By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Dedicated to the joy of my life, my daughter Alia Joy Gala
Once upon a time, long long ago, a boy was born who liked messes, threw mud at people, screeched loudly, and generally dealt unpleasant, annoying, frustrating things; so his father and mother called him Hassle. The parents were lucky, however, because they also had a girl, sugar and spice and everything nice, who smiled, cleaned, played quietly; they named her Joy. The boy and girl grew up, settled down among us, and made our lives what they are. This is a guide on how to get past Hassle in your own life, finding Joy.
We come to the world naked, yanked out of a cushy, warm place, raised up up-side-down and smacked on the back to breathe, sponged clean, swaddled, and finally placed next to mother for that first sweet drink, or a disgusting bottle of formula, another gift from Hassle. And so it goes after that day to the terminal day. I cannot go into all the unpleasant, painful, annoying, frustrating, disgusting, even tragic events which pace our lives. I will offer examples of such as you have known, and offer tools to go from frustration to satisfaction and benefit.
If we find happiness desirable (who doesn’t?), then consider active ways of finding it; it’s not manna from the sky. Some people are born and sail through life easily, successfully, not bothered by much until their end. They seem to know what is the right thing to do, solving problems without much fuss, coming to their end without a whimper. I am not one of those. I had to learn slowly and arduously how to react to hassles.
My purpose is to give you general rules for coping with hassle and stress, with examples to a few situations. Articles in magazines may be more specific to particular problems; but if you have general principles for joyful living, without stress, you can apply them to most situations. I want to suggest to you a bag of tools for getting past hassle and going to joy.
Here we go to the first method, resignation.
Resign yourself to the hassle; give in; give up; reconcile your spirit to the inevitable; accept your fate; As St. Francis of Assissi wrote: “Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Why is resignation method number one? Because a great many events that bother us are unavoidable, like death and taxes; fighting against these calamities is a waste of energy, disturbing to our peace of mind. In many, many annoying situations, I have found that the best way to get through the moment is by tuning out what disturbs me. With children playing, making noises when I try to rest, I don’t fret; I say to myself, these are birds singing–and fall asleep.
Inevitably, we come to the moment when our body is becoming still. Like Zorba the Greek, we can jump out of our death bed, rush to the window and yell. I plan to lie still, enjoying the peaceful moment of liberation from my body, like a little child again, praying to God my soul to keep.
Count Your Blessings
Doughnut and Hole
Look at the doughnut, not the hole; every cloud has a silver lining; the glass is not half empty, it’s half full; when April showers come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May; if you’re handed a lemon, make a lemonade; in your mind’s mill, turn every adversity into grist and the greater the adversity, the finer the grist (Napoleon Hill); blessed are the poor, the meek, and the persecuted (Jesus). Popular wisdom has a million such sayings buzzing around. Far be it for me to surpass such folk wisdom, or do better than these fine bromides, extolled in songs, stories, and movies. All such advice against hassles works fine, as long as you are powerless in the face of untoward events. The theory goes that in life for every unfortunate hit, there is a compensating benefit; look for the benefit; use it.
Agreed. Compensating benefits often occur, and I have seen them in my life and the lives of those I have known, but not always. Don’t take the theory too far, beyond its reach. Especially, don’t focus on the bright side of things too much, neglecting to remove the dark side, if you can. Once in a while we need to chuck optimism, and look at what is unpleasant, irritating, damaging with sufficient but not excessive pessimism so that we motivate ourselves to eliminate what’s bad if we can.
Relax and Meditate
Ignore the pain, problem, frustration—it will soon go away, or you go away. Most things that trouble us have a way of taking care of themselves. If possible, let others solve their own problems. Is the planet heating up, close to destroying the world with smoke and fire? What can you or I do about it? Are you Al Gore to make a difference? Yes, you can do your little part to burn less gasoline, but will everybody else follow your example? Don’t agonize about the world suffocating in CO2, being hit by an asteroid, freezing up in a new ice age, decimated by a super virus, demolished in a nuclear war, or invaded by tentacled aliens. What will be, will be. In the end, death comes to us all, even to the whole planet, in this century or in five billion years.
