Chapter 1 of the book Strong & Happy
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Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
– John Lennon
Death is Always Looking Over Your Shoulder
Everything we do and express comes down to death. If you are going to follow the road to happiness, then you must accept that the first constant of life is death. How often do you think about death? I would wager that most of you avoid the subject altogether. Others may think of death as something in the distant future. This is a mistake. Before you can live, you must learn to embrace the concept that your time on this Earth is finite.
There is a point in the life of every parent when a child comes to the realization that the child will die. The parent consoles the child with a sentence that has enslaved humanity, “That won’t happen for a very long time, so don’t even think about it.”
This is when the mold for distraction is cast. As a result, most of humanity looks the other way when it comes to death. This life of distraction follows a simple formula:
1. Leave for work.
2. Work hard all day.
3. Come home exhausted.
4. Watch television.
6. Repeat 5-6 times, starting at step 1.
7. Spend weekends dealing with shopping, kids, home repair, auto repair, etc.
8. Long for your childhood.
9. Repeat steps 1-8 until you die.
It is called the rat race for a reason. Funny thing is most of us are so distracted by the race that we do not see what awaits us at the finish line. If you are lucky, then you get to experience this thing called life for two to four weeks a year while on vacation. The average lifespan in the U.S. is 78 years. That means the accumulation of a lifetime of annual four-week vacations is four years. If you are the average person, then, apart from childhood, you only get to live about four years during your entire life. My point is not that you do not have to work. It is that you are so distracted that you do not take time to consider what you are doing with your life. As Socrates said:
The unexamined life is not worth living
Perhaps the consoling words previously described are the right thing to say to a frightened child. My parents said them to me, and I said them to my child. If I could do it over, then I think I would tell him something different. I would tell him, “Yes you will die. That is why is it so important to cherish those you love and live every moment to its fullest. It is death that makes life worth living.” As Dr. Wayne Dyer would say:
Embrace life to the fullest and live a more deeply passionate life.
After moving back to New York, my first wife and I lived above her parents in their four-family home. An elderly couple and their twenty-six-year-old daughter occupied the apartment across from us. One evening, I came across this family in the hallway. They were taking the wife to the hospital for a stomach issue. Before leaving, I turned to the wife to console her. “Everything will be fine,” I said casually. She looked at me with pure terror in her eyes and clamped her hand to my wrist as if grasping for life itself. No words were spoken, but I knew she was convinced that she would die. The following morning, the husband and daughter returned home alone. The hospital staff took the wife’s situation lightly and assumed she was simply constipated. As a result, they administered a colonic. It turns out her bowel was obstructed, and the colonic caused her bowel to rupture. She bled to death in the emergency room.
If fate made a deal with the wife and told her she would live if she agreed to embrace life and be happy for the rest of her days, then I am convinced she would have said yes. Put yourself in that woman’s place as you are reading this book. We all die. We all face tragedy at some point in our lives. Tomorrow, any one of us could be in the situation of that poor woman. This is your chance to make that deal before it is too late. Will you agree to embrace life and be happy now, or will you wait until that look of terror is in your eyes.
We should embrace life as if we will never die and live as if we will die at any moment
If death does not motivate you, then think about old age. It will catch up to us all. Children grow up leave the nest, and widows and widowers find themselves utterly alone.
I was nine years old on a hot Brooklyn day in 1970. My friends drew chalk bases on the black asphalt for a game of punch ball. I was playing second base when a home run was hit over my head. I ran down the block to retrieve the ball. I was reaching into the corner gutter to pick up the ball when I heard a knocking sound. I looked up to see an old Italian woman inside the window of the corner house. She motioned for me to come inside and to sit at her dining room table. She disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a sleeve of Yankee Doodle cupcakes. I ate the cupcakes as she muttered kind words in Italian. My friends were yelling for me to rejoin the game, so I finished the cupcakes and got up to leave. Then the sky thundered, and the old woman cowered in fear. She was so desperate for me to stay that she took a few dollars from her purse and motioned for me to take the money. This once proud woman was so lonely that she resorted to bribing a child for a few minutes of comfort. I am proud to say that I did not take the money, but I am ashamed to say that I did not stay all that much longer. I was nine and wanted to be with my friends. I suppose it would take quite a special nine-year-old to have stayed. Unfortunately for that woman, that special nine-year-old was not me.
The wife and the old woman in my stories can and will be you at some point in time. They were not given a second chance. I am giving you a second chance right now. The time you have here and now is your only opportunity to be happy. Do you really want to spend it being unhappy?
