Pillars of Joy: Day 8 (Generosity)

“The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank….And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. It receives and does not give.”

This is the last of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In many ways, the eighth and final Pillar of Joy is a culmination of all the others. If you can’t remember the entire list, which you probably won’t unless you deliberately commit it to memory, at least remember this one. Generosity combines each of the other pillars into one of the most fundamental virtues that joyous people have. You cannot be truly generous unless you recognize and appreciate other perspectives, learn to accept and forgive other people, and have compassion for even your enemies. This is because generosity requires joy, which is a product of these other traits.

We are all familiar with the mantra that it is better to give than to receive, but according to Abrams, there is actually some evidence that this is more than just a handy proverb for parents to repeat around Christmas. He explains that “Generosity is so important in all of the world’s religions because it no doubt expresses a fundamental aspect of our interdependence and our need for one another. Generosity was so important for our survival that the reward centers of our brain light up as strongly when we give as when we receive, sometimes even more so.” This raises a question that also came up in the discussion of compassion, are we really wired for some kind of non-competitive behavior?

The Archbishop definitely thinks we are: “We have been brought up to think that we have to obey the laws of the jungle. Eat or be eaten. We are ruthless in our competitiveness….We have downplayed the fact that actually our created nature is that we are made for a complementarity. We have become dehumanized and debased.” There is a strong consensus that as our world has grown increasingly interconnected by technology and trade, we have grown proportionally disconnected and isolated. Materialism and commercialism have certainly infiltrated our lives in ways that we can no longer even recognize, and the definition of “success” continues to change so that our grasping fingers are always just short of reaching it.

I know this is not exactly an original idea, but it is important to be reminded of it from time to time. No matter how much we enjoy giving, we seem to return to our obsession with getting. Like an alcoholic or a serial dieter, we know what will make us happy and healthy, but we are always tempted by the siren call of behaviors that leave us temporarily gratified and inevitably unsatisfied. What a beautiful irony that the cure for selfishness is generosity. The best way to get more is to give more.

Abrams says that generosity is “something we learn to enjoy by doing.” From my own experience, I know this is true. I really enjoy helping other people, and I am lucky that my life has afforded me many opportunities to do it. Sadly, I don’t have the financial freedom to give much in the way of monetary help, but I have always liked being able to give time and energy to people whenever possible. Perhaps there is something selfish about this arrangement, but that could be part of the whole design. If it didn’t feel good to help others, we might not do it at all.

I thought about dissecting my 8-day (well, 2-week) experiment to see what kind of impact it had on me, but I decided against it. Why? Towards the end of the book, Abrams discusses the incredible trait that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop share. He says, “the quality they both have, perhaps more than any other, is this generosity of the spirit. They are big-hearted, magnanimous, tolerant, broad-minded, patient, forgiving, and kind.” Joy isn’t a product formed by the perfect execution of a recipe. It’s not a skill that can be learned by practicing various techniques. It’s the result of being a certain kind of person or living a certain kind of life. You don’t find joy by looking for it. You create joy by living a life that is conducive to being joyful.


Pillars of Joy: Day 7 (Compassion)

“…compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”

This is the seventh of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

As he does in many other places, Abrams points to the exact meaning of a word in order to explore its complexity and nuance. In this case, he tells us that “compassion” literally means “suffering with.” To me, there is a distinct difference between sympathy (which is a only a step above pity) and compassion because the latter is based on this notion of co-suffering. Whereas sympathy, and even empathy to a point, seem to separate the observer from the sufferer, compassion reveals the connection between two living souls.

You may not know who John Donne is, but you have likely heard one of his most famous lines: “no man is an island.” According to Donne and the Dalai Lama, we are all inextricably bound to one another in some way, perhaps metaphysically. If so, then compassion is an interesting illustration of that connection. There must be a reason that another person’s happiness or pain could possibly become my own in some way.

