Choosing joy

The puppy stopped suddenly, coming up short when he realized what he wanted was gone.

The younger, and far less dominant, of two dogs, he had been playing joyfully with a toy, shaking it and tossing it around, when it flew from his mouth and hit the floor with a thud. It caught the attention of the older, larger dog, who quickly grabbed it off the floor and walked away with it.

And just like that, the toy was gone.

This is a true story, which I tell because of what the little dog did next. His face took on a stunned look, and he stood motionless, silent, for a couple of seconds. I could practically see him thinking about what had just happened, and whether or how he should respond. Then shaking his head slightly , his face restored its happy puppy brightness, and he ran off to grab a different toy.

That’s Tank, one of the happiest dogs I’ve ever known—and I swear happiness is something he chooses. Many times I have seen him respond to minor adversities in just this way. He takes a moment to register what has happened, then seems to choose a path of joy. You just can’t get this little dog down.

We could all learn something from Tank.

This story comes to mind because I have just started reading The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with writer Douglas Abrams. It’s this month’s selection for my book club and one I have looked forward to. Subtitled “Lasting Happiness in a Changing World,” it chronicles one week that these spiritual leaders spent together talking about joy and how to cultivate it and live joyfully in the face of life’s worst hardships. I’ve read just the introduction and one chapter, and I’m hooked.

In one of their first conversations during their week together, Tutu asked the Dalai Lama why, after 56 years living in exile, “are you not morose?” The Dalai Lama gave several explanations:

  • He can’t end his exile or do anything that will help end it, so there’s no point letting it make him sad. “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?”
  • While his refugee status, and the situation he sees in his home country, give him cause for sadness and worry, he looks at the larger world and sees that his situation is no worse than those of many other people. “When I look at the world, there are a lot of problems. … When we see these things, we realize that not only do we suffer, but so do many of our human brothers and sisters. So when we look at the same event from a wider perspective, we will reduce the worrying and our own suffering.”
  • For all his sadness at not being able to live in or even visit his beloved home country, his exile has opened up new possibilities for him, exposing him to opportunities he believes he would not have had otherwise. “This new opportunity arrived because I am a refugee. If I remained in the Potala in Lhasa, I would have stayed in what has often been described as a golden cage: the Lama, holy Dalai Lama. … So, personally, I prefer the last five decades of refugee life. It’s more useful, more opportunity to learn, to experience life.”

The common theme of this first chapter is that we can choose joy over sorrow. We can choose not to dwell on the negative, and in so doing we can cultivate a positive outlook. We can cultivate joy, rather than sorrow.

As Archbishop Tutu said in his response to the Dalai Lama, “There are going to be frustrations in life. The question is not: How do I escape? It is: How can I use this as something positive?”

Perhaps there’s no profound insight here that we couldn’t reach on our own. But to know that this is a strategy used by both of these great spiritual leaders to remain positive and joyful in the face of the types of adversity they have experienced, adversity on a scale I hope never to confront, inspires me.

And I’ve read only the first chapter.


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