Relaxing and meditating is different from just resigning yourself; it is more active. You consciously, through an effort of the will, direct your mind away from the hassle to a peaceful state. Religious traditions, philosophies (such as the stoic school), and psychological methods teach us how to meditate, relaxing mind and body, relieving stress and distress. Try yoga, prayer, exercise, analysis, spas.
Waking up and going to sleep appear to be big hassles for many people, considering the gallons of coffee they imbibe in the morning, and the mess of sleeping aids (or liquor) they gulp at night. Coffee and other stimulants during the day, keep us awake at night; then waking up the next morning becomes a hassle and a chore. Observe how cats wake up, slowly first one eye open, then the other, stretching leisurely, yawning mouth wide open (how rude), arching the back, scratching the carpet, sofa (or their post if they deign). Set your alarm a few minutes earlier and make like a cat upon waking. Enjoy; it’s the best time of the day, welcoming life anew from a slumber like death.
Going to sleep after a busy, productive day, that’s the second best time of the day finally to rest from your labors (oh, sweet death of the night), relaxing for a few minutes with a good book, or some soothing music, thinking pleasant thoughts, visualizing tranquil scenes. If worries intrude, if sleep does not come, relax further with meditation or prayer, with counting to 100 and then counting down, over and over. Say to yourself, “I’m going to sleep soon; if not, I’ll rest just fine with my eyes closed. Relax now, relax; I’ve nothing to worry about. I’m a baby in my mother’s arms; all my needs are met. I have no enemies; I have nothing to fear.”
The ultimate relaxation is the way of the Buddha, the Wakened One, perfected in the Chinese Chán, or Japanese Zen tradition. Following the Buddha, we seek Nirvana, liberation from life’s ultimate hassles: the frustrations and pains of illness, accident, disaster, famine, war, aging, and death. Rich or poor, prince or pauper, learned or illiterate, we are all subject to these ills, yet the way of the Moses, Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed can lead to joy everlasting in the mansions of the spirit. Religious teaching is not my forte, but I commend to you good spiritual guidance from persons well qualified to offer it to you. Steer away from the cranks, as you do from quacks and shysters.
We laugh, smile, express wit or humor in words or actions, in response to a hassle we cannot eliminate or want to attack, but we are being now more active in our response than when we only resign or relax. An infant smiles or laughs when facing people, especially older children; the infant being helpless, a smile or a laugh is the infant’s best defense, besides being cute, a way of avoiding hostility and winning a friend.
Laughter is a reflex, an instinctive response to a mock threat, a response we all have when we are infants or young, which we may lose growing up uptight at home, school, or work; we lose our humor, if we don’t use it, the same as our other faculties. Humor is part of our genetic heritage as mammals and humans, helping us smooth relations with others, interact, entertain, relax, resign. Wit is cultivated humor, for those among us who are more literate. What we have inherited from our ancestors we can improve and extend for our enjoyment and survival. Laughter, humor, playfulness can be augmented with practice or buried under a mountain of concerns. Throw off your concerns with resignation, relaxation, and laughter. Say to yourself, I don’t give a dime. Be an infant, a child, for the moment. Enjoy.
What did I say? Who enjoys being patient? I do; I’ll explain how. First, hassling situations requiring patience are innumerable: waiting to be served at the bank, at the airport, at the telephone with a computer switchboard (horrors, far worse than the old operators), at the checkout counter, at the doctor’s office, driving in traffic, down loading at the computer, flying across oceans, listening to a boring lecture, visiting with in-laws; the list goes on forever.
