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What? You Mean It’s Not Your Job to Make Me Happy

The following sermon was delivered to the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

The Poet Mary Oliver wrote these beautiful words, “Hello, sun in my face. Hello you who made the morning and spread it over the fields...Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness”. Good Morning Emerson!

For a good portion of my adolescence, young and even middle adulthood, I lived from a place of frequent moodiness, loneliness and worthlessness. I am not sure where I got all my demons from but knew I had them as over the years I had kept diaries and prayer journals that would often chronicle my internal dialogue and frankly read these a few years ago was downright depressing! Perhaps it was when I was at the age of 6 or 7 and hearing my parent’s frequent fighting and where I heard my name and my mother reminding my father, “You know he was a mistake.” or my first grade teacher who sexually abused her students at a Japanese Catholic School on the Island of Okinawa or the bladder reflux condition I had where I often could not control myself and would urinate in my clothes as a young boy that I came to the dark conclusion that I was truly an unlovable and worthless failure.

Living with such shame perhaps was excuse enough to have a mind that was constantly in a state of dark, negative and foreboding self-talk. And certainly, the deep self-loathing had some wonderful motivational power as a young boy to seek out opportunities for recognition and achievement in academics, sports and the arts. And as my father’s job as an Army Officer moved me in the middle of 2nd Grade; after 5th Grade; after 6th Grade and after 10th Grade, the recognition and achievement were coping mechanisms I found to overcome my self-loathing and to “fit in.” Somehow I graduated from West Point and married the gal of my dreams and had a wonderful military career that culminated in my teaching leadership at West Point. I graduated Suma Cum Laude from the Harvard Business School and after leaving the Army was hired by one of the most prominent global consulting firms in the world, McKinsey & Company. Yet with most of the things I accomplished, I always thought deep down inside I was an imposter only waiting for the day where all my many imperfections would be revealed.

It was probably in the year 2001 that I realized I needed some external help and ended up with an 82-year-old social worker by the name of Kempton Haynes. We would meet on Monday late afternoons at 5:00 pm at Grace Presbyterian Church on Ponce. The church offices would be deserted excepted for Kempton Haynes and I. His approach to working with me in the first few sessions was quite simple. He would just exhibit this warm and inviting smile and just keep smiling until I would say something. I remember our first session, as he smiled at me, I could not let the silence linger and so my response- “I guess I am supposed to talk.” He would keep smiling; “I suppose I am to talk about myself.” His smile and my continued dialogue, well since I am here because I have some “stuff” to work through, I guess I should talk about these….” However, by the 4th session, even Kempton had his limits as he shared his first observation: “Man, I would hate to be your wife.” I was stunned and completely caught off guard. “Why would you say such a thing.” His simple response was life changing. “Because you have made it her responsibility to make you happy. She is your best and only friend, lover, wife and mother of your children and it must be pretty hard being her.”

Kempton’s simple observation has become transformational and life giving as that moment started me on the journey of seeing that my joy and happiness was fully and solely my responsibility and that I had some major work to do to start cultivating something that was so important and yet that I had delegated to others.

Perhaps another life-giving insight in my life has been from the writings of Viktor Frankl. Viktor was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that he wrote in 9 days, tells the story of how he survived the Holocaust by finding personal meaning in the experience, which gave him the will to live through it. He went on to later establish a new school of existential therapy called logotherapy, based in the premise that man’s underlying motivator in life is a “will to meaning,” even in the most difficult of circumstances. I have reflected on the following two quotes for the last 16 years at least several times a week as they continue to challenge, inform, and transform how I view life and hopefully how I live life.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

For me the first quote remains the most powerful for if Viktor can choose his attitude in a hell hole like Auschwitz, certainly I can choose my attitude in world where I have been blessed by so very much.

From the preface to Man's Search for Meaning by Gordon W. Allport

"As a long-time prisoner in bestial concentration camps Viktor Frankl found himself stripped to naked existence. His father, mother, brother, and his wife died in camps or were sent to gas ovens, so that, excepting for his sister, his entire family perished in these camps. How could he - every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination - how could he find life worth preserving?"

