This has not been an easy year. It has been marked by the loss of loved ones, sudden injury, unimaginable traumas, people’s sense of stability being whipped out from under them. Of course, these are markers that are always part of the human experience. Many people in many places are suffering always. But I’ve noticed, at least among the circles of people I know, a particular sense of difficulty this year. And it has made me think, again and again, of Baba’s deceptively simple missive: Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
Worrying is something I do quite well. If Baba had directed us to ‘really think every little thing through and weigh the pros and cons and try not to do anything until you are absolutely sure it is the right thing to do and then second guess yourself always,’ I’d be golden. But the instructions we actually received, not to worry and instead to be happy, those words–which sound almost child-like in their breeziness–turn out to be much more of a challenge to master. And when the focus of worry turns from the daily chatter of what to make for dinner, what to wear to work, whether I got the best price on gas, if I’m going to get enough sleep and whose phone calls I haven’t returned, to deeper more heart-wrenching troubles, like watching a dear friend die or knowing a baby who is born with a heart that might not last, the pull of worry becomes so difficult to resist. The second part of the direction, to be happy, seems even farther from reach.
But here is what I’ve noticed: sometimes, the people closest to the pain, those living through it directly or those closest to them, are the ones who teach the rest of us how to abandon worry, amidst suffering, for the sake of something that is more like pure presence. And that simply being present to what is really happening may involve pain and it may involve happiness too, but that free from a fixation on outcomes, any moment can give way to experiencing His company. I’ve also noticed that when I go deep into my own worry, when I stand in the middle of it and look for somewhere to go, the only real doorway out is to surrender, to believe in the wholeness of His plan. And though leaning toward surrender feels more like a free fall than a celebration, something not unlike joy sometimes follows. Not the happiness of the heart getting everything it wanted tied up in a bow but the joy of trusting in Him and accepting a role, whatever it is, in His dance.
And this makes me wonder what worry is really about and what happiness is. When I trace worry in myself, it is almost always connected to anxiety that things will not turn out as I want them to or that I will not be able to ensure that things are being done in the best way possible. Which is to say, I worry because I want to control what happens to and around me and I worry so much because life just does not work that way. And happiness? There is something about happiness that can feel untethered, almost like the self has momentarily slipped out of its skin into something far larger than itself. Maybe we sometimes even choose sadness or worry because it makes our ephemeral lives feel more concrete and important. As it is expressed in the beginning of this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye:
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
Sometimes I think that Baba’s whole cosmology is wrapped up in the seemingly simple order Don’t Worry, Be Happy. And that the endless opportunities for daily worry are there so we can practice the discipline of going with His plan instead of resisting it. Until we find that, even in the hardest times, there is a door flung open, where we can walk deeper into His company, deeper into joy.