Hidden somewhere in a pile of my own bad prose and abandoned bucket lists, in a tattered grocery bag in my storage room, lies the secret to happiness and peace.
It’s scrawled on a fifty-cent note of Canadian Tire Money, in dark purple Jiffy marker. Just four potent words, but they triggered a flood of insights into my life, and started me on the long and winding road to happiness.
The night I wrote those words down, I was in trouble. I was marching down a career path that made me nauseous to think about, I had no friends nearby, no passions, no ambitions, no confidence. I had lost, by that time, any real belief in a bright future.
The optimism I’d carried so easily through grade school was a distant memory, by then as alien as photos from someone else’s life. Small obstacles completely derailed me, I expected to fail at everything, and human beings generally scared me. It was a particularly bad night in a bad year, and I was in mourning for myself.
I was also totally naked.
When you’re depressed you don’t want to leave the shower. It’s one of the few safe, warm and inviting places to be. I found it so difficult to turn off the water, because then it was back to real life. Cold, dirty, unpredictable life.
One night, when I didn’t even need to, I took a shower. I stayed in there so long, basking in the heat, that the water started to run cool. As dreadful as it was, I had no choice but to get out. To make things worse, the window in that bathroom never closed properly, even in the winter. I knew icy prairie air was pouring in continuously throughout my shower, filling up the bathroom on the other side of the shower curtain.
I had a routine for this. Push in the faucet, tear open the curtain and grab the towel off the rack as quickly as possible. Winnipeg was suffering a cold snap that night, and the bathroom would be as frigid as a meat locker, so I had to be quick.
The moment came; I slammed in the faucet, tore open the curtain and… no towel! In my self-absorbed funk I had forgotten to bring one with me. I jumped out, shivering, and hunted through all the cupboards. No towel anywhere in the bathroom!
Defeated, I stood on the mat and let the cold air flood over me. I watched the ice fog pour over the sill like freezing smoke. I just let it have its way with me. I didn’t get mad at it, I didn’t shiver or scramble to dry off. I just let it feel like whatever it was going to feel like, and noticed something peculiar.
It didn’t hurt me. It wasn’t excruciating, or even unpleasant, just colder than I’d like. My choice to resign to the cold, rather than escape it, robbed it of its power to make me miserable. It was only when I cowered and shivered that it was so awful. I was impervious to it, so long as I didn’t insist it not be cold. Why would I ever resent the cold again?
I was immune. I had conquered it.
The cold could never make me suffer, only I could. My brain started to overflow with the implications of this discovery. Was everything like this? Could I disarm any threat, just by letting it be what it is?
I had to write this down. Still naked, I ransacked the bathroom a second time, for a writing utensil and a piece of paper. I procured a Jiffy marker and a yellow, fifty-cent bill of Canadian Tire Money.
Lost for words, I scrawled:
In hindsight “resentment” and “suffering” would have been better words, but it didn’t matter. The words were not the message, just reminders of it. I couldn’t forget it anyway.
I knew this was big. Huge.
Nudity Begets Discovery
The whole scene really felt quite historic. Not only could I see how sublime a revelation this would prove to be, but it happened in a remarkably similar manner to a much more famous discovery, twenty-two centuries earlier.
The ancient Greek scientist Archimedes also had the discovery of his lifetime while he was bathing.
He had been ordered, by a cranky and unreasonable king, to solve an extremely difficult problem. His Royal Highness suspected that the crown that had been made for him was not pure gold like he’d been promised, but was adulterated with cheaper metals. Cursed with a reputation for being the local smarty-pants, Archimedes was charged with determining whether the crown was pure gold or not, though he could not dismantle or otherwise ruin the crown.
The crown was far too irregular and intricate to calculate its volume, so he had no way of knowing if it was as dense as gold. For days, he fretted and swore, kicked cats and shrieked at passers-by. Out of ideas, he closed up his laboratory and drew himself a bath.
When he lowered himself in, water spilled over the sides, and The Answer struck him. He could submerge the crown, and measure the rise in the water level to determine its volume perfectly. He sprang from the tub and bounded out into the street, dripping and nude, gaily shouting “Eureka!” (I have found it!)
I should have shouted “Eureka!” and streaked out the door in similar fashion, but running through the frozen streets of Winnipeg in my birthday suit didn’t have the same appeal as cobblestones in the warm Greek sun.
Of course, simply knowing what the problem was — and it really is the problem — didn’t automatically make life grand overnight. It didn’t make me a disciplined or courageous person. I was still timid, socially retarded, depleted of the confidence I had as an overachieving middle-schooler. I still had terrible habits, irrational fears, poor willpower, zero organizational skills and no identifiable passions. I still felt very much behind where I could be, where I should be.
No, in terms of my position in life, my discovery didn’t change the score at all.
But it changed all the rules.
It gave me, for the first time, a direction I had no doubt in. I knew right from that cold, clear moment, that this truth would never change. Finally there was a light in the distance that I could always count on to find my bearings: my hell comes from inside, and it’s my responsibility. It’s all my fault, thank God.
In this new game, I had access to all the power I needed to be happy, if I so chose. Power, I would learn, is nothing but responsibility. It’s very simple. CEOs who control large companies have that power because they take responsibility for those companies. I have power over my happiness precisely to the extent I take responsibility for it. You too. Same goes for achievement, wealth, discipline, even the state of the world itself.
Circumstances would not, it turns out, be the death of me. My problems were not problems at all but for how I related to them.
And that’s where I invested my energies from that point on. Figuring out how to change myself, not push the river.
I turned to self-improvement and spirituality, and began the slow process of rebuilding myself. As I learned about how people have approached the conundrum of suffering, I kept seeing my same discovery in different words. Most notably, Krishnamurti summed up the essence of his life’s teachings with the same message, though much more elegantly. When asked the secret to his unwavering happiness he said, “I don’t mind what happens.”
So I didn’t exactly invent it. But at that time, I had not heard of Krishnamurti, or Emerson, or Tolle, or Kabir. This was brand new territory to me, absolutely revolutionary, and life was never the same.
That’s not to say I never suffered again, not at all. I still do. I’m much better, but still delightfully imperfect. I do worry and fret and resent, sometimes. I still have problems.
But I know exactly where to look for solutions.