Even in the degradation and abject misery of a concentration camp, Frankl could exercise the most important freedom of all - the freedom to determine one's own attitude and spiritual well-being. No sadistic Nazi SS guard could take that away from him or control the inner-life of Frankl's soul. One of the ways he found the strength to fight to stay alive and not lose hope was to think of his wife. Frankl clearly saw that it was those who had nothing to live for who died quickest in the concentration camp.

From Man’s Search for Meaning:

“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road running through the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his hand behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us. That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another on and upward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look then was more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth--that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way--an honorable way--in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus, my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered as my mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, and the thoughts of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I still would have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of that image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. "Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death."

I have read these incredible words many times and they always stir something significant and emotional in me. Perhaps because I have been lucky to have met my wife Claudia well over 36 years ago and remain as in love with her as the day I fell madly head over heels in love with her as a young cadet at West Point and it resonates with me that Frankl could keep his joy and optimism about him in the worst of circumstances just by engaging in an imaginary conversation with his loved one.

It is important that for you to understand for the context of this sermon that I define happiness as the experience of positive emotions-pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning, flow, connection, and achievement.

And I want to offer you a simple but powerful construct for us to about based upon this definition of happiness. Mo Gawdat, who works at Google X, devised with his son a mathematical formula for happiness: Measured by their equation, happiness is greater to or equal to Your Perception of events in your life, minus your expectation of how life should be. It took me several attempts to get my mind around this definition. At its essence, he is saying the same thing as Frankl. If you want to be truly happy, change how you view life and choose expectations that will support your joy and happiness. Being wealthy or the smartest or most talented in something doesn’t help. The scientific research will tell you that once you get to an average level of income, your happiness plateaus. When you go even higher, wealth starts to work against you as people start to treat you differently; and you start to feel constant disappointment. When Gawdat’s 21-year-old son died during a routine medical procedure, Gawdat of course was heartbroken and he decided to lean on his equation and reset his expectations while striving every day to feel better. Gawdat says, “Happiness, is very much like staying fit. It is a choice. You can actually achieve it and there is a method to make it happen.”

Several years ago, I spoke at Emerson about the life of Alice Herz-Sommers. In February of 2014 she died at the great age of 110! And at that time, Alice was the world's oldest survivor of the Holocaust. She was imprisoned at Theresienstadt, which was conceived by Hitler as a "model" concentration camp. Can you imagine the horrors and suffering she witnessed? Alice was a pianist and in between the summer of 1943 and the camp's liberation at the end of the war, she played more than 100 concerts at Theresienstadt. Most were solo recitals culled from memory from her extensive repertoire.

In the camp Alice found the kind of meaning that Viktor Frankl spoke of as she learned what she could live without. Rather than grieving for what she did not have, she rejoiced in what she had. Alice knew that no one could rob her of the treasures of her mind. "I am richer than the world's richest person because I have music in my heart and mind," she said at the age of 108. While performing she and the other performers could nearly forget their hunger and their surroundings. Besides the terror of finding their names on a deportation list for Auschwitz, the fear of dying of starvation, typhus, and other diseases had become a reality. "Music was our food, our religion and our hope," she says. "Music was life. We did not, could not, and would not give up."

Alice is anything but naïve and is acutely aware of the evil that has always been present in our world. "I know about the bad, but I look for the good," she says.

Groundbreaking research in neuroscience and psychology is affirming that when we are in a positive, optimistic and enthusiastic state of being, we are ultimately happier and much more creative and productive. Yet looking for the good does not come naturally to us-our biological and evolutionary characteristics leave us highly prone to look for the negative; to see threats all around us and to be ever ready for flight or fight. And the statistics of our society give stark credence to the impact of negative emotions:

· Many studies show how prolonged stress, chronic fatigue, and deepened cynicism lead to other unhealthy outcomes such as obesity,