From death grows the second constant of life: self-interest. We know our time is finite, so everything we do is done for ourselves. In a nutshell, we strive to get as much of what we desire while we can. This pertains to every action in our lives whether it be work, our relationships, and even charity. We work for the personal possession of money, comfort, and status. We are in relationships to satisfy our needs for companionship and reproduction. We donate to charity to feel good about ourselves. People shy away from embracing their self-interests because they often confuse self-interest with greed and selfishness. This is a common misconception. Self-interest is what drives humanity. As I infer in the financial section of this book, if you cannot take care of yourself, then how do you expect to take care of others? To be happy you must acknowledge that everything you do is driven by your own self-interest.
Existentialism is the belief that the only thing that matters is the here and now. I am not a huge believer in existentialism, except to say that if the only thing that matters is the here and now, then it is our responsibility to be happy in the here and now.
Theistic existentialism found many of its roots in Christian writings. If you are among those who believe in God, then please remember that, by God’s own words, it is not a sin to be happy. Personally, I live by the word of God but not under the man-made guilt of puritan ideals and organized religions. The God fearing and atheist alike need follow just one rule:
Do whatever makes you happy as long as you do not infringe on the right of others to be happy
Be a Rabbit
When out of their burrows, rabbits are always on the lookout for predators. In addition to their keen sense of smell, rabbits can watch their own backs by articulating their heads 360 degrees. A rabbit never forgets that wolves are always at the door.
We call this acuity situational awareness. Once upon a time, humans were not very different from rabbits. We knew life was messy and dangerous and that predators were everywhere. Put simply, we expected the unexpected. As humanity grew, both technically and sociologically, we lost our acute sense and readiness to danger. We fooled ourselves into thinking that life was not messy. We stopped expecting the unexpected. As a result, we are thrown off our game when the unexpected jumps in front of us. We go through life thinking we will be happy once we get all our ducks in a row. Instead, we should be happy now by accepting that the Universe is a messy place, and our ducks will wander.
Once I get all my ducks in a row,
then I will be happy
─ should be ─
Once I accept that ducks will wander,
then happiness will be in my grasp
People expect predictability. When we rise in the morning, we expect everything to fall into place. We wake with a plan that we expect to unfold like a road map. But even roads have hazards, and when things do not go as planned, we find ourselves unhappy. As a result, we strive for more stability only to find that we are even less happy. The unexpected goes by many descriptions: uncertainty, surprise, and chaos. What you call it does not matter. Learning to accept it as part of your daily life does. The illusion of control drives this behavior. The next step of being happy is to understand that the boundary of our control is within ourselves. You cannot control the behavior of others. You cannot control the occurrence of unforeseen events. You can, however, control how you react to others and how you react to unforeseen events. Happiness is within you.
Stop It! is a comedy sketch performed by Saturday Night Live. In this sketch, Bob Newhart plays a psychologist who is visited by a woman with a pathological fear of being buried alive in a box. He treats her by saying, “Stop it!” “Stop what?” she replies. “Stop being afraid of being buried alive in a box,” he yells. The woman is taken aback. She verbalizes that the therapy is moving too fast and the solution he offers is too simplistic. He asks if she wants more therapy and she nods her head in agreement. As a final solution, Newhart leans
across the desk and loudly shouts, “STOP BEING AFRAID OF BEING BURIED ALIVE IN A BOX, OR I WILL BURY YOU ALIVE IN A BOX!”
As stated in the sketch, this therapy is overly simplistic. It is also totally hilarious. Nonetheless, it does make a point. It is up to you to change. Only you are in control of yourself. Nobody else is out there working 24x7 to make you happy.
The Invisible Gorilla
A lot of what I am writing may come across as common sense. Even so, many people find themselves blind to these facts. Modern life conditions us to see only what we expect to see. You may want to go to the following link and view the first two videos before reading further.
The Invisible Gorilla is the title of a book authored by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The book is based on the two videos referenced above. In the first video, students pass a basketball between themselves. The viewers are asked to count the number of times the players with white shirts pass the ball. As this is happening, a woman in a gorilla costume walks out into the middle of the game, stops, looks directly at the camera, pounds her chest, and walks off frame. Fifty percent of the people watching are so involved with counting that they do not see the gorilla. This is termed ‘Unintentional Blindness.’ Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman writes of similar results in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Among other things, Kahneman shows that our brains can only do one thing at a time. This explains why many people do not see the gorilla. Kahneman postulates that we have two basic ways of thinking. System-1 is emotional, and System-2 is logical. Studies show that our decisions are twice as likely to be influenced by our emotional thoughts (System-1) than by our logical thoughts (System-2).
