Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Iris On Happiness


The British novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch, wrote, "One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats."  At first this sounds like hedonism with a small "h," possibly resulting in enormous weight gain.  But what Iris is really telling us is to pay attention, and when we do, we discover that most ordinary days are in fact a long succession of small, sometimes tiny but nevertheless pleasurable, treats.

When I was young, I had nothing but disdain for small treats.  I was focused on big ones:  a degree, a job, a mate, a child, a house.  But once those treats are in place, what is left?  One could start all over again:  get another degree, find a new mate, have another child.  But those treats are problematic, and require a lot of energy.

It used to be that people got the big treats and then they died.  Now for most of us there are years and years to fill after the big treats have been bagged. What is left, to ease the string of decades between the age of the big treats and the end of life, is the small stuff.   So it's important to become adept at inventing and identifying small treats for ourselves. 

Sometimes the treats are so tiny as to be invisible to the naked eye, and it's a good idea to carry a magnifying lens so as not to miss any that might go unnoticed.  And we need to train ourselves to look forward to our small treats, and then to remember and be grateful for them afterwards.

I stumbled upon this practice all by myself--or perhaps it was divine inspiration--in the darkest times of my CFS.  When the day from dawn to dusk had held nothing but misery and malaise, I would lie in bed in a tangle of frustration, unable to sleep and endlessly rehearsing all the things I hadn't been able to do.  Then one night, to calm myself, I began to go over the last sixteen hours with a mental magnifying glass, starting with getting out of bed in the morning, and noting every single good thing that had happened to me, no matter how small.

It turned out that even a particularly bad day was a succession of continuous small treats.  There were so many, and counting them was so relaxing, that before I knew it I fell asleep.  But while I was going through the process I was amazed at how studded with good things those miserable hours had actually been.

What kind of things? There was the comfort of waking up in a warm house on a cold day, the jade plant blooming next to the sunny window, the spouse's offer to fetch pizza for dinner, the freedom to lie down when I absolutely had to, the dog at my side...these were all, when I focused on them, reasons for happiness and deep gratitude.

In Catholic school we were taught to every night, before going to sleep, make an examination of conscience, reviewing any faults we had committed during the day.  I have since replaced the examination of conscience with the counting of small treats.  The practice of gratitude, because it leads to happiness and contentment and thence to generosity, is just as likely to make me a better person as the awareness of my failings.

So now that the era of big treats is mostly over for me, I lie in bed at night, fingering my day bead by bead, a rosary of continuous small treats.  And long before the end, I always fall asleep.

11 comments :

  1. Thank you for this! Oddly, I was just recounting yesterday's unexpected small treats to a friend this morning. Timely, wonderful, a great reminder.

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  2. Learning this lesson has been, for me, the greatest gift of having ME/CFS. I have always been inclined to celebrate ordinary pleasures in life, but that practice of counting them --running my fingers through them, as it were-- is new to me. There are times in a bad flare when I have been forced to lie still, sometimes in pain, for hours or days at a time, unable to distract myself with TV, radio, or reading. Reviewing the things that give me pleasure, the cornucopia of small blessings, is such a balm.

    The other thing that I do is to practice noticing life’s little miracles. Hands. Hands are amazing. The pattern of a red cabbage when you slice it in half. Clothespins. The teensy-tiny stitches in tee-shirt cloth. The number of colors in a single green leaf when the light hits it. The smell of rain on asphalt. When you start noticing and paying attention, it’s endless. It fills me with awe.

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    1. Have you read The Sound Of A Wild Snail Eating? It is a truly beautiful book, written by a woman who had a CFS-like illness. And it's exactly about what you say in your last paragraph.

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    2. I have read it, and liked it so much I gave copies to several people for Christmas.

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  3. BEAUTIFUL ! You have given the perfect insight into growing old gracefully and with joy!

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  4. This is beautiful, and I think it applies to much more than just the later part of life. I am a stay-at-home mom, and do not have the big treats of promotions and raises and business deals. I do have days full of small treats though. That moment when both kids are settled in my lap reading a book, or both kids are toddling behind me in the store much to the amusement of other shoppers. Last night I was cooking dinner and the light changed in the kitchen and I noticed the sunset. Right now everyone is asleep but me, and I'm watching the sky gradually lighten as I drink tea.

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    1. Kathleen, you are clearly blessed with a talent for paying attention, something that most people have to work hard to learn.

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    2. Definitely a learned skill. I was a miserable graduate student and an angsty twenty-something.

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  5. Thank you for this. Amazing how what you need finds you somehow, and I needed this now. I will attend more to those small treats; I've been paying too much attention to the opposite.

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  6. I hope you find some lovely treats, Rosemary.

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  7. What a wonderful way to look at life, Lali.

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