I've not written a whole lot about New Orleans lately, mostly because I had so many things percolating in my mind that I needed to give the entire thing some space and time before extrapolating anything of value.
The question that has been repeated to me, by others and myself, is "What did you get out of the situation?" And, at first, the answers were fast and many, disorganized and scattered thoughts and rage about social injustice, and feelings of inspiration and hope.
Two months later, I feel I've come up with some sort of generalized, definitive answer which also addresses the question: "Why did you go in the first place?"
The past few years have been quite scattered ones for me, as evidenced by this blog, and a period of a lot of questioning and "figuring things out." Seeking to do something like volunteer for a week in New Orleans sort of didn't make sense at the time; rather it was something that called out to me during a period of time when I was seeking direction, and I jumped on the opportunity. It wasn't what I had in mind for a transformative experience, and it certainly was never something I c\would have dreamed up on my own.
I couldn't even have articulated what it was I was seeking at the time, or to what gain, only that my heart was open and inquisitive.
And what it found was this: seeing how big, complex, and unpredictable the world is showed me what things I can and cannot control in my own life. Far from feeling stultified and helpless, it led me to feel proactive. Releasing my worries about what's out of my hands and staking a claim on what I CAN manipulate and alter (primarily my attitude towards life in general) opened up a new world for me.
For the first time in my life, I realized that happiness is not something that falls out of the sky or is waiting behind the right door. It's a choice. It's an active choice, it's a constant choice, and it's mine.
For the first time, I choose happiness and while it's constantly threatened (by things like complicated job issues, money worries, and tense interpersonal relationships, to name a few), I find that consistently choosing happiness over time leads to more happiness. The choice becomes more instinctual. I choose it over defensiveness, self-centeredness, pessimism, fear, doubt, and a host of things that kept me in the dark for so long.
So many things are out of my control. But this one thing I can have power over. And it's life-changing. Cancer patients choose it and it can improve their chances of remission. Athletes choose it and performance improves. And victims of disasters, both natural and man-made, choose it and find new means of coping.
Happiness, in my mind, is synonymous with hope, with humor, and with the genuine and concrete belief that things happen for reasons, and that those reasons are ultimately good.
I don't know why this never occurred to me before. I suppose, like anything else, it was a lesson to be learned. A hard lesson, to be sure, but with sweet, sweet results.
How did this come about? Because for every story of devastation and destruction, every horrible tale of dead bodies and loss and damage, there were gleaming little stories of hope, humor, and happiness.
I see how cataclysmic events lead to life-altering things like artistic reactions, volunteers, hope, hard work, and a call for re-structure. I see the cause-and-effect of negative occurrences and how the best reaction is its opposite- positivity. Because then you can't separate the negative and positive because one couldn't have happened without the other. So, ultimately, the negative becomes in itself a positive thing. Propelling you forward. Moving on.
Please do not misunderstand and think for a moment that I am selfishly capitalizing on the suffering and misfortune of others. I cannot, for an instant, downplay or trivialize the horrible, horrible things that happen in this world. I am simply pointing out that my experiences led me to a new way of viewing the world.
Happiness is a choice. It's a lens through which you view the world. It's not a job, or a car, or a relationship, or money, or any of the trappings of our lives. It's an attitude. It's how you receive all of these things. And if you're waiting for any one of those to bring you the clarity or buoyancy you crave, you will undoubtedly be disappointed.
I'm letting all of these things marinate and watching as fantastic little moments unfold in my life. The world is such an easier place in which to live when I'm not being defensive, "Why me," or shouldering the negativity I was carrying around for so long. That's not to say I don't have bad days or misfortune like everyone else, just that I know that these things are transitory, and their long-lasting effects depend primarily on how I choose to let them effect me. I am in control here, for the first time, of what I CAN control. And the things that I can't? I let them go.
I couldn't have asked for a better life-changing experience, and my gratitude is immeasurable.