Practicing good life

I would like to be happier. My source of unhappiness is almost always myself. I seem to be profoundly, unalterably dissatisfied with myself. I often ruminate over my faults and consider my good qualities ephemeral exceptions to the rule of my nature.

And yet I do not feel like a sinner to be forgiven. I do not identify with that language at all. It’s not forgiveness that I need. Forgiveness implies staying the same, accepting one’s faults and missteps. It’s strength and persistence and discipline–all those qualities in which I feel deficient and yet which I possess in certain measure–that are called for. I just want to be better, to do better. That, however, is a source of constant dissatisfaction, i.e. unhappiness.

Obviously, if I am to be happier I need a different story. Not self-improvement. Not forgiveness. Not even self-acceptance.  What?

For example, right now my unhappiness focuses on two physical things: my tendency to overeat and thus gain weight and my stooped posture. I have made stabs at correcting both these things. I lost weight last year. This year I have gained nearly half of it back and I am back to my old habits although not as bad. The posture? I try and fail, try and fail to correct a condition called kyphosis that is getting worse as I get older. Unkindly put: dowager’s hump. I do quite a lot to correct it but I could do more. Both of these things are at least somewhat correctible and therefore my inability to address them makes me feel bad. It is not my failure but my inadequacy that makes me unhappy. I could do better. I should do better.

I could do better at maintaining relationships, especially across distances, because I value friends and family and I would be happier if I were more assertive about making phone calls and visits. I could do better at keeping a clean house, which I appreciate and would have plenty of time to do. I could watch less TV and read less for entertainment because these things leave me feeling drugged afterward, not good. Yada yada.

Much of my unhappiness centers around my tendency to sloth. I consider myself lazy in many ways. I am the opposite of a workaholic. I am the opposite of overcommitted. I am the opposite of gregarious.

Given this, it is really rather amazing that I actually get enough exercise, regularly cook healthful and tasty meals, and take responsibility in my church community. I am an entirely self-motivated writer. I have done and am doing good work in the world. I am creating a life full of meaning and purpose, filled with great relationships. My whole family, as far as I can tell, loves and respects me. So do a lot of other people. I can’t think of any personal enemies that I have.

Listing all of these things, however, does not make me happy, does not chase away the nagging dissatisfaction. I am not into affirmations (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.”) And, as I have noted, forgiveness language doesn’t do it for me because I really like to think I can improve.

What I am after is an expansion of the fleeting satisfaction that comes with each bit of improvement, each effort that has led to an improvement. Here is where I think I am going with this: honoring the effort, moment by moment. Not sitting back and listing accomplishments but noticing and honoring the practice of good living as it happens.

Right now, if I concentrate on the flow of words, it makes me happy. In a moment I will email my black bean soup recipe to the new mom who asked for it; she said it was one of the best meals delivered to them after the baby was born. Then I will set aside my computer and fetch the laundry from the basement and hang it out on racks, bringing its humidity into the dry air of the living room, which is warmed by the very last remnants of the wood Vic stockpiled against this endless winter. I will clean up the kitchen, mimicking the deliberate pace of my mother as she went about her household chores. I will fix a nice lunch for my husband, who is here today but will not be, tomorrow. I will devote an hour or two or whatever I can manage to the book I am working on. I will go with Vic to the Y and we will do our three-plus miles. And so forth.

The practice–the practices–of good living make me happy, moment by moment. I will try to notice that.

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4 thoughts on “Practicing good life

  1. Never give up. Be easy on yourself and treat yourself like you would your best friend. It’s easy for me, myself, to get into a rut of self-incrimination – my weight, my sometimes lack of ambition….And I remember what my dear friend who loves me no matter what says to me when I start this up: Okay, you’ve had your whine. move along, nothing to see here. LOL. but it’s true. Good like and be nice to yourself.

  2. I’ve been there, done that. Most of my life. I’m 67. But things have changed recently for the better. How? Why? As near as I can tell the change is attributable to the following short list.

    1) A new therapist and the way she consistently helps me see the good in childhood parts of me and how they helped me cope with an environment that was far from adequate in meeting the needs of a child.

    2) A technique my therapist uses with me called the “Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy.”

    3) A greatly enhanced understanding and appreciation for my emotional life that has come from learning about Affect Psychology through reading “Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self” by Donald L. Nathanson and “The Art of Intimacy and the Hidden Challenge of Shame” by Vernon C. Kelly, Jr.

    4) Renewing a (somewhat) daily habit of contemplative prayer. This has become a joy that was not possible without the benefits of the above parts of this list.

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