2017 and 2018 have been full of new experiences for me. Many have been challenging, many more incredibly enjoyable, rewarding, and influential to my growth. While it is difficult to undervalue any of the lessons I have learned along the way, perhaps the most powerful has been my concrete, personal realization of something that we repeatedly hear from the earliest days of our childhoods onward: happiness is internal.
The idea comes to us in many forms. “Don’t listen to what others have to say,” “When life gives you lemons...,” “Focus on yourself first and the rest will come.” All of these boil down to the fundamental point that the world around us is entirely a construct inside each of our individual minds. Some may argue that too many external circumstances are beyond our control to embrace this concept. But I choose to believe in its truth and the boundless opportunity it provides us to better enjoy our lives.
Understanding, and then believing, that happiness comes from within is something I now believe a person has to experience and practice firsthand in order to find its truth. It is not necessarily an easy acquisition. For this reason, I would like to share my own discovery and how it has impacted me since.
Nairobi, Kenya is where I was lucky enough to first observe this theory in action. More specifically, it came during a traffic jam on a windy mountain road overlooking the Rift Valley. Having embarked early that day on two safaris to witness some of nature’s most majestic creations, my friends and I were tired and ready for a good dinner followed swiftly by some much needed sleep. But as I looked out the window at the thunderstorm looming threateningly across the valley, our van came to a stop on the side of the mountain. Sticking my head out the window to peer ahead, I was not welcomed by a promising sight. The cars ahead were at a dead standstill. A short while later, a glimpse back down the mountain revealed cars backed up for miles behind us. This is not what we wanted for what was supposed to be the winding down of our day. For more than two hours (and what I can only assume must have been at least six hours for those unfortunate souls stuck miles behind us) traffic moved at an astonishingly slow pace.
Living in VA and having traversed the I-95 corridor to DC many a time, I was no stranger to the anger, honking, and one-upsmanship lane changing that typically accompany a major traffic jam. But as we inched our way along that mountainside, I noticed a stark lack of all of these maladies. In fact, when I looked around at the drivers who had put their cars in park and turned off the ignition, there wasn’t a frown to be seen. Many had gotten out of their cars to talk to their newfound neighbors. Others simply walked or stretched to pass the intermittent time between forward progress. What struck me most was the genuine positive attitude this temporary community of fellow travelers now shared. No one was yelling. No one was trying to force the person in front of them to push through an immovable barrier. Everyone was simply there. Living through the same hardship. Recognizing its fleeting existence.
In my eyes, it was nothing short of beautiful.
If this community, whom many I know would already consider disadvantaged, could so easily brush aside a traffic jam of such epic proportions, surely they could not be allowing the external environment to influence their internal state of mind.
I had now observed what it means to embrace the happiness-is-internal attitude. But my practical trial still lay ahead.
The next night, I sadly brought my maiden voyage to Africa to a close and took off on the long journey home. Or at least, home is what I expected to be waiting for me at the end of that road. Instead, after 15 hours of airports, planes, trains, sidewalks, and bad sleep, I opened my apartment door at 9:00 in the morning to find what can only be described as the vestiges of a war zone.
My bed had been removed from the loft and obstructed the door, causing me to squeeze in for a better view of the remaining damage. A spring from my sofa bed was lying in the middle of the floor. An empty pack of cigarettes rested silently beside it, accompanied by two part-drunken bottles of vodka on the countertop. And to my utter bewilderment, blood painted nearly every corner of my once-pristine studio. This is not a joke or in any way fabricated, I wish I had that kind of imagination. Everything from my shower to the walls to the refrigerator to the bed and pillows were stained with that unmistakable crimson shade.
What on Earth had happened?
Clearly, my lofty dreams of relaxing after an arduous trip and catching up on sleep must be put on hold.
The next eight hours proved a testing time for me. Cleaning, getting in touch with the renters who had stayed in my place the weekend before, cleaning, forcing down food, cleaning, not sleeping, and cleaning some more. My already groggy mind was being pushed to its limits. Never before had I experienced such a lack of respect from another human being. To so effectively destroy a person’s home, then to deny any wrongdoing or responsibility for your actions, takes a special type of person. I was at a loss of how this could have happened and where I could go next.
My head was a very dark place that day.
After considerable effort and force of thought, this once seemingly unnavigable situation turned itself into a new philosophy that continues to guide my actions today. Or perhaps I should say: I turned it into that new philosophy. As I mentioned earlier, understanding the truth in internal happiness is not easily acquired. It would have been all too easy for me to blame the actions of others for the horrible situation I was in. But instead, I borrowed from my friends helplessly stuck on the side of that mountain. I looked around at the mass of trouble in front of me, and at the trail of horror behind me, and I decided that they could not dictate my happiness. That privilege is locked securely inside myself. And there is not a person in the world who can get their hands on the key. Life is too precious to live in anything other than the happiness we all so deeply desire. And deserve.
I had experienced my own truth.
Since then, I have encountered innumerable new challenges and discomforts. (As we all do in our daily lives.) Now, though, when confronted with an environment of which I have minimal control, I maintain my composure and search for that glowing light inside that burns eternal.
It doesn’t matter what I find waiting ahead for me. No matter what pain I endure or external attacks I suffer, nothing will be able to extinguish my happiness. No one has that power but me. Just like my plane currently climbing above the gray clouds blanketing Stockholm, I know there will always be a beautiful expanse of sunlight waiting for me on the other side.