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Is Life an Ordeal or a Joy?

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Is your life an ordeal or a joy? Is it a battle or a dance?

Do you sometimes think of your daily existence in this world as a form of imprisonment, or is it more like being at a really amazing party?

Are you more often in a state of depression or delight? Do things generally tend to bother you and pull you down, or fascinate you and lift you up?

In the new novel, Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas has one of her characters reflect on a wild cosmological formula for endless existence. She says, "What's the point of living forever? Living now is bad enough."

Do you agree or disagree? Explain in 200 words or fewer.

What mainly motivates you through the day: (A) a need to survive, (B) a craving to win, or (C) a desire to enjoy?

I was looking for something new to read a while ago, so I wandered over to a crowded bookshelf and picked up a book I've long owned but had never actually read: Ernest Hemingway's famous novel, The Sun Also Rises. Just eleven pages into it, I came across this brief conversation that starts with Robert Cohn, a Princeton graduate and amateur boxer, speaking to his old friend Jake, the narrator, in a bar - where it seems, interestingly, that philosophizing about life often takes place:

"Listen, Jake," he leaned forward on the bar. "Don't you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you're not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you've lived nearly half the time you have to live already?"
"Yes, every once in a while."
"Do you know that in about thirty-five years more we'll be dead?"
"What the hell, Robert," I said, "What the hell?"
"I'm serious."
"It's one thing I don't worry about," I said.
"You ought to."

I was surprised by how much this sounded like a scene in one of the old Woody Allen movies. You know, when his character would be staring into space, suddenly deep in thought, uttering words like "Death. Nothingness. Bleak, black desolation." The Diane Keaton character would then say something like, "What are you talking about?" and he would answer, "Nothing, I'm just planning my future." With this kind of humor, no wonder his box office numbers eventually dropped off, like many of the older members of his original audiences.

As we all know, but, like Jake, tend not to think about very much, this life is a limited-time offer. This is an interesting point of reflection for all of us who are already in mid-life. But it's an important fact for any of us, however young or old. Are we making the most of our time on earth? Are we using our talents in the best ways, and taking advantage of the opportunities that come to us each day? Are we enjoying the adventure as we can? Or are we just enduring it all?

Here's a test: Can you ever find a moment of wonder in something as small as watching light reflected through ice cubes in a glass? Or are you so focused on problems that you hardly ever savor the little sparks of mystery and magic all around you? The soft beautiful petal of a flower, the color of the grass or leaves, the sight of a butterfly alighting on a bush, the tingling feel of sun on your face, or that distinctive sound of rain on the roof - do you take moments to relish such things as an important part of your life experience, or are you in a focused battle-mode all the time?

Can you relax? Or is stress flowing through your veins?

Some people are just blessed with a sensibility of celebration. If you are such a person, rejoice! But of course, you don't need me to tell you that - you already do. Just remember that not everyone around you is so spiritually gifted in this way. You can shine your wonderfully warm light into their lives, and you can do so effectively, if you do so gently.

If you're on the contrary always geared up for a fight, grimly marching through the day, don't despair. This can change. You may not be able to obliterate completely any negative temperamental tendencies set deep in your genes or formed early in your existence. But as most great thinkers of the past have understood, and as so many psychologists of the present confirm, you can alter your attitudes and feelings and habitual patterns of thought through deliberate practice.

We all face difficulties. We all feel pain. But if we cultivate, as we can, a celebratory sensibility about life, if we nurture habits of joy, the tough days won't be as bad, and the good days will be even better.

While I was preparing to attend a festival yesterday at the local Children's Museum with most of my family, an annual fund raising celebration called "Tiaras and Treasures" - where all the little children would be dressed as princesses or pirates - I looked through my library for a small book to take along. I decided on one I've read at least twice, Thich Nhat Hanh's concise gem, The Miracle of Mindfulness. But then it suddenly struck me: The real miracle of mindfulness is not taking a book to read while the children cavort, but it's cavorting along with them, mindful of the moment. And that's joy.

Do you need a book, or a blackberry, or your i-phone to help you endure a long line, or even a trip to the playground with your kids? Or are you able to take your own joy in the small things, the sights, and the sounds around you? Are you able to play?

A habit of mindfulness, and the practice of joy, can make all the difference to how you feel about your life.

If you don't have habits now that can frequently bring you joy, you can do something about that. And this is genuinely worth a fight. Joy will enrich your life and expand it immeasurably. Find a bit of it today, and - at least inwardly - dance.

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