How to enjoy these waits? Keep busy with something you do enjoy doing physically or in your mind. Always be prepared for the wait with a favorite book or magazine, notebook computer, a puzzle, a game, an exercise, a topic for thought, music, movies, documentaries, favorite poems to recite mentally; the list goes on forever. I’m never without a pocket notebook and pen any place I go; I scribble down ideas and solutions to problems in mathematics, philosophy, and other interesting matters. Waiting at the bank, or post office, I may do stretch exercises as unobtrusively as I can, and if I appear odd, who cares? In heavy traffic, I listen to my favorite music or books on CD. In boring company I cannot split, I put a smile on my face, look attentive, let them talk to their heart’s content, and I wander off in my mental meadows.
Let’s remember the methods people used in old days to while away the hours of waiting for something. We can use some of these today, such as knitting, weaving, sewing, embroidering, while waiting for baby to arrive, while waiting for recovery from accident or illness. Women in the dark ages did these activities with husbands at the Crusades, the women in iron maidens, unless they had secretly made a copy of the key. The key to fighting boredom is to get into something active, not passive television, reading, or listening. Going into idle pastimes increases the ennui. I do read and listen to music or talk, but actively, challenging everything I hear, following the melody closely, coming up with questions and ideas in response to what I see or hear. If not that, I can often sketch, even doodle.
Stay Calm; Don’t Panic
When disaster, big or small, strikes, it’s best to stay calm, not to panic. That’s what officers tell us on board during an emergency drill; it’s good advice, though we may have some difficulty following it in an actual disaster. We find it easier to stay calm, not to panic, when we are having a drill for a possible hassle or catastrophe. Therefore, practice your reasoning response to big or small hassles with repeated drills. That’s a method used by the military, police, and firemen. As you repeat your proper logical actions in drills, the right response becomes habitual, even if fear arises in an actual emergency. Habituating ourselves to disaster by rehearsing events is instilled in us; kids play fighting games, listen to stories about wolves and witches, and young people enjoy horror movies.
Fear, panic, and anger are primitive emotions; in today’s world they serve us poorly. We can perform better without such emotions in dealing with hassles, because today’s problems are complex, requiring reasonable procedures for their solution, not wild responses.
How do we calm our inner turmoil in a difficult situation, when someone attacks us, steals, lies, or deceives us? How do quiet our emotional turbulence from the impact of an accident, natural catastrophe, injury, severe illness, death, divorce, marriage? I have offered you a clue. You stop in your tracks, stay still, and think of a rational approach to face the hassle. Count to ten or one hundred or one thousand, if time permits. It is usually better to use method 1 (practice resignation) than act irrationally in the face of danger. Ask yourself, what would my father, mother, or Abraham Lincoln do in a situation like this? Then act accordingly.
No matter how awful a hassle has hit you, you can enjoy the event, if you turn it into an adventure. What is an adventure if not hassle taken as sport? Think of hockey or American football. Sweat, tears, and even blood may fit an exciting adventure experience, at least in retrospect. Alexander von Humboldt in 1799-1804 explores Latin America, climbing to the peaks of the Andes without an oxygen tank, bleeding from the nose and mouth, almost freezing to death; floating on the Amazon, bitten by mosquitoes until his face is a swollen, bleeding mess. It was all one grand adventure to be told and retold with relish in books, lectures, and gatherings, recounting his achievements in bio-geography.
Taken that way, life for all of us is one grand adventure, no matter the anguish it brings sometimes. A life of ease, of passive pleasures, does not afford much thrill, excitement, or achievement. That’s why today astronauts volunteer to explore space, sometimes getting burned or blown up.
Play a Game
Playing at Work
Even more active than seeking adventure in hassles, you can turn a hassle into a game to play well and enjoy. For eighty percent of the workers, a job is a huge hassle: boring, burdensome, tiring,oppressive, unrewarding, and depressing. Workers do their job because they have to earn money to feed their mouths, though they feel a job is slavery (until they lose it). They forget the little ditty from Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins: “In every job that must be done, there is a element of fun. You find the fun, and ‘snap,’ the job’s a game!”
Actually, the reverse happens: the fun, the joy of working at a job, is in making the job into an adult game, my team against some other team, which team gets the most points (results). We all like to play games, especially children, of course, because children learn more from games than from formal schooling. All young mammals play hide and seek (to learn escape from predators), wrestling among themselves (to establish a hierarchy in the group), stalking and jumping at the each other (to hone hunting skills).
