Winning the Race

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While listening to a family friend’s retirement speech several years ago, I was struck by his statement that, to him, happiness was part of his journey and not a destination.  This may seem strange coming from someone whose daily life revolves around improving mental health, but I am in awe of people who actually are just happy.  Happy. What does that even mean?

While it may seem obvious that happiness is something that “should” be part of our lives every day and not something we are searching for with a flashlight and compass, so many of us are still seeking this elusive treasure!  The US population uses anti-depressants at an astronomical rate and self-help books fly off the shelves.   When looking at “studies” on the happiest countries, the US never makes it to the top ten.  We aren’t in the bottom either, but it makes sense that war-torn countries aren’t making it out of the bottom ten.  We have relative stability here, opportunity, faith, etc, but we still aren’t satisfied.

Latin American countries were prevalent in the top ten.  Norweigan countries dominate as well.  So, what are we doing wrong here?  I know many factors contribute, but I can’t help but to think that our “keep up with the joneses” mentality leaves us in a state of never quite being enough or having enough.  Always needing and wanting the next great thing is an exhausting, unwinnable race.

Our nation’s commitment to the grind and having “stuff” have to play into our lack of satisfaction with life.  We don’t have enough time in our days to stop and enjoy, well, anything.  Having a 3-year-old, a 6-month-old, a full-time job and a husband who works opposite hours at times, leaves me little time for myself and for my family.  I wake in the morning and rush the kids into their clothes, put food in their bellies, and get out the door. When I get home from work, I am getting dinner ready, washing bottles, and getting ready for the next day.  All of this for what? So I can do it again day in and day out for….the rest of my life? This isn’t what I want for myself and it is certainly not what I want for my children.

I ask myself how I get out of this grind, but I feel stuck.  As I imagine the majority of people in this country feel — stuck.  The bills have to be paid and food has to be put on the table.  I got myself even more stuck this past weekend by buying myself a nicer car.  I told myself I deserved it because, if I am going to be stuck, then I might as well be stuck driving a car with heated seats. But, perhaps, I am just perpetuating the problem.  More debt=more work=more grind=less time with family=less happiness.  I often ask myself if I would be satisfied with a smaller house with, say, one bathroom. And maybe just one car – or, call me crazy, what about no cars?  Could you live without internet, your cell phone, the Keurig?

I want to say yes, yes, yes, yes. But, somehow, happiness has become equated with stuff.  And I am envious of the mcmansions that surround me. The need for bigger and better is so ingrained in me that I think that bigger and better is happiness no matter how much I KNOW logically this is not true. I have no answers, but I know something has to change for me and for our unhappy country. I have to find some little ways to help me feel less stuck and more in control.

As I stare down this new year, I write this really to help me be more aware of what I really want and what I really need – not what society makes me think I want and need.  I want simple. I want happiness as part of my journey.  I don’t think this can happen, though, without being conscious of when I make choices that are merely a band-aid (new car) and when I make choices that help me be present in the moment (ie my Christmas day electronics ban).  I hope we can all find peace in the New Year and can focus on the “real” things in our lives that make us happy – not the “stuff.”  This practice is the true gift to ourselves and to our children and, maybe, just maybe, we will all quit this insane race that no one can win.

My Simple Religion

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I could write about a mental health system that is broken – a system that is not easily accessible and puts individual rights over that of the community.  As a psychotherapist working with the homeless population, I am acutely aware of the lack of funding, the stigma and, therefore, the lack of services, for those in need.  The experts are here – but few in need can afford “the best.” We can’t make those who need it the most adhere to treatment because they have rights or their insurance won’t cover it.  Insurance companies make the rules on how much treatment one gets. I could go on and on.

I could write about gun regulation – or a lack thereof.  Anyone can get a gun, really. And once you have one – no one monitors what you do with it.  My father, in his advanced stages of dementia, had a stockpile of guns.  A hobby, a hunter – in his past he was the poster boy for gun safety and responsible ownership.  I respect gun ownership for those who respect guns.  He continued to want to hunt as his disease progressed despite confusion and his loss of agility. I called the Department of Natural Resources to inquire about having his license taken away. The woman on the other end bragged about how in our state everyone has a right to keep their guns. 

But I can’t get my mind off the fact that these mass shootings and gun violence, in general, is not an epidemic ANYWHERE else but in this country.  Most countries have guns and every country deals with mental illness, but this country as a whole is, for lack of a better word, “ill.” How do we solve a problem that is societal – that lies somewhere in the collective psyche of a nation?

We are all searching for answers right now.  I embrace the debate because it is important and necessary to hear out all sides on this issue.  In fact listening and respecting differing opinions is a powerful tool that we rarely utilize in this country.  And although I believe gun control and access to mental health treatment is essential right now, they are only a temporary solution to a larger problem.  A problem that is rooted in our economic system, our politics and, consequently, our very attitude about “being.” 

WE MUST SHIFT FROM A CAPITALISTIC-BASED ‘BEWARE OF YOUR NEIGHBOR’ ATTITUDE TO ONE THAT EMBRACES HELPING YOUR NEIGHBOR!  Individual rights are important but our society is overfocused on “me, me, me” and, instead, should focus on “us.” Community rights need to trump individual rights to both support our poor and mentally ill and to protect our populace. No one should have to live in an “every man for themselves” world. That is an unkind place to live.

Capitalism, at its core, is about competition.  Within this system are winners and losers.  This system only works if there is a safety net for those “losers” which this country does not have.  Our media has exacerbated this problem by fear-mongering and our politicians have done so by telling the general population to vote for them or you will have to be fearful of your neighbor.  “The poor want to take your money without working for it.” “Homosexuals marrying threatens your family and marriage.” “Obama is a muslim who hates America.” These lies are dangerous and put Americans on the defensive.

We are being told to fear those that are different than us and so we do! For example, many people are scared of the homeless population and of the mentally ill – but why? Have you met a homeless person or a mentally ill person and really gotten to know them?  They aren’t scary. Homeless people are just like you or me but they don’t have the money to pay for the wood and brick that would build them a house.  Mentally ill people are, for the most part, intelligent, non-threatening people who want to be “normal” but many have no way to get the real help they need!

Scared, damaged people without responsible information and a support system act out their fear in fits of anger.  Anger is the acting out of hurt and fear.  We need to stop hurting one another and fearing one another. This is a vicious cycle that only begets more hurt and fear. Teaching our young children to defend themselves, while in these times may seem necessary, only teaches them they need to be scared of their neighbor. Can we teach them to reach out and be kind too? I hope the collective consciousness brought about by this tragedy yields a mindset that rises above fear and politics and turns towards acceptance of your neighbor no matter their sex, race, religion, sexuality, mental health, housing status, education level…I could go on…but kindness must be our guide.

I want to end with a quote from the Dalai Lama: “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; No need for complicated philosophy….our own brain, our own heart is our temple. The philosophy is kindness.”  Be brave and step out of your fear and into kindness.