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Simply Satisfying

How do you find happiness? canstockphoto21978043

It’s been about 2 months since Robin Williams decided he didn’t want to hang around earth anymore. Seems the whole nation mourned his passing and rightfully so. He was part of the fabric of our lives. He gave us great escape, great examples, great memories. I recall the impact of the Dead Poets Society line when he told his class of young budding gentlemen to “seize the day.” For 10 years afterwards, those words showed up everywhere you looked. “Carpe diem,” was engraved and pasted on every paperweight, Cross pen, bumper sticker and shirt . The words had always been there but when Robin said them, they got wings. We liked Robin. He was that crazy uncle that always had you laughing around the holiday dinner table; the one who could even crack your dad up. His abrupt style seemed to indicate what you thought but were too shy to spit out. Where you might think to yourself, “How can that man wear that ugly bright orange necktie?” Robin would walk up to him and say loudly and quickly, “Hmm ... nice tie.” He was that outrageous friend that cracked you up but left your parents shaking their heads. He was that friend that always got in trouble but you never worried about him because even when he was being scolded, you knew he was thinking of how he would imitate that scolder later and get huge laughs.

There’s a deeper irony here, however. It’s people like Robin that we all assume have things all figured out. They laugh, they endure, they remain sarcastic as if everything troubling rolls off their back. We want to be like them. We envy their ability to make money by having fun. Yet, clearly much of that laughter is there to mask deeper pain. So here’s the most important point of all.

Though we envy their wealth, fame, guilty pleasures and lifestyle because it looks so fulfilling and trouble-free, they are people just like us with needs, doubts, fears and problems. AND the life we lead right now; the simple living of putting food on the table, making car and mortgage payments and hopefully putting a little aside for the kid’s education-- that very hamster wheel-- is what the rich and famous wish they had. And folks, you and me, we have this right now!

What Makes You Tick

I have a friend who is one of the famed “Tailgaters” at Cleveland Browns Stadium. He works a manual-labor job and has some arthritic pain now that came with age, but he is a real jolly guy; laughs the aches and pains away. He loves those Cleveland Browns. And the tailgating thing is like his ultimate hobby. He buys chairs and grills and banners and power cords and any such paraphernalia to enhance his pre-game experience. I’ve run into him on occasion before a game and he loves hosting. When he sees you, he escorts you to the back of his truck, offers you a comfortable chair, grills you an awesome brat laden with Stadium Mustard and pours you a tall cold beer. His wife is right there too and his grown sons; all of them smiling, laughing and filled with anticipation about the game that’s about to be played. Folks, I swear, their eyes gleam like kids on Christmas Eve. There would be no lottery win, Pulitzer Prize or Academy Award honor that could make this guy any happier than he is on game day. And year after year, he goes about making himself that happy. A simple man, of simple means that lives in a simple home but has the world’s most complex question answered.

How do you find real happiness in this world?

His answer? Keep life simple. Love from the heart. Scratch when it itches. Be honest with others and yourself. And don’t take things so seriously. Straight up; that’s what works for him.

Maybe your personal formula is different. Sitting with headphones on playing classical music with a glass of wine; maybe that’s your thing, your hallowed getaway.

Whatever it may be, it is imperative that you find it, embrace it and understand that in that moment you are enjoying the best that life has to offer. For me, being a type A personality, I get real satisfaction when the house is locked up tight for the night, the dog is sleeping soundly by the fireplace, the kids are snoring softly in bed, my wife has drifted off on the couch, the snow is falling gently outside and I’m enjoying an old black-and-white movie in the privacy and security of my home. It’s a simple set of wants but I often wonder why anyone would want anything more. But again, that’s me. It’s my corner of heaven.

Oddly, that little simplistic key to life was something that Robin Williams knew well. I read accounts where other actors mentioned that he often said to those that were younger than him to embrace the moment. Current stars like Mila Kunis have remarked that he told her to stop all the outside noise for a minute and think about where she is right now.  Truly breathe in that you are on a movie set recording a piece of history that will be watched by millions of people even after you are dead. Know how lucky you are to be among those few that get that privilege.

So although he knew about seizing the moment, the voices in his head were too strong to push away.

Don't Complicate It

One of my favorite writers is David Foster Wallace (best known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest ). If you read his work or even ever look up one of his television interviews, you’ll find the man is such a genius he cannot write a sentence without sub-referencing every thought he writes down. His footnotes often cover half the page). “This” reminds him of “that” which reminds him of “another,” etc. His brain is so overloaded that often in recorded interviews he winces as if there is pain caused by trying to jam another thought into his maxed-out head.

On September 12, 2008 Wallace, who was 46, died in a very similar fashion to Robin Williams. He had evidently had a history of depression with two prior suicide attempts and had last seen his psychiatrist two weeks before his death, and been prescribed several drugs. He had previously undergone 12 electroshock therapy treatments.

Such a brilliant mind, such a tragic finale; and why? Were there people around him that should have seen the signals? Perhaps, but with previous attempts already there who could know when the real day was to come? What is it that was so hopeless? In my constant need to see things in the simplest form, I honestly think Wallace simply let it all get too complicated. He took it all too seriously.

Sometimes my older son shows up at our house and he has that troubled look on his face. I dig a little deeper and indeed, his job is less than satisfying, some days are very lonely and the future doesn’t look as bright as he may have hoped. As I talk to him, I try to boil it down to the basics. I say, “You have a good job and are two classes away from securing your bachelor’s degree. You have a nice apartment, a good reliable car and you pay all your bills on time. People that know you respect you and your nieces and nephews adore you and your little brother thinks you hung the moon. You also have two parents that are continuously proud of the man you have become. My son--this is it. You’re doing it and doing it well. You are actually head and shoulders above the crowd with the very list I just said to you. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Try not to think so much and just enjoy the ride once in awhile. You’re doing just fine.” I swear he lightens up within minutes of that little reminder which I have to replay every few months. I’m glad he wants more out of life and himself but I don’t want him to implode while he waits for things to improve.  Maybe all you’ll ever get is what you have now. Is that really so bad?

My wife’s parents draw their heritage from a small fishing village in Italy. Growing up during the war, there were often significant challenges raising a family. When they made their life in America they were so grateful for seems like such comparatively minor things; a warm shower, a house with a thermostat, more food than a family could eat in one sitting, etc. To this day, if my wife finds a certain bread or coffee available at a local store, she will call her parents with the “news” and they talk about it like it’s a pot of gold. I hear her on the phone saying, “Dad? They had that bread you like at the store today. I picked you up a loaf so stop by next time you are out. What’s that? Yeah we’re home now. Okay, see you in a few minutes.” Within the hour he’ll show up, sit down at the table, slather a few slices with butter and smile like he was eating at the Ritz. Simple pleasures enjoyed by a man of simple means. I think he’s on to something though. As much as he could never understand the depression of a troubled man who has so much to live for, the troubled man could probably never understand his satisfaction with such minute rewards. I pray for those who live in such complicated shadows. The one common denominator seems to be they all feel misunderstood. I wonder if they had just one good friend if it would change anything.

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

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