A few evenings ago, as Chad and I were walking Lexi, I was talking about how lucky I am. I’d started out talking about this incredible encounter that took place at the Sausalito Art Festival last weekend, where I was on the receiving end of an astonishing act of generosity and grace, but as the walk continued into its second mile, I’d begun to wax poetic about my luck more generally. I was listing off all the acts of unexpected kindness, all the surprising good things that have happened to me, all the people who’ve reached out to me and made me better by their presence in my life… until I was interrupted by Chad’s laughter.
He said I wasn’t that lucky. “What about when the moving truck full of everything we owned got stolen ?” he asked me. “What about our business that couldn’t survive the economic downturn? What about all our savings that went with it? What about…”
I’ll spare you. He went on. Without even pausing to think, he listed about a dozen bad things that have happened to me over the years, and he wasn’t even talking about the minor stuff. He was listing my big losses, my worst disappointments.
“Okay, killjoy,” I said. “You can stop. I get it. I’m not that lucky.”
“Actually, that’s not my point. My point is that you think you’re lucky because you generally focus on the good stuff.”
“What you focus on expands,” I thought, and it was the first time I realized that phrase isn’t just about seeing beauty in an often ugly and unkind world. It’s not just about noticing the rescuers in a disaster, or practicing forgiveness, or choosing love. And even though I’ve written posts about how what you focus on expands, I’ve always thought of that phrase in terms of kindness begetting kindness, love begetting love. I hadn’t thought about how what you focus on arranges the molecules in your brain and heart, shapes your whole perception of the world, your life, yourself.
A lighthearted example of how my brain works:
One time, my family and another family we love rented a houseboat on Lake Shasta for a week. It was heaven for me. For a week, I played every day with people I adore. I swam and wake boarded, escaped to the top deck to read books all by myself, learned some new card games, hiked along the shoreline with my dog. After we got home, as I excitedly recounted to friends all the great times we’d had, someone reminded me about out how the plumbing had backed up (twice!) and we’d had to clean up some pretty awful stuff. And there was the part when our ski boat prop hit a rock and Chad and I spent a lot of hours (and money) finding a place that could get the part we needed and fix it in a day. And there was the night of the great fly invasion, and that other night when I was unprepared to start my period (which is a little more problematic when you’re in the middle of a lake in the wee, wee hours), and the time when, as we motored our way across the great expanse of Lake Shasta, our ski boat came untied from the houseboat and no one noticed for about half an hour.
And still, every time I talk about our houseboat vacation, what I remember is the blue-sky sun and the crazy number of stars you can see out on the lake at night. I talk about the water slide contests, the Marco Polo games, the glass-smooth, early morning water that was, literally, right outside our door.
This week, on Facebook, Elizabeth Gilbert posted the question, “How do you cope with all the horrible news in the world?” I loved her answer, which you should definitely read. I loved it because she addresses the idea some people have – a lot of people I think – that if you’re not focused all the time on all the shit that’s wrong in the world, it’s because you have no real problems, or you don’t care about the world’s problems, or your head is so far in the sand, you don’t notice the world’s problems. She says,
None of us can afford to live in a bubble — not in a world that needs engaged people. But find another way to express your compassion and your concern for the world, besides sitting in front of CNN for three straight hours, being assaulted by an endless parade of global horrors…
Also, remember this: We do not live in a time of special horror — no matter how it seems. Every generation has known its horrors. So it has always been, and probably always will be. It is our duty to be aware of these horrors, and to help where we can. But as all the great masters have taught us for centuries —we also have a duty to delight. We find our humanity, our restoration, in delight. We live in a world of both suffering and joy. Both are equal realities. To turn all your attention toward one (suffering) while completely disregarding the presence of the other (joy) is a pity — maybe almost a sin.
I think she’s right, and I think it applies not only to global tragedies, but to your own personal tragedies as well.
It’s not always a choice what to focus on. Sometimes, when you’re at the center of a terrible story, when your heart has been broken, or you just got laid off, or you’ve lost someone you love, or all the money’s gone, there’s nothing to do but live it, fully, excruciatingly. And there are times when you simply have to grieve the horrors of this world – stand up for something or fight against something – be one more voice in the chorus of voices crying out for change. There are times, I know, when it just isn’t possible to focus on what’s good and beautiful in the world, but for me, that will always be the place I want to get back to.
Because, when it comes right down to it, I guess I like believing I’m lucky.
If you’re curious about what I’ve been up to art-wise, check out the galleries, especially Art & Illustrations, where I just posted a cartoon I made from a writer’s photograph. His publisher has said maybe they’ll use it in his soon-to-be-released book! (And even if they don’t, I have years of conditioning to be excited about a publisher’s liking my work.)
If you’re curious about what I’ve been up to everything else-wise, join me on Facebook, where I keep everyone way too informed.