The Key to Happiness:
A Full Acceptance of Life. Of Death.
Of Ourselves. Of Others.
by Lionel Fisher
“Of course, there is no formula for success except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.”
~ Arthur Rubinstein
“Truly loving means letting go of all expectations. It means full acceptance, even celebration of
another's personhood.” ~ Karen Casey
"How would you like to die?" I ask Martha Hanner, 92.
"Surprised," she replies without hesitation.
Time, it is instantly obvious, has only sharpened this supremely serene woman's dry wit which she displays often, a soft smile gentling her deadpan delivery.
"But not without me," interjects Martha's husband Pete, cradling his wife's free hand in his between sips of the decaf Americanos they both have ordered.
Born two months apart in 1916, the leap year of Woodrow Wilson's ascendancy to the White House, the Hanners met while attending Oklahoma State University in Stillwater where both graduated with Music degrees in the spring of 1937. They were married two
months later in Gainesville, Texas. On August 30, 2008, Pete and Martha celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary.
Several weeks later, on a bright October afternoon on Southwest Washington's Long Beach Peninsula we sit in a shady corner of Adelaide's Books & Coffee shop in Ocean Park, a stroll away from their cottage fronting Willapa Bay in the nearby village of
Nahcotta. Lovingly restored by proprietor Cyndy Hayward from the circa-1887 Taylor Hotel into an ambient blend of eclectic books, aromatic coffees and thoughtful conversation, Adelaide's perfectly suits the Hanners' reminiscences of nearly a century spent together. I ask them
both, "What has acceptance meant to you in your lives and your marriage?"
Pete answers first, warming quickly to the subject. "I'm a word person," he says, "and the definitions of acceptance that come to mind are 'to take willingly
what is offered or given,' 'to receive favorably,' 'to agree with or consent to,' 'to believe in.' All these interpretations of the word we've diligently applied to our marriage."
"We accepted each other completely from the beginning," adds Martha. "We've accepted each other our entire lives.”
“From the start we bound ourselves in the structure of marriage, to all its myriad implications and demands -- two young people totally accepting of whatever came our way so long as it came to us both. This unity, this mutual acceptance and sharing of
everything has been vital to our happiness. It's been critical to the longevity of our marriage and our lives."
Martha pauses in her thoughtful way and Pete says quietly, speaking more to her than to me, I sense: "We've been best friends from the start, and we still are. We've always talked things over, gone over all the pros and cons of everything that affected
us. We've given and followed and trusted each other's advice. Martha has made most of the decisions for all of us,” he concedes, “and I've accepted that as well.”
Grinning widely, he adds, “Why not? I learned early on she's smarter than I'll ever be,” then falls silent as Martha speaks again.
"We're old -- we know we're old, and we accept it,” she says. “We accept that life as we know it is moving toward an end, and we're getting ready for it. Yet I have no feeling of growing old. On the contrary, I feel timeless, that when the time
comes it will be a surprise, perhaps because I'm so connected with the person inside me, the inner person who is eternal, who is my soul. That person doesn't have any aches or pains or wrinkles or fears."
SO MANY ANSWERS, NOT ENOUGH LIFETIMES
I ask Martha, “You believe in the hereafter, then?” "This life is so brief there's no sense accepting that's all there is,” she replies. “I like to think we''ll live long enough to learn all the answers -- again and again through reincarnation as
Buddhists believe -- until we finally get it right, this thing we call life."
Another soft smile. "Then, again, maybe we won't. I'll be able to accept that, too, but only if I do the best I possibly can with this life."
“Meanwhile, though, I'll continue to accept myself, to be who I am, not anyone else. I don't play roles, never have. I know now that before I can accept everything and everyone who comes into my life, I have to accept myself, the person I truly am –
accept myself totally, without denial or illusions. I accept, too, that I'm not perfect, so I'm able to accept the imperfections of others.”
“If I'm satisfied and happy with myself, I can be satisfied and happy with others. I've learned that. If I play games with myself, I'll play games with others. If we accept ourselves as we are, not as we'd like to be, if we can do that,
we'll be able to accept everyone else as they are.”
“I guess when you get down to it,” Pete says, “acceptance is simply attitude – how you look at life, at yourself, at others.”
“Contentment is the word I keep thinking of,” says Martha, talking directly to her husband, loyal friend and steadfast companion of 71 years. “And gratitude -- for everything I have that I could possibly want or ever need: a wonderful family, our
good health, each other.”
