The Power of a Choice
Among the things I learned during years of illness was the immense power we have to transform our life through the decisions we make. A simple choice can change our life for the better enabling us to be happier, kinder, and more resilient no matter what life throws our way.
One winter afternoon, in the depths of a dark depression, desperate and harboring suicidal thoughts, I spoke with a friend on the phone. In the course of our conversation she said, “Happiness is a choice. It’s a decision we make. We’re responsible for our own happiness.” It was not an easy thing for me to hear at the time. Her life was a bouquet of lovely spring flowers compared with mine and I was angered by what seemed then to be a cruelly clichéd observation.
But over the days that followed I thought about what she’d said. A long-time Buddhist, over three decades of meditation beneath her belt, I knew the depths of my friend’s wisdom. I trusted her. And so I wondered: could happiness really be so simple? Could I choose to be happy—despite all the reasons I had for being unhappy—and actually be happy?
One morning I gave it a try—just for that day, just to see what happened. Solely as an experiment I made a conscious choice to be happy. As the day progressed and the habit of unhappiness kicked in, I reaffirmed my decision. Along with that I practiced feeling happy—recalling what happiness felt like, I reproduced the sensation in my body. I practiced being cheerful. I smiled—even when I didn’t feel like it—and it worked. I was happier that day.
The next morning I made the same decision…and every day after that. The more I practiced the easier it became and because it felt good there was a lot of incentive. Slowly I became happier. I found reasons to be happy and to appreciate my life.
Living with my parents was a challenge for all of us. They lost their privacy and independence in their golden years; I lost the same in my middle years. I was grateful for their generosity but resented my dependence. Without at first realizing it, and certainly without meaning to, I’d allowed depression and anger to impact my behavior. I wasn’t being kind.
One morning I sat up in bed, thought about my situation and the love and gratitude I felt for my parents and made another strategic choice: to be kind to my mother and father. They deserved that of me and I wasn’t doing my best. I had disappointed myself. Suffering, I decided, was not going to be an excuse for unkindness. From that morning on, for many months, I didn’t get out of bed without reaffirming my decision.
At night before going to sleep I reviewed my behavior during the day: how had I spoken to my parents? How had I treated them? I celebrated my successes and acknowledged my failures. Then I let it go. In the morning I renewed my commitment and slowly I became kinder. As my happiness increased it was easier to be kind, as my kindness increased it was easier to be happy. My parents noticed the difference and they were happier. I was at peace and there was more peace in the house.
Illness and disability became my spiritual path. It was graduate level work and I often felt as if I were failing. Like anyone dealing with significant loss I had to go through all the stages of grief including anger—plenty of anger.
Every day became an opportunity to work with my mind, to be present with my experience with all of its challenges, in all of its textures. My daily meditation practice was an indispensable support. Over time I learned to be content with my life and to appreciate my days.