We’ve all heard happiness comes from within. Someone else cannot make us happy. We must create our own happiness. That we are not responsible for another person’s behavior, only for how we behave in response.
I agree. Yes, I am in charge of choosing to be happy, for seeing my glass as full rather than empty, for concentrating on the light at the end of the tunnel, for not depending on others for my overall peace and joy, and for opting NOT to ego-box with people who behave rudely.
Yet, the longer I live, the more I observe the daily interactions we have, I am convinced there is another side to the personal happiness coin that needs a lot more press. The flip side is you are not the only one responsible for your happiness. I play a role too, because my behavior creates a wake of energy sent outward just like a rock creates ripples on a still body of water.
When I was young, I often went out on the boat with my dad. He liked to fish and I enjoyed being with him. I adored the chill of the early morning air and the sunlight dancing on the surface. I was in awe of my dad’s skill as he took aim, casting the lure between the branches of a long-dead tree, now partly submerged in the water near shore.
To reach the magical spot I enjoyed, we first had to cross a big lake. My father made certain my life jacket was on tight. Then he pushed the boat away from the dock. Once we were safely clear, he put the motor in high gear and we were off, speeding toward our destination.
I didn’t enjoy facing into the strong wind created by the high speed. Holding on tight I looked backward, observing the effect the boat had on the water as we raced over the calm surface. Spray shot up over the bow, wetting us. Buoys jerked up and down as we sped by. A flock of ducks quickly took flight, their tranquil morning disturbed by our waves. When we were closer to land, our boat’s wake crashed hard against the shore.
After what seemed an eternity, we arrived. My dad slowed the boat down and turned the noisy, smelly, water-churning engine off. He moved up front to an electric trolling motor that silently propelled us the rest of the way, leaving only a small ripple as evidence of our passing.
As we moved slowly, without upsetting the wildlife, I delighted when dragonflies landed on the boat. Fish swam close by, undisturbed by our presence. Once, a bird came and sat for a brief moment on the steering wheel.
When it came time to head back, I became disappointed. Too soon we were off again, zooming across the lake, our wake disturbing the water and everything on it as we went by.
Many years later, during an especially hard period, it dawned on me: I am like a boat. I too, leave a wake as I travel through life. Today I choose to move at a slower, more purposeful pace, although I have not always selected the right speed and direction – in the form of responsible behavior – that represented me well to myself and the world.
When I wrote a check that bounced, embarrassment caused me to take my frustration out on the people at the mean old bank. When I had loud parties, I ignored the impact on my neighbors. The plastic cup, or bag, or take-out container I carelessly threw in the gutter became part of a swirling mass of trash in the Pacific Ocean. As a smoker I rarely considered the negative impact my cigarettes had on others or my pets. I did not think about who was responsible for cleaning up the cigarette butts I threw on a public street.
The same was true about leaving my shopping cart behind a car, or in the middle of the parking lot with the rationalization, “someone is paid to put it away.” When I was financially irresponsible, it was not responsible to expect family, friends, the government, or strangers to bail me out.
There was a time when I behaved as a fast boat, churning up waves of drama and chaos that crashed hard over me and others. Looking back, I realize my careless behavior was the result of not thinking about anyone but myself. Finally it dawned on me I could not possibly be the only person who is impacted by the results of MY behavior. That open-hearted aha moment was what it took for me to stop seeing myself as separate and alone and to start seeing myself as one part of our Earth family.
Asking “How will it feel?” is the key which opened the door to my heart. Taking time to put myself in another person’s shoes before I act allows me to be aware of how uncomfortable, frustrated, or lonely it feels to be on the receiving end of rude and thoughtless behavior. It does not feel good to be jerked up and down like a buoy. Being sprayed with or battered by the wake of another person’s unconscious behavior is not enjoyable.
Yes, your overall contentment with life is absolutely your responsibility. And, the other half of that truth is that no matter how much you take responsibility for creating your own happiness – Congratulations by the way! – what I do DOES impact your happiness factor.
You are not going to be happy no matter how much deep breathing you do if I have a cell phone conversation during the middle of your child’s play, a movie, or at a concert. You can focus all your energy on remaining peaceful but happiness will elude you when I ignore traffic signs and make an illegal U-turn causing a traffic jam. Your calm and balance will go out the window when I behave thoughtlessly and cause a ripple effect that washes negatively over you.
The flip-sided truth to your happiness factor is that although I may live in a free country, I am not entitled to behave as I please! I am not free to do what I want without regard to the consequences of my actions. Action without accountability is not free. There are always consequences!
Our satisfaction and fulfillment in life comes from actively creating and nurturing good relationships with everyone, not just our family and friends. I learned good relationships are not possible if I speed through life carelessly behaving as if I have a special pass to do whatever I want. Today I realize caring about the effect my actions cause is what makes me feel fantastic about me. I now accept there is nothing naïve, submissive, or weak about choosing to stop rushing through life without paying attention to my actions. Real courage is slowing down to keep my heart open to care about you too. That is the responsibility I have for your happiness. Caring about the wake your behavior leaves is the responsibility you have for the happiness of others too.