Similar to his views on gratitude, the Dalai Lama believes, “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” Again, this reveals a sort of paradox in which we can heal ourselves by focusing on others. To emphasize just how important this concept is, Abrams quotes the Dalai Lama repeating his refrain later, “the more time you spend thinking about yourself, the more suffering you will experience.”

Though it may seem contradictory, especially in light of the Darwinian model of human nature many have come to accept, the Archbishop believes that we are actually wired for compassion. How could that be? Compassion seems like an evolutionary defect at best, or a terrible design flaw at worst. However, Tutu firmly believes that a sense of compassion is actually necessary for the level of cooperation that has enabled us to thrive as a species. There are plenty of scientific studies that reveal cooperation among other animals as well (see reciprocal altruism). At the risk of conflating the two terms, it seems pretty clear that compassion and cooperation are at least related.

Perhaps we are wired for compassion towards others, but certain people present very difficult challenges to that otherwise natural response. People who have wronged you in some way may be unlikely to elicit compassion from you, abusive partners in particular. However, it could be an important part of your own path to joy to recognize that abusive behavior often arises from a state of suffering. Rather than despising or just pitying your AP, try to see her as a wounded soul who deserves to be healed herself. Honestly, wouldn’t the best outcome be for her to find peace and live a happier, healthier life in which she is no longer abusive to you or others?


Though forgiveness basically boils down to letting the offender “off the hook,” compassion takes a step further and creates “a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.” This is how Abrams distinguishes between compassion and empathy, which is “simply feeling another’s emotion.” Think about your AP, or anyone who has hurt you, and you can probably identify how she is suffering in one way or another. To be clear, abusive behavior is never okay, but it can be very helpful to identify where it comes from. If your goal is to punish her, that’s an easy and rather unsatisfying path. If your goal is to be happy, try recognizing that everyone has room for improvement and the right to be treated as a person in the process.

Lastly, it is crucial to learn compassion for yourself, in the sense that you should want what’s best for you and remember that you deserve it. Self-pity is a terrible state to be in or to witness in others; self-compassion is a healthy state that is necessary for cultivating joy for yourself and those around you.

Next up: Generosity

Pillars of Joy: Day 6 (Gratitude)

“Thanksgiving is a natural response to life and may be the only way to savor it.”

This is the sixth of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

A month or so ago I posted about some things that I am grateful for. I don’t remember why I wrote it or what made me think about gratitude, but I thought it was important at the time. As it turns out, gratitude is one of the most important components of living a joyful life. There are various meditation practices that specifically use the feeling of gratefulness as a focus of attention. Plenty of studies have shown that being thankful has physical and emotional health benefits.

Superficially, this is obvious. You simply feel good when you are grateful to or for someone. There is more, however; in The Book of Joy, Abrams quotes a Benedectine monk named Daniel Steindl-Rast as saying, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.” That’s an interesting reversal of what I would expect. Perhaps it’s just a pithy one-liner, but I suspect there is some actual truth to it. More likely, gratitude and happiness exist in a circular relationship to each other. It could be difficult or impossible to decide which one actually causes the other. Either way, gratitude is clearly more than a mere feeling of thankfulness–it is inextricably tied to happiness, which means that we can’t really have a discussion about joy without it.

Elsewhere, Rast explains that “joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you this moment.” That line made me stop and reread it a few times. Joy is happiness, but a specific kind of happiness that doesn’t occur in response to events, a state of being without regard to consequences. Just being thankful for opportunities creates a joyful attitude that won’t be altered by whatever comes out of your efforts. That may seem impossible to some, but I am willing to pursue it in my own life.

In that earlier post about gratitude, I acknowledged a lot of people who have meant something to me or who have given me much to appreciate. Among that list was my ex-wife because she bore my children. Perhaps that was not gracious enough. She also gave me some great gifts, introduced me to amazing books, movies, and music, and taught me some valuable lessons about life and love. There were times when she was tender and soothing, there were moments of light and laughter, there were occasions when we felt like a family. Sadly, even these memories are slightly shadowed by the negativity in our relationship, and it’s getting harder to find ones that aren’t tinged at all.

Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe the whole point is to feel and express gratitude even when there doesn’t seem to be much to be thankful for. It’s sort of the same as the forgiveness idea where we have to distinguish between the action and the actor. In this case, we have to remember that even though someone has caused us pain, that person may still also be kind and loving. Just like forgiving someone by detaching the action from the person, we can feel gratitude for an action rather than the person.

Pillars of Joy: Day 5 (Forgiveness)

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.”

This is the fifth of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I’ve thought about this for two days now: what exactly is forgiveness? Is it an action? a choice? a feeling? When I “forgive” someone, what does that actually mean?

This is not really what I intended to do with this series of reflections about joy, but the more I thought about the word, the less I understood it. Rather than bore you with the specifics of my linguistic battle, I’ll just share this with you: forgiveness is giving up the desire to punish or retaliate against the offender. It’s not absolving them of responsibility or forgetting the offense; it’s recognizing that punishing them will not fix the injury that was caused. In fact, retaliation tends to multiply the hurt rather than lessen it.

Another aspect of forgiveness that really stuck out to me was this description by the Dalai Lama: part of forgiveness is “cultivating compassion for someone who may not be experiencing acute pain or suffering right now, but who is creating the conditions for their own future suffering.” This really struck me because my ex-wife frequently says very hurtful things and treats other people with great disrespect. What do you do with a person like this? How can you forgive someone who doesn’t stop hurting you and doesn’t take responsibility for doing it? Compassion.

It’s interesting to me that I’ve never really thought of the connection between compassion and forgiveness, but it makes perfect sense. When you realize that the person who injured you did not do it on purpose or by choice, it’s easier to forego the desire for retribution. When I see that my ex-wife says or does hurtful things because she is afraid, I must acknowledge that (at least in some ways) she is not responsible for that fear. She doesn’t live that way entirely by choice, so her reactions to things are not entirely her “fault.” Yes, she’s the one choosing to insult or belittle, but where is that “choice” coming from? It’s almost like a reflex. When the doctor taps your knee, he can’t be angry if you accidentally kick him in the shin.

That’s where it helps to understand what exactly forgiveness is. If I thought that she deserved to be punished for what she has done, it means that I don’t have any compassion at all for the state of fear that she lives in. I certainly don’t think she is completely blameless, but it’s interesting to realize that she does and says such things because that’s what seems right to her.

This leads into a related point, again made by the Dalai Lama. It’s important to draw a distinction between the actor and the action. This is a common refrain among Christians (at least in the US): “hate the sin, not the sinner.” It is presented less glibly in The Book of Joy“This is where the power of forgiveness lies–not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness.” That word “humanity” is really important. In our current social and political climate, we can see just what happens when we lose sight of this. Rather than rational debates between individual people, what we see going on is a two-way barrage of personal attacks and cruel insults.

Finally, one of the most important things about forgiveness is that is releases the forgiver from the hold of the forgiven. Until we do that, we “are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.” The longer you hold on to that hatred and anger and bitterness, the longer you are a prisoner to it. Letting go of that negativity frees you and your offender, but it’s not always easy. Still, a little compassion can go a long way in recognizing that you have also been on the other side of forgiveness, and you know how good it feels to be let off the hook.


Next up: Gratitude

Pillars of Joy: Day 4 (Acceptance)

“When we accept the present, we can forgive and release the desire for a different past.”

This is the fourth of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I am probably at my worst when I am driving. I don’t know if I’ve always been this way, but I am impatient and aggressive. People who cruise at the speed limit in the left lane make my blood boil like nothing else. It’s completely irrational. So today, rather than cursing and gnashing my teeth, I tried to accept the reality of the situation. I acknowledged that the person in front of me was not going to speed up or get over regardless of my emotional state. My anger could do nothing to solve the problem (which, as it turns out, wasn’t even really a problem). I wanted to drive about 5 mph faster, but I was unable to. That’s all there was to it.

