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21 Sep

Always look on the bright side of life – At the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a large group of condemned criminals hang on crosses singing (and whistling) “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” If you’ve seen the movie and are a fan of Monty Python, no explanation is necessary (in fact, I bet you’re already whistling the song). If you’ve never seen the movie and are not a fan of Monty Python, no amount of explanation would ever be enough. This conveniently frees me from the obligation of attempting such an explanation, which is nice. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), today’s entry is not really related to the movie or the song. I just thought it would make a nifty (and ironic, when taken in context) title for the ramblings I am about to foist on the unsuspecting masses.

“When you start to focus exclusively on the future, you lose the ability to enjoy the present”

The end of my last entry was an attempt at Photoshopping a silver lining around the dark cloud of stress that my life is right now. Well, things aren’t really that bad, but I am pretty stressed. No, nothing has changed in my situation since my last entry (the semester is still underway, I am still buried under work, I am still getting calls for jobs that I have to turn down, etc.), but I have been thinking a lot about my attitude lately, and what I might be able to do to improve it.

Last Saturday, I was chatting with a good friend on ICQ, and I was doing a lot of moping and pouting. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went (and yes, I am too lazy to go back through the conversation history), but I do remember one point where she said, “Well, there must have been one good thing that’s happened to you lately!” And I said, ‘Oh, sure, of course. It hasn’t been all bad. After all, there’s been... um... well there was... uh, actually, I can’t think of anything.” After a moment’s thought I brightened up, though. “Ah,” I said. “I did finish reading a novel recently, one that I intend to translate. Although it was a bit of a downer at the end.” And it was at that point that I realized that the novel had actually contributed to my blues, in part at least.

That ended up depressing me even further, so we decided to stop talking and go play Weboggle (warning: if you like word games and have even a slightly addictive personality, you may not want to click on that link). Still, I was irked that I couldn’t think of one good thing that had happened to me lately. I vowed that I would focus more on the positive and come up with one good thing that happened to me each day in the coming week. I even planned to write an entry here at Liminality entitled “Seven good things.”

As is often the case, I was overzealous. By Tuesday, with no Good Thing™ in sight, I decided I had to rethink my plan. Perhaps one Good Thing™ a day was too ambitious—I would take things slowly and start out with one a week. When Friday rolled around, though, I was still Good Thing™less, and I was getting worried—not that my idea for my next entry was now pretty much shot, but that in an entire week I could not think of a single Good Thing™ that had happened to me.

The fact of the matter was that (to borrow another friend’s phraseology) “nothing earthshakingly good” had happened to me that week. Maybe I’m still being too negative. After all, maybe the things I was looking at as silver linings were earthshakingly good, and I was just inflating the downsides until they overshadowed the upsides. Or was that just another rationalization? I wanted something unmitigatedly good to happen to me so I wouldn’t have to worry about whether it was actually a Good Thing™ or just a silver lining.

After a while, I began to have a hard time taking myself seriously—I started getting sick of my own whining. My rational side looked at my emotional side in disgust, wanting to give it a good smack upside the head. I couldn’t really be this childish and petulant, could I? I had all this going for me, and here I was moping about like my dog had just died. My rational side made a valiant effort, showing by way of hard evidence and logical proofs how it was irrational—in a word, silly—for me to be depressed. When my emotional side wants to be a petulant child, though, no force of nature can make it budge. No amount of rationalizing was going to snap me out of my funk.

And so it was, just as I was about to give up the fight and simply let the slump run its course, that I had a revelation: my depression had nothing to do with my perception of life. In other words, I wasn’t depressed simply because I failed to look on the bright side of life. I wasn’t depressed because I was focusing on the negative rather than the positive. Of course, these things certainly didn’t help my mood, but they didn’t begin to touch the root of the problem. The root of the problem and substance of my revelation were simple, as most revelations are. I was depressed because I was confusing mood swings with “happiness.” As long as I equated happiness with being in a good mood, I would be at the whim of events that were ultimately beyond my control.

I can’t control most of the things that happen to me. I can, however, control how I react to them. Rather than worry about whether something is positive or negative, I could choose to not let it affect my happiness. This is not the same thing as having a positive attitude, I don’t think. Having a positive attitude still means that you are applying positive and negative values to the things that happen to and around you, and then focusing on those things that are positive and downplaying those things that are negative. What I’m talking about involves rising above notions of positivity and negativity. It means that I have an inner sanctum, of sorts, that is unaffected by the vicissitudes of the world.

OK, I think I might have gone off the philosophical end a bit there. To come back down to earth, it is comforting to know that my “inner happiness” is independent of my moods, but getting this “inner happiness” where I want it will most likely be a lifelong journey. And if there is one thing I have learned, it is to not live in the future. I know some people have problems because they live in the past, but I’ve never really had that problem. Sure, I had some good times, and at times I like to reminisce, but I would never go back. I suppose it also helps that I’ve always felt that the best is still to come.

