Recently I was watching The Bucket List and there’s a scene where Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are sitting on top of one of the pyramids in Giza. Morgan Freeman’s character tells Jack Nicholson’s that the ancient Egyptians believed that when you got to Heaven, you were asked two questions and your answers determined if you were allowed to move on.
The first was whether you found joy in your life and the second was whether you brought joy to others.
And that got me thinking…
I’ve been mildly unhappy for most of my life. Well, let’s say moderately unhappy. Wait. Let’s make that pretty unhappy. Okay. If the truth be told, most of the time I’ve been so unhappy that I’d have to categorize is as depression.
Luckily, I have been blessed over these past few years to see that the cause of my unhappiness stems from constantly looking outside of myself for happiness; for some sense of worth; for love. And, though it is not a good practice to speak in “absolutes,” I feel safe in saying that I will never find any sense of self-worth outside of myself.
But I wondered if there was ever a time in my life, amidst all the clouds, that I felt some semblance of joy.
My initial stumbling block to this question was the definition of Joy. What is joy?
I went to Dictionary.com.
Joy – noun – The emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation; a state of happiness or felicity.
Okay. Elation. I was elated at the birth of my children. Those events were joyful, but they were immediately followed with trepidation about whether I’d be able to care for them and some confusion as to why these people chose me as a father.
I felt exceptionally good when my oldest son became a police officer; having cried for two days following being invited to pin his badge on him.
I do feel incredibly good when I observe how hard my daughter works to raise her daughter and seeing the two of them laugh together.
Watching my youngest light up when he’s on the set of a film or TV show does, indeed, feel joyful.
But these events are still, if I wish to get technical about it, caused by something outside of me. I suppose it is happiness caused by the love I feel for them and observing them following their own path. And, yes, I’ve been in love at various times in my life. But all of those feelings were caused by me focusing on someone outside of myself.
I wondered if I ever felt “keen pleasure” from something I’ve done or experienced on my own.
I thought some more.
It was immensely difficult to uncover a moment of joy from a life of unhappiness and depression. When had I ever felt joy? Heck, when had I ever felt happy or, for that matter, even simply good?
And then something clicked into my memory…
Many decades ago, I was employed at a TV station in the Southern California desert. My job was to produce commercials for local advertisers. My assignment that day was to drive across the valley and videotape a new restaurant. I was in a pretty foul mood, though I cannot, at this point, recall the specifics. Doesn’t matter. I was in a bad mood. It happened quite often. I was sure that this was going to be another client who wanted a hundred-thousand dollar TV commercial for 350 bucks. This, by the way, was more money than I made in a week putting up with these clueless knuckleheads.
The crew and I arrived on time and, while they unloaded the gear, I went in to meet the restaurant manager. I can’t recall his name, but I’m going to say here that it was Mike.
Mike welcomed me and offered a soft drink from the bar. We discussed his ideas and I gave my suggestions. I looked around for angles of various shots and Mike and I continued to talk. He had a gentle, friendly demeanor and as the crew began setting up, I realized that I’d become quite relaxed and more at ease. My foul mood had lifted and I found myself enjoying my conversation with Mike.
I do not remember any more of the specifics of the day, but I was so amazed at my emotional transformation during those few hours that I took a moment to talk with Mike while the crew loaded the equipment back into the truck. I asked if he had one more moment for me and he said, “Sure!”
I explained to him that I was in a bad mood when I’d arrived but that simply spending time with him demonstrated to me that my mood was all in my own mind and that I could discern no real reason for it. It had been such a transformational realization for me that I told him I was compelled to thank him for the example he had been for me that morning. I can’t recall much more of his response other than his smile and handshake.
I returned to the office, but the events of that day stayed with me for a long time. As I’d talked with Mike that day, it was as if I could actually feel a physical sensation of the heaviness of my “bad” mood being lifted from my body. It felt as if, had I been able to see it, the bad feelings floated, like a vaporous mass, up and away. The feeling was that vivid to me.
I didn’t see Mike again. He left his job as the restaurant manager and the eatery soon closed or changed hands. I moved on to another job at the station but many months later I saw my former boss in the hallway.
She said, “Hey! I’m working on a commercial for a furniture store. Do you know who the manager is? Didn’t you work on a commercial for Mike a few years ago when he managed a restaurant?”
“Yes!” I said. “He’s a great guy! How’s he doing?”
She said, “He’s got cancer.”
I don’t recall how I responded but I felt badly for the rest of the afternoon.
After work that day, for reasons unknown to me, I found myself heading across the desert, opposite of my normal direction home. I located the furniture store and went in. I felt a bit awkward, sort of uncertain as to what I was doing there. A salesperson approached me and I asked for Mike. A few moments later, Mike came out. I shook his hand and said that I didn’t expect him to remember me.
He smiled and said, “I think I remember you from that day…”
I said, “Well, the reason I stopped by is that I heard you were having some medical challenges…”
“Well,” he said, still smiling. “We’ll keep forging ahead and see how things go.”
I can’t recall exactly what I said to him but it was something like, “Mike, I’m glad to hear that. But when (my boss) mentioned you today, I immediately recalled that day, a few years ago, and the lesson I learned from meeting you…” I explained my foul mood and how being around him and his gentle nature had lifted my mood and demonstrated to me that my feelings came from within me and that I could change them if I would but realize it. “I just wanted to take a moment to tell you that you impacted my life in a positive way; in a way in which I’ll never fully be able to describe to you or for which I can ever thank you.”
Without a word, he shook my hand. Our eyes were both moist and I told him I wished him well, thanked him again for that day and then I left. On the way home I felt what can only be described as elation. It was joy. It felt like every molecule in my body was vibrating at a higher frequency. I spontaneously began singing in my car and I doubt I could have suppressed it if I tried. Without conscious thought of what had happened, some part of me was aware that I’d driven across the desert to say thank you to a person who was basically a stranger to me; to thank him for making a mark on my life and to wish him well with his upcoming challenges.
Recalling that feeling at this time, I can tell you that it was, indeed, joy and, quite possibly, the most joy I’ve ever felt at any moment in this life. At the time I wasn’t conscious of the exact origins of my feelings, but I can now only tell you that it was, I believe, because I went out of my way to be kind to another in his moment of pain or uncertainty. And the feeling was incredible.
Is this the true meaning of life? Is being kind to others the real reason I exist? Recalling the joy I felt in my body that day leads me to believe that it is the only explanation.
As to the second question, I doubt that I’ve ever brought joy to another’s life. But being kind; being loving to another human being brought me the greatest joy I have ever felt.
I need to do that more often.