Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Why I Became a Happiness Warrior:
The Combined Wisdom of 400 Funerals

I go to way too many funerals. As a Rabbi, I’ve officiated at over 400 funerals.

You might imagine that excessive funeral attendance would leave me with a sense of hopelessness. In actuality, it has left me with a renewed sense of purpose.

Yes, every life is too short. I remember attending the funeral of a 103 year old woman, and watching her daughter cry bitterly at the cemetery. Now most of us could accept 103 as a ripe old age, so why did the daughter cry? Anticipating my question, she said to me: “it doesn’t matter when they go.... it’s always too soon”.

It’s always too soon, and life’s always too short.

And yes, life is often bitter as well. As I talk with the deceased’s family in preparation for the funeral, I often hear about their struggles with bankruptcy, tragedy, and illness. Indeed, personal difficulties are so ubiquitous one is inclined to agree with Buddha that “life is suffering”.

Life is tough.

But at these 400 funerals I discovered something else:

Life is wonderful.

In eulogies, I have heard multiple anecdotes about how the deceased made a difference. Sometimes it was by the way they warmly hugged and kissed their grandchildren, or the corny jokes they used to tell that somehow brought smiles to everyone’s faces. Even the shortest, toughest lives are filled with meaningful moments.

Even more inspiring are the anecdotes of struggle. About a father, weakened by cancer and chemotherapy, who takes his young son to the movies. About a mother who perseveres in making a family dinner even though she has just undergone surgery. About a grandfather who spends his final day writing a letter to his grandchildren, telling them how much he loves them.

I don’t know when it happened, but at one funeral I came to realization:

The awareness that life is tough is a prerequisite to finding happiness.

Soft and naive romantics, unprepared for the difficulties of life, have little hope of finding happiness. Expecting everything to be alright simply sets you up for disappointment.

If you truly want happiness, you have to be willing to fight for it. In short, I learned the only alternative to denial and cynicism is to become a happiness warrior.

Happiness warriors accept the harsh landscape of life, and are willing to commit themselves to the battle for happiness.

Having joined the cadre of happiness warriors, I can now pick them out of a crowd. No, they don't wear uniforms; but you can tell who they are because they're the ones with the chicken soup and corny jokes and..... quiet courage.

Postscript: Post on Darfur in National Post!

Also, this post appeared in today's National Post. (The link is here.) I am still shocked and amazed at how many other silly events get endless media attention (e.g., Anna Nicole Smith), and an ongoing genocide is ignored by the media and the international community (if you can call it that.)

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