I think of Melody Beattie's reflection on Martha's synonym for acceptance: thankfulness for what we have, not wanting or needing more. “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life,” wrote the best-selling author of Codependent No More, The Language
of Letting Go and, most recently, Journey to the Heart. “It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude
makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
THOUGH THE WHOLE HOUSE TREMBLES
For Kittie Molloy, 83, acceptance came in the form of knowing what she had to do, whatever the cost, “though the whole house began to tremble,” in the haunting words of a Mary Oliver poem she discovered at a time when she most needed to hear the healing
Married for 35 years to a person who emotionally abused her, Molloy finally pulled together “enough of what it took” to move out. "He was a man I truly loved,” recounts Molloy, “though I ask myself now if it could have been love. We had seven children
when I left him, the youngest almost 16, who refused my invitation to come with me, she was having so much fun doing everything she pleased with her Dad's approval. I prayed to God they would all be all right, and at the age of 53 departed the only life I'd known or thought
I’d ever wanted."
Years after she left the home “where I knew I was slowly dying," Molloy heard a poem by Mary Oliver titled The Journey, read by David Whyte, her favorite poet. Pulitzer Prize-winner Oliver’s darkly introspective lines moved her deeply, providing
long-sought words of affirmation:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.
“Friends helped me move,” Molloy continues. “I made the first trip with some lightweight clothing and personal things, driving away at six in the morning. Then my friends returned with me several times and we took what I really needed, but not everything
that belonged to me. I knew I would be OK without it.”
In her new apartment for the first time, her back against the door she had firmly locked behind her, Molloy said a prayer she now fervently imparts to others: “Thank you, God, for giving me the strength to do this.”
“Strangely enough,” recounts Molloy, “my children who'd been furious with me for leaving ‘poor daddy’ soon began visiting me, wanting again to be part of my life. My therapist told me they weren’t really angry with me for leaving him, they were angry with
me for leaving him in their care. And they soon tired of taking care of him, as I’d exhausted myself doing, but they continued to do so and they're still caring for him to this day. Of course, he lets them. Maybe one day they’ll read Mary Oliver’s poem, though sadly I
don’t think it will change anything.”
Her life is “glorious” today, says Molloy. “That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. I have hundreds of friends, many of whom call me their role model. Some even refer to me as ‘legend’ for what I did. My heart aches when I see women remaining
in sick situations, mired in their pain by too much fear over leaving. It’s not easy, I want to tell them, but the rewards are too great not to try.”
“Acceptance of what has happened,” said William James, “is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”
Nathaniel Branden puts it this way: “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.”
Motivational author-speaker Wayne Dyer equates “the quiet acceptance of what is” to nothing less than the wisdom of enlightenment.
WHEN IT GETS TOO HARD TO REMEMBER
Like Kittie Molloy, Ruth Spani's acceptance of the painful change she had to make in her own life came with a sudden, sad awareness. “When it became too hard to remember the good times, I knew it was time to go,” says Spani, 60.
“Tell me about the good times,” I ask her.
She is silent for a long time. Just when I think she's not going to reply, Spani says softly, “The first few years of our marriage were wonderful. I know that's not surprising. Most married couples are happiest early on, when each person seems everything
to the other. We were no different. Yet part of what made those early years so worthwhile was a fairy-tale place in which every day seemed perfect in every way.”
“We spent the summer months of our first six years together in Northern Ontario, Canada, where my husband grew up. We'd bought a log cabin built as a hunting camp with no electricity or running water. We used solar panels, 12-volt lights, kerosene
lanterns and an incredible wood cook-stove. We collected rain water in barrels under all the drain spouts. Rain water is terrific for your hair -- makes it so soft. Those days were magical,” she sums up, “like returning to the basic, simple existence of a long-ago era where
we had each other and needed little else.”
First married at the age of 17, about to be thrice-divorced, Spani says she is looking forward to living alone, something she has never done. It scares her a bit, she admits, the newness and uncertainty of having herself -- first and foremost -- to love
and nurture. But she will paint, she vows, raise vegetables and flowers, grow mushrooms, make wine -- and find herself, at long last -- by the tawny sands of the blue Pacific.
