “I can’t believe I did/said/wrote THAT” embarrassments I have managed to stumble through on my way to whatever measures of success I have achieved. Ben Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander, in their book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, write about his two best strategies for getting his already technically proficient students at the conservatory to be willing to risk making mistakes in order to find the magnificent passion embedded within the musical notes on the score. First, he gives every student an A grade in advance, as long as they show up and stay the course. Next, he requires that, whenever they fumble, they must raise their hands into the air and shout out “How fascinating!” This was a delightful AHA! for me, as well as for his students, I’m sure because it allowed them to recognize that, to be brilliant, they must reach beyond their assumed competence to a greater capacity for self-expression.
Imagine what you might be willing to risk if you already knew you would receive an A. Imagine the liberation that could come from being fascinated by the necessary fumbles along the way to accomplishing something more.
Thanks to Zander’s advice, I have learned, as a motivational speaker, to not agonize about the mistakes and bloopers of a particular presentation. Rather, I do a reframe and recognize how my mind sometimes does its own thing and fails to follow what my brain has memorized. I will actually say “How fascinating!” while presenting and let my audience know how I have missed the mark. It’s a great way to keep things real.
Remember that failures can be fruitful, and maybe even fun/funny, if we are willing to be feisty, flamboyant, fabulous, and fearless. The story goes that Thomas Edison failed more than a thousand times while trying to create the lightbulb. When asked about it, Edison allegedly responded that he had not failed. Rather he had discovered a thousand ways to not make a lightbulb. How’s that for a terrific tweak in the right direction? Can you think of a tweak of your own worth making?