What is life’s greatest pleasure? It’s not an easy question. Close your eyes a minute and think about it before you read any further.
What did you come up with?
We know the answer is not cars, vacations or golf, although some of us may have a pretty good argument. Love gets a high rating by many while others vote for success, children and power. (That’s more on target, but not the ultimate!)
How about knowing and having a relationship with the Creator of the Universe?
Even an atheist would agree that if there really is a God, then to know Him would be the ultimate pleasure – greater than Maui, family and all the success in the world.
In the great medieval classic entitled Duties of the Heart, the author Rabbi Bachya Ibn Paquda discusses four steps to falling in love with God.
The four steps are:
- Appreciate how great it is to be alive
- Mastering the Gratitude-attitude
- The power of “letting go.”
- The art of Service
This article discusses the first step. Underlying the application of his method is a fundamental principle of Judaism: If you want to grow spiritually, you must grow emotionally and psychologically. Indeed, it’s impossible to become spiritually mature without becoming emotionally mature at the same time.
To begin, says Ibn Paquda, you cannot fall in love with God until you fall in love with life first. It is impossible to love God if you do not deeply and passionately appreciate all that is good about being alive. Unfortunately, to become a master of appreciation is not easy to achieve.
Do you appreciate your hand? Most of us say we do, but we really don’t. There is a crucial difference between having an “intellectual appreciation” of your hand, as opposed to having an “emotional appreciation” of your hand.
When we emotionally appreciate something, we experience a “pleasure burst.” We’ve all had pleasure bursts. When something good happens, or we see a gorgeous sunset, we appreciate the beauty and goodness of the moment. But most of the time we are not experiencing pleasure bursts at all, which means we are not actively appreciating how great it is to be alive.
Which should give you a bigger pleasure burst – a bowl of ice cream or your hand?
Obviously, your hand is worth much more than a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s, but we don’t feel it, because we are not able to obtain a real emotional appreciation of our hands. Why don’t we have a deeper and more consistent emotional appreciation of life and all that is good about it? Because we find it hard to accept that life isn’t perfect.
A major reason why we are not in love with life is because we use much of our time and energy fighting and obsessing about what’s not right with ourselves and others. We simply cannot tolerate the apparent imperfections. It’s not that we’re all perfectionists, rather it’s that we have acquired a destructive way of seeing the world, which results in making us miserable.
A classic illustration of this is the story of the person who goes on a picnic and is having a great time with friends and family on a cloudless summer day until he discovers there is no mustard for his hot dog. The entire day is shot! Suddenly, not only is his hotdog inedible, but the whole day is ruined.
Sound familiar? This is how most of us live our lives day in and day out. We cannot tolerate imperfection and when we discover something that is wrong or missing in our lives, we obsess over it. Sometimes we are able to change what’s wrong, but if we can’t we often wipe ourselves out with frustration, anger or resentment.
My wife can’t seem to manage money in a responsible fashion. My husband never picks the right gift for special occasions. I am always struggling with food, insufficient income or lack of self-confidence. I’m not married. I married the wrong the person. I don’t have kids. My kids drive me crazy with their constant demands. We all have imperfection in our lives!
The Half-Empty Glass
We are all familiar with the piece of wisdom that suggests that in order to be happy we need to learn how to focus on the half of the glass that’s full rather than on the half that’s empty. I have come to believe that learning to focus on the good alone is not the complete truth nor the real challenge of life. The real challenge of life is being able to focus on and embrace both – the half that’s full and the half that’s empty.
Embracing both the good and the bad is our ultimate challenge and the key to emotional well-being and true happiness. No one enjoys only accomplishing half of a goal. Not only do we want to get to the finish line, we want to win the gold as well.
But life isn’t perfect and more often than not, we don’t get everything we want or accomplish everything we want. Therefore, we must learn to embrace the ugly or imperfect parts of ourselves and our lives while working responsibly to beautify them as much as possible. Only then will we be able to stop obsessing about what’s wrong and begin to appreciate what’s right.
The liberation that comes through acceptance is wonderfully expressed by the playwright, Arthur Miller in the play, After the Fall:
The same dream returned each night until I dared not to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face and it was horrible, but I kissed it. I think one must take one’s life in one’s arms.
Obsessively rejecting what we don’t like about our lives always leads to psychological pain, while acceptance of what we don’t like is the key to emotional health.
Accepting The Unacceptable
Ask yourself this question: “What do you find totally unacceptable about yourself and your life?” What do you obsess about changing? The irony is that we think our obsessing will somehow help us gain control of the thing we don’t like. The truth is that the thing we continually fight, reject, and obsess over actually gains more and more control over us!
For example, Let’s go back to the guy at the picnic who is obsessing about his mustardless hot dog. The more he focuses on the “loss,” the more power it gains over him and the worse he feels. This is why he will most like blow-up at anyone who suggests he should just get over it and enjoy his hotdog the way it is.
Until there is acceptance of what’s wrong, there can be no appreciation of the good.
Before we can change what we don’t like, we must make friends with it first. This is what the rabbis meant when they said regarding the evil inclination, “Draw it close with the right hand and push it away with the left.” We must accept it, not totally reject it. Pushing away with both hands only gives it more power over us.
Only when we genuinely embrace the bad parts of our life, can we begin to appreciate and enjoy the good parts of our life. Learning to accept what’s bad is a challenging task, but we can master it by working with a few tools.
The first and most important step is to recognize and admit what you obsess over. Ask yourself these questions, “What do I obsess about on a regular basis? What do I find totally unacceptable about myself, my life, my relationships? What do I hate most about myself, my life, my relationships?”
Most likely these are the issues that you are using “both hands” to push away. And these things which you are working so hard to reject are the issues you must learn to draw close. Again remember, acceptance doesn’t mean giving-in or giving-up. It means I am taking ownership of them because right now they belong to me.
In order to take ownership, you need to verbalize it. For example, say out loud, “I hate that my mind works so slow and that I feel so stupid, but this is the mind I was given and I must learn to accept it even though it makes me feel limited and inferior to others.”
Once you’ve owned and made friends with the part of you that you don’t like, you need to take responsibility to make adjustments where possible so that your limitation will be less of an obstacle. In the example above, a reasonable step might be to take a class in improving reading and comprehension ability.
Awareness is the key to mastering the skill of acceptance. We must first acknowledge what we find so repulsive about ourselves before we can embrace it and take ownership of it.