Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.
What would happen in this children’s song if we rowed the boat upstream?
The song ends with a happy picture of cheer and well-being. Gently moving with the flow sets up pleasure and contentment. Along with others, I am charmed by the serenity of the scene. However, I don’t believe in it. A story explains why.
Article 31 used resistance training as an example of doing work in order to build muscle. In the gym there is no practical value to having the weight raised and lowered a given number of times. Weightlifting or rubber band stretching is not like pedaling a stationary bicycle to generate electricity for practical consumption. Exercise done purely for muscle growth is different from exercise spent in productive work that happens to result in muscle growth along with some other output.
Many years ago, I visited a retired couple in their home. The husband had formally retired from physically active railroad work, after which he sat down and rested. The wife had experienced no formal retirement from any position and was continuing what she had spent her lifetime doing. There was a striking difference between the two of them in their old age. The wife was healthy and strong while the husband was nearly paralyzed, able to move only his head and right arm. He had to be lifted into bed from his rocking chair. Inactivity had killed something in him.
We have frequently discussed the need to be needed. That is the power that had continued to sustain the wife into old age. The husband had felt that after so many years “supporting” his family, he could rest—that is, only rest without working at anything. His weights had been lifted. That is, his paychecks had been earned. He had come to an end of what he was needed for. He did not realize that the lifting of life’s weights had been keeping him alive. When he no longer lifted them, his body was no longer needed, and it atrophied.
In this real-life experience of the retiree, drifting downstream proved to be anything but serenity.
Today’s article is not about work or exercise goals in the conventional physical sense. I am building a case for the mental counterpart instead. The above story is a sad metaphor teaching a spiritual reality: if you are healthy, you are happy, and vice versa--moreover, you decide your state.
This is more poignantly illustrated in another true story, the happy metaphor. About the time I visited the couple in the above story, I also visited a shut-in who had a reputation for being the most charming person in the congregation. Friends welcomed every opportunity to be in her home. She was crippled physically, but not mentally.
As a young girl this charming woman had taken a trip to a foreign country where she contracted a disease that decimated her mobility. With great effort, she was able to move cautiously about her apartment, but she had no significant movement in her fingers and limited movement otherwise. Yet she supported herself by hand-painting watercolor greeting cards that were in high demand. Using slow arm movement, she was able to control the brush in ways that would have been easy for somebody with supple hands. The guiding force was her remarkable awareness of and talent for beauty. With the brush rigidly pressed under her thumb, she could realize on paper the images that her mind produced copiously. Her beautiful soul found expression on paper.
This kindly artist shared an uplifting view of life. She appreciated what she had learned of the world and realized genuine satisfaction from making her joy visible to others. Of course, she missed the physical aspects of life that had been denied her: activity, sports, motherhood, community service. But failing these, she devotedly set about applying the talents that remained to her. The greatest was that indomitable mental health that was her happiness.
The remarkable artist taught me a special relationship among the words health, happiness, and exercise. The exercise of her happiness was her health.
In the introduction above, I purposely made a distinction between exercise that produces only muscle growth and exercise that also produces an external benefit. I think of music listening as my weightlifting exercise that grows the happiness muscle. Music brings me to the highest levels of ecstasy. It aligns my mind and keeps me in shape for facing anything in life. However, until I produce an output, the listening serves only me without generating an effect on others. The artist above approached happiness from the service viewpoint. She was growing her happiness muscle through giving a gift to others. This was somewhat like the example of growing body muscles as a byproduct of generating electricity. The benefit she provided for others grew her happiness.
It is easy to say that if you are not happy, you are not making others happy. Insight is learning the direction of causality. At first glance, not being happy is a cause that results in not making others happy. May I completely reverse that thinking? Indeed, making others happy is the cause, not the result of your happiness. The homework for this lesson is to examine your surroundings and identify the lack of happiness that you can address and change. Do not become entangled in or overcome by that unhappiness. Counter it with the strength of your happiness muscle and keep growing until you see a result. Succeeding in this assignment enables your happiness while you bring others with you (article 38).
My role model as a writer is the dear, kind artist who gave other people precious happiness.