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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Why You Are Not Entitled to Your Bitterness

Realizing we are not entitled to our bitterness, we can realize that we have been given everything.

The Morakimi Museum and Japanese Gardens is located in Delray Beach, Florida. The land was bequeathed to Palm Beach County by George Sukeji Morikami. Valued for his agriculture expertise, Mr. Morikami was among the Japanese farmers recruited to work in south Florida in the early 20th Century.

Life was harsh. The Japanese settlers were living in a foreign country; many of their neighbors were against them owning land. A pineapple blight, cheaper pineapples from Cuba, and finally the federal government confiscating their land during World War II dispersed the Japanese settlers.

After World War II, Mr. Morakimi lived frugally in a mobile home and was able to repurchase farmland. In the 1970s he donated his land to Palm Beach County.

The highlight of Morakimi Museum is the beautiful Japanese gardens. Along the walkways, on the ground, boulders, and benches, a visitor will spot small memorial plaques. One inscription for Melva Byer Klayman caught my attention: “I am happy with today.”

Melva didn’t attribute her happiness to any event or circumstance. The Internet reveals few details about Melva’s life. She graduated from Syracuse University in 1942. In 1944, when she contracted polio, the army recalled her husband Lt. Alfred Klayman to be with her. It’s not clear if she had a full physical recovery from polio; but along with her husband, she operated a small movie theater in Syracuse, New York. She moved to Florida and, in 2009, died at the age of 89.

Mrs. Klayman could have been bitter about being struck with polio in her youth. Mr. Morakimi could have been bitter about how he had been treated by the U.S. Government. Yet, neither choose the path of bitterness; it is easy to imagine how Mrs. Klayman was drawn to the spirit of Mr. Morakimi’s beautiful land.

Melva’s life was not unlike most — joy and pain, success and loss. Notice Melva didn’t attribute her happiness to any event or circumstance. She wasn’t happy today because she won the lottery, took a cruise, or experienced other good fortune.

Happiness is a Way of Perceiving

Research supports Melva’s belief. In her book, The How of Happiness, psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky found changes in life circumstances — when not accompanied by internal changes — have only a temporary effect on happiness. Lyubomirsky explains, “Happiness, more than anything, is a state-of-mind, a way of perceiving and approaching ourselves and the world in which we reside.”

Notice your thinking when you feel uneasy. I am happy with today is easier said than done. So often, life seems to interfere with our desire to feel happy. Circumstances surprise us, and people are bound to behave differently from our expectations. When they do, we may feel worried, fearful, anxious, angry, or even bitter.

Notice your thinking when you feel uneasy. Our ego will continually “broadcast” propaganda for its core message, asserting other people and circumstances are responsible for how we feel.

Notice, too, the increasing velocity of your thinking as you attribute your unhappiness to other people and to circumstances. More thoughts. More spinning. After all, your mind reasons, if something external is to blame for your unhappiness, doesn’t it make sense to think about what to do about it?

A Faulty Premise Leads to Bitterness

Unchecked, bitterness follows from our ego’s faulty premise. Psychology professor Carsten Wrosch explains, “If we feel that it was not our fault, but other people were responsible for the [unwanted experience], then we may be rather angry or bitter.”

Studies show that “feeling bitter interferes with the body’s hormonal and immune systems.” Happiness will elude bitter people who stew in their misfortune by mentally rehearsing why others are to blame.  

Whether we are bitter or happy is due not so much to what happens but how we interpret what happens. Rather than more thinking about our thinking, Robert Draper points us in another direction: simply, be aware of your thinking. In his book Silence is the Answer, Draper explains, “’Silence is the answer’ really means that watching the mind’s storms without interfering in their passing is the answer to their fitful uprisings — not struggling against them in some heroic notion of being the one who can ’quell the waves.’”

If you have tried to “quell the waves” of your thoughts and the feelings those thoughts engender, you know your efforts often aren’t successful. Most of us have tried to wrestle our thinking into submission. If you have attempted to control unhappy thoughts, success in that endeavor is fleeting.

Via our thinking, we are making meaning of events in our lives. Few lives are absent suffering. Whether we are bitter or happy is due not so much to what happens but how we interpret what happens. Draper writes, “The moment we realize that we are the ones supplying the meaning to the world we are traveling through, the bitter complaints that have sapped our confidence begin to lose the hold that we have given them on our minds.”