If we are serious about following a road to happiness, then we must stop being blinded by our emotions and logically embrace the reality of uncertainly.
The only thing that is certain is uncertainty
Accepting the reality of uncertainty does not mean that you cannot plan for it. All of us strive for stability. Stability keeps us healthy and provides a feeling of well being. Accepting uncertainly means being ready for it. Planning allows us to have alternatives when the unexpected does happen. If you run to the store to purchase eggs, then your goal is to purchase eggs.
Your expectations may be:
Walk to car.
Get in car.
Put car in gear.
Drive to store.
Turn off car.
Walk into store.
Pick up eggs.
Pay for eggs.
Walk to car.
Get in car.
Put car in gear.
Walk to front door.
If you are like most people, then the thought of the uncertainties below may not have crossed your mind:
Trip and break a leg while walking to or from car.
Car will not start.
Car will not drive.
Get into car accident.
Get hit by car while walking to store.
No eggs at store.
Crazed person attacks you.
Burglar is in your home when you arrive.
This exercise may seem extreme, but these things can and do happen. Yes, you can deal with them, survive them, and still be happy knowing the world is an uncertain place. However, you will be much better off if you plan for them.
Yes Virginia, Scorpions Sting
The children played in a room of chaos as the staff tried to usher them around the birthday cake. The colors were disjointing. Only a child could love this, I thought. I was at the Gymboree party for the fifth birthday of our son, Matthew. I balanced the large VHS camera on my shoulder, pushed the record button, and I looked through the view finder. What I saw made my heart sink.
The year was 1995. We had just closed on a house in Long Island and were making ready for the move from Brooklyn. Matthew’s birthday came up a few weeks before. As I videotaped our son, I saw Matthew roll his eyes and head. Anyone else may have thought this was just a reaction to the excitement, but I knew better. I watched my brother display the same tics throughout my childhood. It was undeniable, Matthew had Tourette syndrome.
Since then, our son has grown to be an amazing man from whom I have learned a lot and of whom I could not be more proud. In 1995, however, I could not shake the guilt of having put him on this Earth. My guilt peaked when I watched my innocent little man convulse, twitch, and gulp as he tried to sleep one night. Choking back tears, I promised that I would never put another child through such torment. This became a huge issue for my first wife whose happiness appeared centered around getting attention from others. As our son grew, and as other relatives had children of their own, my first wife felt cheated. Put simply, she wanted more children. Over the years, she continued to push the matter with no regard for the pain with which I was dealing. I stood firm and refused to break the promise that I made to our young son. I asked her to consider adoption, but she stated that she could never love someone else’s child as her own. Eventually, she came to the realization that we would be a one-child family. Years later, she fell in love with a married man who promised to give her children.
I do not begrudge my first wife for wanting more children or for seeking happiness elsewhere. How could I value my right to make decisions for my own happiness if I do not respect the rights of others to do the same. What I do begrudge is how she did it. Instead of seeking an amiable separation, she waged a vicious divorce that put me and our son through years of anguish.
My career was doing quite well during the time of my first divorce. I was grossing nearly two-hundred thousand dollars a year, had forty-thousand dollars in the bank, and I just received
a twenty-five-thousand-dollar year end bonus. Additionally, I was making extra payments to pay our house off early, and I was just about to invest in gold, real estate, and oil futures as a five-year plan for early retirement. When planning for the divorce, I offered to move out of the house, allow my first wife to retain two-third ownership of the house, and provide her with twenty-four hundred dollars a month in child support. We agreed to pay all outstanding bills, divide what remained of our savings, and schedule time with a mediator on that coming Saturday. I arrived home from work that Friday evening to find my first wife waiting at the door.
“I did something today. Do you promise not to get mad,” she said.
“What is it?”
“Do you promise not to get mad.”
“How can I promise not to get mad when I don’t know what it is that you did.”
“I went to see a lawyer.”
“Why did you do that? I thought we agreed to go through a mediator”
“Because I don’t like the idea of the mediator assigning me a lawyer.”
“I thought you wanted a mediator. Besides, if you want to use your own lawyer at the mediation, then that is fine,” I said.
“The lawyer told me that we’re doing it all wrong and that I have to protect myself. So, I went to the
bank and withdrew all the money from our joint account.”