You can make a job, which feels boring, into an interesting activity, by making it into a game, an artistic expression, the expression of skill raised as high as possible for you towards the ideal; that’s a game too. Is your job so repetitive it kills you? You reach for perfection through repetition, proper training. A repetitive task is an opportunity to hone your skills to the highest level, like a gymnast pole vaulting. You can aim for speed in your work (and higher production) or you can reach for exactness, precision, and smooth, controlled movement, like a dancer leaping in the air with perfect form. You will soon be training others in your trade, getting promoted, and getting better pay, while having a joyful time at work.
Hussle Against the Hassle
Move and Bustle
So far we have been adapting to hassles which we can’t avoid, like tax audits, or don’t want to eliminate, like a bratty child or a controlling parent when we are adults. We now take a different stance facing a hassle, getting to work to eliminate the problem, hussling to that end. To hussle is to cheat, to con, to fool, to steal from somebody what you want. The street hussler is a prime example of a confidence person. The baseball player who steals bases is another example. When things get rough, you can fight a hassle by cheating fate, your allotment by nature, or your social stigma.
We are dealing now with attack as a method, not acceptance of a hassle, adaptation to it, or conversion (transmutation Napoleon Hill called it) of an adversity to a joyful experience. If you can fix the trouble, exert your best efforts to fix it; most problems have a solution. The solution often hides from you, so keep trying long enough; most likely, you’ll find a technique to crack the problem, a key that turns the lock. God or Nature is that way, testing your spirit, your will, your mettle, deciding whether you deserve to survive, to succeed, to stay above the soil or go under the soil now. If a hassle keeps at you despite all your efforts to quiet it, remember the attitude of Alexander the Great, Napoleon the Great, and Erwin Rommel: the best defense is attack– with good tactics and strategy.
Like Alexander, unless you can unravel it, cut the Gordian knot with your sword; charge at the enemy’s king. Like Napoleon, move to battle speedily; attack with cannon and cavalry. Like Rommel, the Desert Fox, adapt your tactics to the land, hitting hard with superior force. Rommel, Nazi Germany’s best general, was equaled only by George Patton in WWII, another fierce warrior. He did not hesitate to use overwhelming force to smash enemy ranks. We should have done that to the Taliban and al-Qaeda from the air, safe from roadside bombs and suicidal maniacs, as we did in Serbia, not landing troops in harm’s way.
The Muslim fanatics want us to adapt to their way of thinking, throwing extreme violence against us. What a hassle they are for us for the wars we are in, and for the airport inspections we have to endure. How do we face off to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the theocracy of Iran? Elsewhere, what do we do about a militaristic, communistic, dynastic regime acquiring nuclear bombs and long-range rockets, such as North Korea? Such hassles are problems for world leaders, not for you and me. We deal here with our personal problems, small or large, but what we say among ourselves about our hassles also applies to the international arena.
To attack effectively, you need to feel aggressive. How to you make yourself feel aggressive? Punch a pillow; swish a sword through the air; give the rebel yell; have a cup of Starbucks coffee. Sales groups advertise to recruit aggressive agents; business doesn’t want agents who are likely to punch people on the face. What business wants are agents who go forward with enterprise to engage the customer in a dialogue to purchase the product or service they sell. An aggressive, dynamic, pushy worker in any field is likely to get better results. This is true for business, scientific research, plumbing, or construction work. The worker pushes for results, undeterred by obstacles and difficulties, which always pop up in a competitive enterprise. Only government services are exempt from competitive pressures, government being a monopoly.
My final point is, when you can’t dodge a hassle, ignore it, transmute it, or hussle it, then you must stand up to it and compete, even fight. I am a peaceable man by inclination and philosophy; that is why fighting is listed last as a way to get past a hassle. When a bully is on your back, you need to spit back, kick back, punch back, or shoot back. In the end, courage has no substitute.