The lost art of joy – Acceptance

“’Tis the season to be jolly”

The auditory froth of tinny Christmas melody bubbled away in the background as I was trying to enjoy my sushi. I usually filter the incessant stream of Christmas carols from my consciousness as these days, they have become ever-increasingly cliche.

But once upon a time, Christmas carols were more than just shopping centre noise pollution. Once upon a time, Christmas carols had meaning. Even if you’re not inclined to celebrate the birth of the Saviour, there are still some Christmas themes we can all agree on, like peace on Earth, goodwill to all (women and) men, and joy to the world.

Joy. Christmas’s modern irony. In amongst the glitter and tinsel lies a season of despair for many people as the over-commercialised happiness hype and expectations of cheer amplify the sense of loneliness and pain that slowly abrades them. Then there’s the Yuletide exhaustion, the inevitable outcome of the frenetic push to shop, wrap, clean, decorate, travel to or host party after party after party – celebraters gonna celebrate! Joy is supposed to fit in your schedule or to-do list somewhere.

’Tis the season to be jolly? Yes, it is, but sometimes we work so hard to be joyful that joy itself has been lost along the way.

This year, with one thing or another, my writing has taken a bit of a backseat. I’m going to try and change that. I’m going to set myself a challenge to write one post a day for December celebrating the lost art of joy. What it’s going to look like is still anyone’s guess, with form and inspiration to be free and flowing. I’m not promising an exhaustive exposition … more a free-form exploration. Neither am I suggesting that I am an expert in such matters. I’m preaching to myself as much as anything. As someone who still battles depression, joy is often elusive to me.

Still, please come along for the ride. Together, let’s explore the many facets of one of the deepest of all emotions and how it’s an integral part of the Christmas season, and also our collective soul.

Many moons ago, I was a cub scout (which for those who don’t know, is Scouts for 8-10 year old boys). Once a week, we would get together and do outdoorsy type activities and games as part of learning about the seemingly antithetical values of teamwork and self-reliance, earning merit badges, dibbing and dobbing and all things scout.

One time I remember they divided the group into two and had us battle it out in a tug-o-war dual. Our parade area-come-battle zone was not particularly well lit, with the area just behind the scout hall in complete shadow, save for the occasional moonlight.

It was a gripping contest and during the battle, the other team managed to swing themselves around and pull their end of the rope into the inky darkness beside the scout hall. Our side doubled our effort, but despite what felt like an eternity of vigorous straining, we weren’t moving anywhere. We understood why when the other team started peeling away one by one and laughing at us – in the cover of darkness, they had managed to tie the tug-o-war rope to one of the poles supporting the balcony of the scout hall. We were struggling when we were fighting against human opposition, but we were clearly no chance at ever beating the scout hall in tug-o-war.

What do my #cubscoutfails have to do with joy? The scout hall tug-o-war episode is a good analogy for acceptance.

The self-help industry has, at one point or another, made us all want to better ourselves … which is fine, but only if what we wanted to change was actually changeable. By trying to change some part of us that is difficult to the point of being insurmountable, we expend huge amounts of energy to get nowhere. And it changes nothing, except for diminished motivation, volition and resistance to the thing we wanted to change in the first place. How many diets have ended in a flurry of ice-cream or Mars bars? We figuratively try to beat the scout hall in tug-o-war. The futile fighting with things that can not be changed makes it hard for joy to flourish.

The Serenity Prayer, made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, is simple but profound. It starts by saying, “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Accepting those things that can not be changed is life-changing! The frustration of constant failure destroys the soul and steals away any joy. It we want to protect our joy, we can start by accepting that there are things in life we can’t change. In the immortal words of that other modern ear worm – “let it go”. Don’t sweat and strain, heaving and pulling on something that can’t be moved.

Of course, acceptance isn’t the whole story, but the other aspects of the serenity prayer (wisdom and courage) might be topics for another day.

Suffice to say, picking our battles can make a profound difference to our life, and acceptance is the key to that.

Thanks for reading, and I hope we can talk more tomorrow.

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Dr Caroline Leaf and the Profound Simplicity Paradox

It was a guy called Charles Bukowski that said once, ‘Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way’. It always grabs our attention when something is said that’s easy to understand, yet deeply meaningful. The simple yet profound juxtaposition draws our attention and exercises our cognition in a way that nothing else seems to match. Those that are able to utter pervasive truth in a few syllables are elevated to gurus, and their pearls of wisdom are endlessly reposted on Pinterest and Facebook.

Of course, for something to be profound, it doesn’t just need to be deep, but also true.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Her social media feeds are littered with Pinterest profundities, and she adds her own sometimes for good measure. Today, she shared something which I’m sure she thinks is one of those strokes of genius that Charles Bukowski was talking about,

“What we say and do is based on what we have already built into our minds.”

Well, her statement is simple, but it’s certainly not profound. It’s a paint-by-numbers version of the neuroscience of behaviour, based on her underlying assumption that we are in full control of every thought and action that we ever have or do.

It’s nice story to tell. It seems to fit with our experience of our thoughts and of the attribution of every action we take with our feeling of conscious volition. It’s just that it’s not what real neuroscientists actually tell us is going on in our brain.

Our thoughts and our actions are based on a number of things, mostly beyond our conscious control. This is because our perception, physiological responses, and personalities are all strongly genetically determined, our memory systems are predominantly subconscious, and so is the vast majority of the processing our brain does on a second-by-second basis. Our thoughts and our feeling of our conscious ‘free will’ are the subconscious brain simply projecting a small sliver of that information stream to a wider area of the cerebral cortex for fine-tuning (I discuss this in much more detail in chapters 1, 2 and 6 of my book).

So what we say and do is not based on just based on what we have already built into our minds, because our actions are largely built on our genetics and our subconscious memories, which we don’t necessarily have control over either.

There will be some people who think that this sounds like a cop-out, just an excuse to avoid responsibility for our own actions. I would argue that this actually refines our responsibility to that which we can change, taking the focus away from those things that we cannot change. For example, there’s no point in suggesting that I’m a bad father because I can’t breastfeed my children. This is an extreme example of course, but chiding someone for not doing something that they can’t do because of their genetic predisposition is no different.

Rather than focusing unnecessary effort on trying to change what cannot be changed, we should look to work on the things that can be changed. Even then, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people will take a long time to learn something that another person might pick up straight away.

It’s also important for people to understand that not everything you struggle with is related to your poor choices. There’s no point in wrestling with something that isn’t going to move. All you do is tire yourself, sapping you of energy that you could be using to effect change on the things you do have power over.

So on the surface, Dr Leaf’s statement may be simple, but it’s ultimately erroneous. Instead of being liberating, it can actually be oppressing. Those who are looking for something profound would be better served looking somewhere else on Pinterest.

Reference:
Pitt, C.E., Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf, 2014 Pitt Medical Trust, Brisbane, Australia, URL www.smashwords.com/books/view/466848