“You did what! You know we need that money to pay the bills and the taxes that we owe,” I stated.
“Because I have to protect myself,” she persisted.
“I see. You had me out on a wild goose chase, while you met with lawyers to stab me in the back. I thought we agreed to do this civilly. Now I will have to get a lawyer,” I replied.
“No don’t do that. I’m sorry, I’ll write checks to pay off the bills and write you a check for half the remaining funds,” she pleaded.
The next day, she wrote the checks and we put them in the mail. That Monday, I discovered the checks were cancelled. I went to her workplace to
find that she quit her job that morning. I met with her later at the part-time job she worked on weekends. She stepped outside and we spoke:
“Why did you quit your job? I asked.
“Because I have to show the court that I am home raising our son,” she replied.
“Why are you doing this?
“Because my lawyer said that I can keep the house and get you to support me for the rest of my life. Besides, I don’t want you to have any money to spend on other women.”
Later that day, I retained an attorney, and he discovered that a warrant was issued for my arrest. I was accused of spousal abuse and harassment of my first wife at her place of work. A brutal five-year divorce and custody battle ensued. Adding fuel to the fire, my first wife started a live-in relationship with an alcoholic who was convicted of violent crimes. Together, they pressured our son to speak against me. By way of tying the court up in paperwork and adjournments, my first wife got to keep all the savings. In addition to supporting the family household and my own livelihood, I was made to pay for lawyers, court costs, $20,000 in taxes, and $25,000 in credit card debt. Overall, the cost to remain in our son’s life totaled $400,000 during the five-year period of the divorce. As a result, I cashed out my pension and depleted my savings for retirement. By the time of my second divorce, the wealth I made from my prime years was gone. I found myself in debt and starting over at fifty-five years old. Worst of all, our son lost his childhood. Even my first wife did not fare as well as she could have. The court awarded her far less than I offered when we agreed on mediation. All our wealth went to lawyers and court costs instead of our son and his education. I think that anyone who knows me would describe me as a generous person. Had my first wife allowed me to prosper, then she would have prospered as well, and our son would especially have prospered.
In the end, the choices I made destroyed my plans to retire early. I felt that I had already paid my dues. I grew up as the poorest kid on the block. I attended what became one of the most dangerous and violent high schools in Brooklyn. I worked, struggled, and paid my way through college while my friends drove nice cars and went on dates. I took low paying jobs with long hours to gain experience. Then, when I finally had the golden ring at the tips of my fingers, I let someone else take it from me.
Many who hear this story accuse me of making myself look good at the expense of my first wife. I assure you that is not the case. In fact, it was worse than described. However, I do not blame my first wife. She is what she is. The choices I made enabled the situation to grow out of control. By being reasonable, I expected the sequence of events to run a reasonable course. In so doing, I was not ready for the unexpected, and I paid for it dearly. Lack of preparation was only part of my lesson. Like the invisible gorilla, I allowed myself to see only what I wanted to see. After four years of dating and thirteen years of marriage, I knew my first wife. I knew how vicious and petty she was towards people she did not like. I knew full well that she was extremely insecure, jealous, and incapable of being reasonable. Nonetheless, I turned to reason. Instead, knowing her nature, I could have closed the bank accounts to assure the funds were evenly divided. When I learned of her infidelity, I could have immediately filed for a divorce rather than working with her for a common good. This would have given me the leverage for us both to have fair and amicable visitation with our son. I was trying to obtain a win-win outcome with a person of a win-lose mindset. I have since learned that, both in life and business, negotiating for a win-win outcome with a person of a win-lose mindset is a disaster.
Negotiating for a win-win outcome with a
person of a win-lose mindset is a disaster
This concept is driven home with a popular fable
A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river
The frog, afraid of being stung, hesitates
The scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, then they would both drown
Considering this, the frog agrees
Midway across the river the scorpion stings the frog
As they drown, the frog asks the scorpion why
The scorpion replies that the frog knew it was a scorpion
I knew my first wife was a scorpion, but I chose to carry her, and I got stung. If you pick up a scorpion and it stings you, then you cannot blame the scorpion for being a scorpion. Instead, you learn not to pick up scorpions in the first place.
At the time of my divorce, I did not expect the unexpected. I did not accept that life was messy and full of chaos. I did not expect that my master plan could be altered by forces that I could not control. I did not expect that there would be a predator standing right alongside of me in my safe little rabbit hole. Back then, I was shook-up, depressed, and I allowed myself to be helpless. These days, I have come to accept that bad things happen. When they do happen, I do not let them control me or who I am. Instead, I face them head-on and move to greener pastures.