A Teacher of Liberty Isn’t Bitter

In his collected works, FEE founder Leonard Read often examined “virtues as self-control, self-examination, self-improvement, and self-knowledge.”  Read urged us to be especially careful of our reactions towards those who we believed “know less.” “Disgust, contempt, anger” make it impossible to communicate effectively:  

It is impossible to be in full possession of one’s faculties when angry, distraught, depressed, unhappy, hopelessly pessimistic. No man, in such a state, can work effectively for sound principles; it is appropriate, therefore, to reflect on how not to get this way.

As for feelings of “bitterness” towards those who hold different views, Read urged a sense of gratitude for the important role they play: “A self-evident fact: It is impossible to move forward unless there be something to thrust against. View our opponents as welcome springboards — be grateful for their existence.” In short, Read advised us to be, “Better, not bitter!” He wrote,

Cursing the darkness is harmful, not helpful. Not only does this tactic fail to dispel the prevailing darkness but, worse, it darkens and literally poisons the soul of anyone who so indulges, as most M.D.s will attest. Be done with bitterness! What then? Accept the fact that neither you nor anyone else has gone very far in understanding the freedom philosophy and explaining it clearly. Frankly, all of us are babes in the woods. The best any of us can do is to concentrate on achieving maturity, on becoming better.

The Three Doors

In his book, I Am Not, Robert Draper writes of our choice of three metaphorical doors through which we might pass at any moment of any day:

One door opens to shame and pain of the past. It “calls to us to enter and dwell in the over, gone, and no-longer-here past, the place of memory and grief wherein our shame and pain moan and groan in their ever-wearying lament of ‘you, he, she, they, or I, should—or should not—have done or said that.’”

What if living fully in the present moment, without “shame and pain” or “worry and fear,” offers us the happiness and peace we are seeking? Another door opens to worry and fear of the future. It “invites us to come in, leading all who enter into an imaginary and future world of worry and want, where fear, like a broken record, insistently rasps, ‘I hope I get this and I hope I don’t get that.’”

Draper points out an alternative to living in pain of the past or worry about the future. There is a doorway “directly in front of us, offering welcome into the quietness of living fully in the distinct world of the present hour. Here we are truly welcome for the rest of our days, with the only rule for inclusion in its safety being kind to all who enter, be that in thought or in form.”

What if living fully in the present moment, without “shame and pain” or “worry and fear,” offers us the happiness and peace we are seeking?

Exhortations Don’t Work for Long

Exhortations to live in the present are not enough. In Silence is the Answer, Draper cautions, “Telling people that the answer to their lingering grievances and anticipatory anxieties is to ‘live in the present’ and leaving it at that is about as effective as telling a curious teenager that the answer to pot or alcohol is to ‘just say no.’”

If exhortations to live in the present are not the answer, what is? Draper instructs us:

When you are having trouble, you need to recognize first [i.e., not deny] that you are having trouble. Second, try to get past the temptation to attribute the cause of the unpleasantness or discomfort to something external…This means withdrawing the projection of blame from others, placing responsibility for your unhappiness within, then looking at the source of the unhappiness you have chosen, realizing you chose it and so can choose again.

In other words, Draper observes, “To rule one’s mind is simply to refuse to buy into the petty arguments that arise within it to proclaim us the pawns of circumstance, and to embrace, instead, the idea that everything we experience begins not with external events but with internal decisions about how to perceive them.”

Draper is pointing to a fundamental truth: The pathway to happiness is not direct; it is indirect. We are to see what we are doing to create unhappiness and then remove our blocks to happiness.

We Have Been Given Everything

A peaceful mind — free of bitterness — results from a process. We have been given the ability to leave behind the shame and pain of the past and the worry and fear of the future. Isn’t that power to choose worth far more than the booby prize of being right about our bitterness and unhappiness? Realizing we are not entitled to our bitterness and choosing to leave behind any sense of victimization, we can realize that we have been given everything. Isn’t that power to choose worth everything?

If, as it seems, Mr. Morakimi and Mrs. Klayman were “happy with today,” it may be because they didn’t honor their ego’s “petty proclamations” about who is to blame. They were willing to choose the door that offers the “quietness of living fully in the distinct world of the present hour.”

Present unhappiness is not a barrier to fully living in the next moment, in the present hour. A peaceful mind — free of bitterness — results from a process; a quiet mind is not a precondition for happiness. The only prerequisite is a little willingness on our part to be more aware of our distorted thinking.

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.