It worked. It actually made me less angry, less frustrated, and more relaxed. I could feel the physiological change in my breathing and my heart rate as the tension slowly released. Am I surprised? No, it’s pretty common sense that it feels better to calm down and not get riled about something beyond your control. Am I going to do this every time? No, probably not. Am I glad that I did it? Absolutely. It’s such a minor thing, but it illustrates just how much control we can have over our own experiences.

There’s something really soothing about accepting reality as it is. The Dalai Lama says many times in the book that much of our suffering is caused by our mental states. Physical pain is inevitable and not easily soothed, but the mental anguish we experience is largely optional. One particular Buddhist aphorism asks,”Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?”

This reminds me of the serenity prayer my mother had taped to the refrigerator for all those years. “God, please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I grew up with that idea bored into my subconscious every single day during my childhood, and it’s as valuable now as ever.

Especially in the throes of recovery from an abusive relationship, survivors need to understand the importance of accepting their new reality. There are so many emotional traps that can hinder their progress, such as escape through drugs or alcohol, avoidance through overworking or heavy socializing, stagnation through anger or self-pity. The Archbishop warns that “We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.” You cannot heal if you do not acknowledge that you are wounded.

Fortunately, acceptance is exactly the kind of step that can be taken at any point in the recovery process, and it doesn’t have to be a complete and total acknowledgment of all of your suffering at once. Today, I was in the middle of sending an email to my ex-wife that wasn’t necessarily mean or spiteful, but I was trying to argue a certain point with her. A friend of mine stopped in for a little bit, and as we talked, I mentioned The Book of Joy. He seemed interested, and we ended up discussing the importance of acceptance. When he left, I returned to my email and realized that what I was going to send was not only in vain, but probably counterproductive. I retyped the email using a more neutral tone and cut out some of the extraneous points I was going to make.

Her response was no less bitter or angry than usual, but it didn’t bother me because I accepted that I simply have no control over what she says or does. I can perhaps prevent things from escalating, but that’s about it. It made the exchange at least a little less unpleasant to know that I had done the right thing.

Because “stress and anxiety come from our expectations of how life should be,” according to the Dalai Lama, we have the ability to combat that kind of suffering by changing our mindset. I have long been fascinated by meditation, but my few attempts at it were predictably unsuccessful. Still, it is something I would love to explore further because of its benefits to mental and physical health. I like the way Abrams describes how it works: “Meditative practice allows us to quiet the distracting thoughts and feelings so that we can perceive reality, and respond to it more skillfully.” Clear away some of the clutter, and we can see what is really going on.


Next upForgiveness

Pillars of Joy: Day 3 (Humor)

“If you start looking for the humor in life, you’ll find it. You will stop asking, Why me? and start recognizing that life happens to all of us.”

This is the third of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I have never really understood gloomy people. Sure, maybe some of them are harboring serious trauma or painful secrets, but I get the feeling that many are just sour by nature. Why? There is so much absurdity in the world. There is so much to laugh at all the time, right? Well, to be honest, I haven’t been in very high spirits lately, so I guess I can see why people aren’t always bursting at the seams with laughter.

That’s what I realized today: my ex-wife no longer has control over what I do, but her shadow still lurks in the edges of my mind. It’s not really fear; it’s a sort of peripheral dread that prevents me from completely letting go because I know there’s going to be a next time. There will always be another fight, another accusation, another paranoid retaliation, and my kids will always be in the crossfire. She stole more than a decade of my life, and she will continue to pilfer every bit of happiness she can.

Still, I am not dead inside (or outside, thankfully). Since I got out, I have experienced some of the genuine laughter and enjoyment that I missed for so many years. My family and friends have not treated me with pity or with kid gloves. We have had some hard conversations, and no doubt there are more to come, but we have laughed so much that it’s like I never disappeared at all. I miss my children more than I can even bear to think about sometimes, and the sound of my own laughter is a rare source of hope for me.