“Those magnificent early years,” Spani explains, “were replaced by the drinking years, the years of of losing myself, my identity, to his negativity and criticism. I drank too much for a while as well. We had that in common until I couldn't see myself
anymore, only my life passing in a fog as I tried to please someone whom I knew even then would never be satisfied. The crossroads came when I turned 60, when I realized I was close to losing myself completely. Then, miraculously, the hope of some sort of life for myself --
instead of disappearing, suddenly seemed closer than ever. I have intelligence, I told myself. I have talent. I have the right to be who I am and nothing means more to me than just that. So I've accepted my failed marriage and the rest of my life without him.”
“With that acceptance,” says Spani, “came the realization, like the lifting of a great weight off my shoulders, that the perfect moment never again has to include anyone but myself.”
“Don't get me wrong,” she adds quickly, “I'm a people-person. People will always be important to me. Hopefully, there'll even be another 'special' person among them. But others are a gift I give myself now -- no longer a need. There's a
world of difference between the two.'
'There's a line in a poem my mother typed for me on her old Underwood manual after my divorce from my first husband,” Spani goes on. “I still have the poem. It's tucked in one of my cookbooks, I think, and I once knew the words by heart. I don't anymore,
but I remember this line because I love gardening so much: 'So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.' I'm not going to wait for anyone to bring me flowers anymore,” Spani says quietly. “I'll grow my own --
rows and rows of them -- and they'll all be mine.”
At the start of our interview, I'd given Spani a copy of the Mary Oliver poem that affirmed Kittie Molloy's decision to relinquish her marriage as Spani will soon do for the third time. Now she hands me a sheet of paper containing a poem by an unknown
author she found on the Internet. These affirming words have comforted her, Spani says, as Oliver's poem comforted Molloy:
Loving Means Letting Go
To let go does not mean to stop caring,
It means I can't do it for someone else.
To let go is not to cut myself off,
It's the realization I can't control another.
To let go is not to enable,
But allow learning from natural consequences.
To let go is to admit powerlessness, which means
The outcome is not in my hands.
To let go is not to try to change or blame another,
It's to make the most of myself.
To let go is not to care for,
But to care about.
To let go is not to fix,
But to be supportive.
To let go is not to judge,
But to allow another to be a human being.
To let go is not to be in the middle arranging all the outcomes,
But to allow others to affect their destinies.
To let go is not to be protective,
It's to permit another to face reality.
To let go is not to deny,
But to accept.
To let go is not to nag, scold or argue,
But instead to search out my own shortcomings and correct them.
To let go is not to adjust everything to my desires,
But to take each day as it comes and cherish myself in it.
To let go is not to criticize or regulate anybody,
But to try to become what I dream I can be.
To let go is not to regret the past,
But to grow and live for the future.
To let go is to fear less and love more.
Remember: The time to love is short.
© Copyright 2008 Lionel Fisher.
All Rights Reserved.
This article is excerpted from Lionel Fisher’s new book on growing old magnificently, titled “My Name Is Earl and I’m Old”/A 12-Step Program for the Rest of the Journey. A former journalist, freelance writer, columnist,
corporate communicator and advertising creative director who lived and worked in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami and Portland, Oregon, before moving to Southwest Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, Fisher is the author of Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid
Solitude (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001), On Your Own: A Guide to Working Happily, Productively and Successfully from Home (Prentice Hall, 1995) and The Craft of Corporate Journalism (Nelson-Hall, 1992). He also writes several self-syndicated humor/lifestyle
columns, including one on the art of living alone. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Celebrating Time Alone,
says the author, is about living joyously and self-fulfilled alone instead of steadfastly seeking our answers, our happiness, our very identity in others when we first must find it the only place we can – in ourselves. Fisher’s reflections
on solitude came into sharp focus on the remote Pacific Northwest beach to which he moved eight years ago where he kept a detailed journal to record his thoughts, feelings and emotions during this climactic period of willful isolation. He
interweaves his own insights and experiences with the stories of "new hermits" he interviewed across the country – men and women who have stretched the envelope of their aloneness to Waldenesque proportions, achieving great emotional clarity in the process, as well as their
urban counterparts who, through necessity or choice, prefer to savor their individuality in smaller servings. The book’s central premise is timeless and simple, notes Fisher. "There are gifts we can only give ourselves, lessons no one else can teach us, triumphs we must
achieve alone. It affirms that it’s all right to be alone, to want to be alone, even to be lonely at times because the rewards of solitude can make the deprivations so worthwhile. It sings the praises of those who have found amazing grace alone. They lead us in quest of our
own undiscovered selves."
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