And yet, although that may help me avoid living in the past, it makes it very easy to get caught up living in the future. In a word, I often tell myself to ride out the current storms because I know things will be brighter in the future. I guess that’s not always a bad thing, but when you start to focus exclusively on the future, you lose the ability to enjoy the present. The present is merely a means to an end, nothing more. The irony kicks in when you realize that tomorrow is never going to arrive—there’s always going to be another tomorrow, and you’re always going to be missing the present because you’re looking toward the future.

Construction of an air-tight inner happiness sanctum is a definite goal, and one I look forward to, but if I don’t learn how to enjoy the present I’m always going to be miserable. Tomorrow is not going to change anything—it will just become another today and the cycle will continue. I know this because I was convinced that I could start life over when I came to Korea, that I could leave all my problems behind and begin anew. Boy was I surprised when I opened up my suitcase and found I had accidentally dragged all my problems with me. It was only then that I realized things had to be dealt with here and now or they were never going to get dealt with at all.

So, I’ve got to enjoy the present, but how do I condition myself to—ahem—always look on the bright side of life? As I mentioned above, I’ve never really liked the whole “silver lining” theory. It always felt rather fake to me—like a consolation prize. You know, like: oh, well, our dog just got run over by a car, but on the bright side we get to have fresh dog soup for dinner! Ah, I’m just kidding. Maybe if it was the neighbor’s dog—heh, no, really, just kidding. That was probably a poor example, but you get the idea. I do think that every cloud has a silver lining—that there is a positive and negative side to everything—but the silver lining is defined by the cloud. In other words, the positive aspect is defined in relation to the negative aspect, and that sort of thinking never really made me feel that much better.

Where does that leave me? Silver linings are out of the question and nothing good has happened to me. At least, that’s what I thought at the low point of my downswing. In fact, good things have been happening to me. Nothing earthshaking, granted, but to be perfectly honest nothing earthshakingly bad has happened to me either. I can think of two good things that have happened to me in the past few days. They may be nothing special, but they make me smile.

On Sunday afternoon I found out I was going to have some extra time (a couple of weeks) to finish a project that I thought was due on Monday (that would be yesterday). That in itself was quite nice, but I decided to spend the evening with my wife instead of working to get ahead. Perhaps not the most responsible thing to do, but sometimes you need to step back from things—especially on a Sunday. So we went out for dinner—I had “fish egg rice,” which is originally a Japanese dish and is really good—and then went to see Jackie Chan’s Around the World in 80 Days. It was exactly what we were hoping to see: a fun, light-hearted, Jackie Chan action-filled flick. The film did not take itself the least bit seriously, which was good medicine for someone who’s been taking himself far too seriously lately.

The second good thing happened today, and it wasn’t exactly a “thing”—more like just time I got to spend with myself. I took a picture of some chestnuts on a tree hanging over the stream by our house yesterday, and I went out around lunch today to see if they were still on the tree. The prickly husk (not sure if that’s what it’s actually called) was still on the branch, but the nuts were gone. I went down to the stream bank to find the three nuts, and had to search through the tall grasses and plants that grew by the stream. I did eventually find the nuts, wiped them off, and put them in my pocket. Then I looked up at the tree and realized that a lot of nuts must have fallen already off and onto the ground.

I went back up to my parents-in-law’s greenhouse to get a hand sickle and returned to the stream bank. I unleashed the sickle on the plants and grasses and soon cut a wide swath around the base of the tree. Along the way I found more chestnuts, forty-four in all. There was just something very therapeutic about swinging the sickle and then rooting through the remains of the plants. Every time I spied the smooth, reddish-brown shell of a chestnut it was a small but exciting victory. On occasion I would find three chestnuts together (they grow in groups of three), and I would shout “nodajida!” (lit. “bonanza!”) all by myself, shamelessly engaging in an externalized internal dialogue (i.e., talking to myself). It may sound silly, but the hour I spent hunting for chestnuts was a Good Thing™. I could probably analyze why that is so, but I think I’d rather just enjoy it for what it is.

Well, I realize that today’s entry was a bit disjointed, but that’s most likely because I wrote it over a period of two days. I’ve gotten into the habit of writing and posting on the same day if possible, but yesterday I just wrote myself into a deep, philosophical hole that I couldn’t seem to get back out of. So I put the entry aside and came back to it today, whereupon I deleted the last four paragraphs I had written and started again at the point I felt the entry was salvageable. The seam is probably pretty obvious—it’s glaringly obvious to me, at least—but it’s better than what I had yesterday.

More importantly, I feel a lot better than yesterday. I realize that a week from now this entry may strike me as so trite and maudlin I will be tempted to purge it from the archives. Such are moods, though. Let’s just be thankful mine seems to be improving.

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