In The Book of Joy, Abrams describes how humor is a powerful tool for defusing tension and reducing conflict. Studies have long shown that it has physical health benefits, giving credence to the adage, “laughter is the best medicine.” I absolutely believe that because I’ve seen what it can do. Maybe it doesn’t cure cancer or prevent epidemics, but it most certainly soothes a weary soul.

Archbishop Tutu put it this way: “Life is hard, you know, and laughter is how we come to terms with all the ironies and cruelties and uncertainties that we face.” It’s why movies have this trope where a really tense situation will be resolved by some unexpected silliness that disarms the characters who are in conflict with each other. (Of course, I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, but I’m sure one will come to me at 3 am when I’m lying awake thinking about it). Truly, there is sometimes no other response to the unrelenting insanity we see in the world around us. The United States is currently in a bizarre, simultaneous state of utter horror and absolute hilarity. You just can’t make this stuff up.

That’s why I like how Abrams explains the nature of humor. He says, “Jokes are funny precisely because they break our expectations and help us to accept the unexpected.” Comedy is often about defying our expectations (or perfectly meeting them in surprising ways), so it’s easy to see why finding the humor in our lives is so important. If we took everything as seriously as some people think we should, no one would ever laugh. No more chuckles or giggles, no more titters or guffaws, no more synonyms for laughter at all.

If you’ve ever heard a toddler let out a genuine belly laugh, you know exactly what joy sounds like. That’s what we should all sound like. Not all the time, obviously. Grandma’s funeral is hardly the place for that kind of thing (depending on your family, I suppose). There is so much suffering, so much strife, so much hatred and anger and jealousy and fear and cruelty in the world. If we don’t find ways to laugh at it, it will consume us. It turns out, laughing is pretty serious business.

Up next: Acceptance

Pillars of Joy: Day 2 (Humility)

“Arrogance is the confusion between our temporary roles and our fundamental identity.”

This is the second of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Throughout the book, the Dalai Lama repeats a certain concept over and over again: he is just one of 7 billion people on this planet. He is just like the rest of us. According to him, recognizing that you are the same as everyone else is a fundamental element of being joyful. One significant cause of suffering is when the belief that we are somehow better than others or special is pulled out from under us and we are made to look ridiculous.

I hate to sound ironic, but I’m pretty good at being humble. What I mean is, I find it really comforting to know that I’m not that special, that I’m just one of all these billions of people struggling to live a life of purpose and happiness. It’s not hard at all to accept that I have weakness and problems just like literally everyone else. That’s the beauty of perspective: you can see yourself in others just by watching how they struggle.

The Archbishop put it this way: “Our vulnerabilities, our frailties, and our limitations are a reminder that we need one another: We are not created for independence or self-sufficiency, but for interdependence and mutual support.” Humility isn’t just about debasing yourself; it’s about recognizing that we need each other to survive. No one is able to do it alone, and that’s what connects us.

Douglas Abrams explains that humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth or soil. Humility is being able to recognize where you come from, that you exist from a common source with everyone else. In a very literal way, humble people can be described as down to earth. It’s important to recognize also that the ground is as low as you can go in this metaphor. When all people are brought to this level, they are quite equal; you don’t have to dig a hole to achieve more humility than others. We are all the same, not better or worse, by our very nature.

I think it’s worth pointing out that there are ways in which we can measure ourselves against each other. I doubt it would surprise anyone to learn that Michael Jordan is a much better basketball player than I am or that Yo-Yo Ma is a superior cellist. So what do we do with such obvious disparities in talent or ability or other gifts? Well, we acknowledge them. There is no harm in taking pride in our accomplishments because what we are able to accomplish is not contingent on our nature. In other words, Michael Jordan and Yo-Yo Ma are valuable because they exist, not because they have extraordinary talent. I am valuable because I exist, not because I’ve done anything to “earn” it.

It seems to run both ways: we are capable of doing great things, but we will never be capable of doing everything alone. Whether we like it or not, we need each other to survive and flourish. This is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in the last year or so: it can be very humbling to ask for help, but it doesn’t have to be humiliating.