Most people do not believe me when I tell them that I was a huge failure early in my sales career. Coming from a scientific and service background, I assumed that people would respect my integrity. Instead, they took advantage of me. I learned that selling is not easy. I accepted that sales is a cold, cruel world where your job is on the line each and every month. I found success by being prepared for the worst, while hoping for the best. I told myself that if I lost my job, then I would simply move on to the next gig. As a result, I was no longer desperate to make a sale and started walking away from deals that were not mutually beneficial. Guess what? My sales skyrocketed!
Things do not and will not go exactly the way you plan. If you accept this, and plan for unexpected consequences, then you will not have to seek out happiness, because happiness will find you. In his book, Your Erroneous Zones, Dr. Dyer illustrates this with a story of a kitten chasing in circles after its tail. When an older cat asks why, the kitten responds that its tail is happiness. The older cat agrees and explains that when it chases its tail it could never seem to catch it; but when it leaves the tail alone, the tail follows the cat wherever it goes.
I often say: Everything works out in the end. A lady I once dated challenged me on this.
“But everything doesn’t work out in the end,” she said.
“Sure, it does,” I replied.”
“But you die in the end,” she countered.
“Yes,” I said. “And when you die all your worries are over. So, it works out, doesn’t it?”
It is true. Things always work out in the end, even if they end badly. In the meantime, you should live.
Don’t sweat the small stuff…
and it’s all small stuff
– Richard Carlson –
I was running late on the day of my lady’s birthday. Having only moments to spare, I popped into the local florist for a bouquet of roses. I spied a tiny wooden plaque as the florist prepared the bouquet. This plaque would make the perfect daily reminder, I thought. “The flowers are ready,” said the shopkeeper. I put the plaque down and hurried out of the flower shop. That following Monday, I rushed back to the florist and bought the plaque for $10. Today, it sits on the windowsill of our office to remind us of what happiness really is. The plaque reads:
How to find happiness.…
3. be grateful
The Meaning of Life
The other day, I had a conversation with my lady’s twenty-something year old son.
“Do you know the actor Laurence Olivier?” I asked.
“No,” he responded.
“You do know who Dustin Hoffman is. Right?” I continued.
“No,” he responded.
Laurence Olivier was once considered the greatest actor of all time, but few people today know who he is. In truth, I did not expect a young man in his twenties to know Laurence Olivier. Dustin Hofmann was another story. He planted his roots in the movie The Graduate and he cemented his legacy in pop favorites like Tootsie. Based on our conversation, Hoffman was already forgotten by the youngest generation. I say this to make a point. In a few short generations, even the most accomplished among us will be forgotten. Even the greatest of us cannot compete with time ─ and death.
The day before my father died, he turned to me and asked, “Michael. What is the meaning of it all? Why are we here? Why do we live, work, have children, and then die?” This tugged at my heart. My father knew he was going to die and turned to me for answers. More than ever, he wanted to find a purpose to his life. I put my hand on his shoulder and said sadly, “I don’t know dad.”
Truth is there is no meaning to life, and that my friends is the meaning of life. Why then are we here? For the ride of course. Yes, I just likened the journey of life to a ride. When you ride a roller coaster, you get on, you get thrilled, there are ups and downs, you get off, and then it is over. If it is going to end anyway, then why ride the roller coaster in the first place? We ride it for the thrill. Life is no different.
The nature of man is to play
– Nolan Bushnell –
Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, said that the nature of man is to play. We especially love to play the game of life, which is the greatest game of all. Best of all, you do not have to win or lose, you just have to enjoy playing.
When my son and I discussed the meaning of life, I said:
“The meaning of life is to see how it all ends. To see the evolutionary processes and changes that take place throughout our lives.”*
“That’s what Lex Luthor said to A.M.A.Z.O in Justice League,” he retorted.
“You should know that I get most of my wisdom from cartoons, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant,” I said with a wink.
None of us know how our stories are going to end. As Lex Luthor said, “That’s why I stay in the game. My purpose, if you will, is to see where it’s all going.”*
To sum it up: You are in control of your happiness. You can do good, be happy, and spend your limited time walking on the sunny side of the street; or you can walk in the shadows. The choice is yours.
*Justice League Unlimited episode entitled, “The Return.” Warner Bros. Animation and DC Comics.
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