It’s been a while since I last hiked my favorite canyon, but recently I finally made it to Fryman early in the morning before the sun broke through the clouds. It was still hot, though, and my pace was slow. My legs weren’t up for the task and neither was my stamina. Weariness wore me down.
The landscape I was traversing seemed harsher than usual, but taking a break from routine will do that sometimes. At the end of June, I skipped town, trading the California dessert for the beaches of South Carolina and swapping wild sage for the lushness of southern pines and willowy sea grass. I loved the change of scenery, loved the salty sea air, and loved the ease of strolling on flat sand rather than climbing mountains. Routine was upended in favor of “want to” instead of “have to” and pleasure took precedence over habit. It felt awesome, decadent and selfishly delicious. The motto of numerous happiness experts –Do what you love! – was ringing in my ears.
But every vacation ends and no one’s life story follows the script of “happily ever after.” Real life is not always fun … or exciting … or easy. After all, who really wants to clean up the mess after dropping a jar of jelly? Who relishes the thought of scrubbing toilets week after week? And, let’s be honest, who ever writes a check to the government during tax season with a gleeful heart? Some things just have to be done, regardless of how you feel about it. Furthermore, as evidenced by my brief vacation, pursuing only happiness can leave one a bit weak-kneed and unprepared for challenges.
Maybe the better strategy is simply to stop casting judgment on whether something is good or bad. Most things, as the Tao suggests, are comprised of equal measures of good and bad, light and darkness, sweet and sour. Take, for instance, the trail I just hiked. During winter months, the sky is often deep blue; green grass lines the dirt path, and birds call to one another from distant perches. In summer, the only color that abounds is brown. The sky is typically buried in a yellow haze and more often than not, the only bird I hear is the occasional hawk chasing its prey.
I may prefer one scenario to the other, but who am I to say which one is good? The moment I declare the summer landscape as “bad,” I find resistance within me about going there. I make excuses like, “Why go when nothing looks pretty?” or “Why go when the heat is so exhausting?” The funny thing is that the trail itself doesn’t change much. At its core, the canyon trail is always steep, rugged, and rocky. Only the surrounding elements change with the season. Likewise, my passion for hiking doesn’t subside; it’s just easier when it’s cooler and the hillsides are prettier. Either way, it’s a great workout. And there always are lessons to be learned and beauty to be found, even in the brittleness of summer.
As I was finishing my dry, dusty loop this morning, I rounded a curve, panting and sweating from the heat, only to be greeted by a tall, round Oleander bush aglow with flamingo-pink blossoms. It was like water to my parched lips. So I stopped and savored the sight, knowing full well that in the middle of winter those blossoms hadn’t even begun to form on the branches of that splendid plant. “To everything a season,” my Nana used to say. Indeed, nature has a way of reminding us (if we dare to pay attention) that nothing stays the same. The moon waxes and wanes, flowers bloom and fade, and temperatures rise and fall. And what we deem “good” one day, may actually become “bad” on another.
Happiness is like that, too. It comes and goes, and the more we try to hold onto it, the quicker it dissolves. If we cling to either our need for happiness or our definition of what it is, we’re likely to grumble and complain about how miserable we are, how unfair we’re being treated, or how terrible our luck is. With every negative declaration, life becomes less happy and less manageable. Relationships become more difficult. Words become more explosive. And peace of mind becomes more intangible.
Having the discipline not to pass judgment wouldn’t make the hard times disappear, but it would make us flexible enough to look for the good in less than desirable experiences. It wouldn’t be an exercise to mindlessly repeat untrue affirmations about how wonderful we feel when we’re actually feeling miserable, but it would require an acknowledgement that suffering is part of life. And it certainly wouldn’t be an excuse to do nothing in the face of wrong actions, but it would require us to proceed with respect, kindness, and compassion. With that openness of spirit, you, too, will likely catch sight of something beautiful blooming in the midst of your desert.