In his memoir entitled An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, Andrew Young tells a story about what happened on that fateful day when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Mr. Young says that he had spent hours in a Memphis Tennessee court, negotiating to remove the federal restraining order temporarily halting a march in support of that city’s garbage workers’ strike. You know he was exhausted at the end of this. So he dragged himself back to where he was staying, at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy were also. Hoping for a little peace and quiet, no doubt. He opened the door to the room, walked in, and immediately found himself pummeled by pillows. It was a pillow fight and guess who was the instigator? Dr. King.
He would be dead only hours later.
That he’d had a moment of such silliness on the last day of his life: now that’s a happy fact. Even if it wasn’t true, you’d want it to be true. That great man—the weight of what he carried on his shoulders—makes you wonder if silly stuff like pillow fights actually helped him bear up under it all. Now wouldn’t that be something….
Life is joy and woe woven fine, and there is no enduring the woe, without the joy. “Everything,” says poet Naomi Shihab Nye,
has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and to love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…
and that’s what happiness can do for us, allow things which seem hopeless to wake up, allow our very own hearts which sleep and suffer nightmares to wake up. To wake up filled with possibilities, to love even floors which need to be swept. Creation, they say, is heaven; maintenance hell. So to love floors which need to be swept, or tubs which need to be scrubbed, or cars which need the oil changed, or grass which needs to be mowed, and on and on—to love these? That’s saying a lot.
Even so—it is difficult to know what to do with happiness. Hafiz says that happiness runs through the streets trying to find us, but the truth of the situation is, we can be hard to find. And it’s more than a matter of having a glass half-empty personality. It’s the human condition. Evolution has wired our nervous systems so that our bodies would have the best chance of surviving a dangerous world: we are therefore primed to look for and react to threats, to even the hint of harm. Scientists have even shown that neural pathways which convey threats are far quicker than the ones that convey positive things. In our bodies, bad news literally runs faster than good! That’s why we need to hear eight positive statements to balance out one that is negative. That’s why arguments which start up harshly end harshly. Happiness has to work harder and run faster to find us.
So it comes as yet another happy fact that our brains are plastic. The brain is changed by what we give our attention to. Not any old idea that floats into our field of awareness, but what we repeatedly choose to focus on, nurture, hold on to, harbor. Meditate on compassion, for example, and regions of the brain which support that are shown to get larger, expand, develop stronger connections. We are just not victims of our biology. We can learn to know what to do with happiness. Happiness floats, says the poet; and we can learn to tolerate this unnerving floating sensation, we can learn to go with it as it
lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
[We] are happy either way.
So without further ado, consider this sermon an addition to the long list of experiments in neuroplasticity. Or better yet, consider it a way of shedding light on what the French Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Part of the human experience is to feel resistance to happiness but to soften that resistance, to learn eventually the spiritual art of how to hold a beautiful thing that floats and cannot be contained….
In no particular order: happiest facts of all time (and remember—we’ve already heard two!).
Somewhere, a baby has just discovered bubbles for the first time.
Somewhere in an alternate universe, you’re Batman.
On April 1st, 1957, a BBC news program ended with a three minute segment about a Spaghetti farm in Switzerland. In the segment, spaghetti (not being a popular dish in England at the time) was said to grow on trees. Many people believed the report and called the BBC to ask how to grow their own spaghetti tree. The response: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.” (I got this happy fact and many of the others I’m mentioning today from a website called Reddit, which is like a bulletin board that people the world over contribute to. What’s the happiest fact you know of? was the question that generated these replies. I mention this just so you know, but also to introduce a comment that was made on the BBC spaghetti farm story. The person writes, “They showed that video in my science class one day and everybody was laughing at it. Then one girl speaks up and says, ‘Stop laughing guys! At least they’re doing it the old fashioned way and not with the machines they use today!” Now that there’s funny.)
No matter how long you live there will always be amazing new food for you to try.
Otters hold hands when sleeping so they don’t drift away from each other.
Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe has just left our solar system. It’s nearly 12 billion miles away and apparently still beaming messages back to Earth. Now you may know that in case it’s ever encountered by extra-terrestrials, Voyager 1 is carrying photos of life on Earth, greetings in 55 languages and a collection of music from Gregorian chants to Chuck Berry. One of these musical selections happens to be “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by 1920s bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, whose stepmother blinded him when he was seven by throwing lye in his eyes after his father had beat her for being with another man. Blind Willie Johnson died, penniless, of pneumonia after sleeping bundled in wet newspapers in the ruins of his house that burned down. But you know what? His music just left the solar system.
Are you feeling it? The part of your brain that supports happiness? Has happiness found you yet?
Check this out:
A group of flamingos is called a flamboyance.
A group of pugs is called a grumble.
A group of ferrets is called a business of ferrets
A group of unicorns is called a blessing.
A group of in-laws leaving the house is also called a blessing.
A group of baboons is called a congress.
I never said happiest facts needed to be all big and profound. Sometimes it’s just like waking up and you are still soo sleepy and you think you have to get up but you look at the clock and realize you have a couple more good hours of sleep left and you just dive right back in and it’s all ahhhh! Sometimes it’s just like that.
Wayne Allwine (the voice of Mickey Mouse) and Russi Taylor (the voice of Minnie Mouse) were married in real life.
Blind people smile—and bear in mind that they’ve never seen smiling and have no reference for it. Smiling is a natural human reaction for happiness.
Cuddling and other “love actions” release oxytocin which helps speed healing and recovery from physical wounds.
Are you floating yet? Happiness floats, just like the poet says,
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
And disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
The official “Space Jam” website hasn’t been changed since 1996. (Nice to know, when everything is always seeming to change)
Penguins only have one mate their entire life. They “propose” by giving their mate the best pebble they can find.
Here’s a happiest fact from Unitarian Universalist history. Hosea Ballou, considered one of the most influential 19th century Universalist preachers, coined a new word: “happify.” He said that we are “happified” when we believe that we are held in the arms of Love and that those arms will never let us go, no matter what. That God created us because God thought we might like it.
Once as a boy, right out of the blue, he asked his father (who happened to be a Baptist preacher and believed in hellfire and damnation with his whole heart), “Suppose I had the skill and power to make out of an inanimate substance an animate thing, and did make one, at the same time knowing that this creature of mine would suffer everlasting misery [in life and after death] – would my act of creating this creature be an act of goodness?” How do you think his Baptist father fielded that one? It shook him to the core and he said nothing.
The fact that we have people in our history like Hosea Ballou: that just happifies me!
But we’re not done yet!
Dateline: E N O O S A E N, Kenya, June 3 — Arrayed in red robes and bead jewelry, impoverished Kenyan Maasai tribespeople gave a U.S. official their most precious possession — cattle — to show sympathy for the bereaved of Sept. 11.
“To the people of America, we give these cows to help you,” read banners held by some among hundreds of Maasai villagers who watched their elders present 15 cattle to a U.S. diplomat Sunday in this huddle of thatch-roofed mud huts near the Tanzanian border. The ceremonial transfer of the cattle to acting U.S. ambassador William Brencick was arranged by Enoosaen-born Kimeli Naiyomah, a Kenyan student in the United States who was on a visit to New York on the day of the attacks.
Like other Massai, the inhabitants of the isolated village, which has no electricity, telephones or paved roads, rely totally on their cattle for their diet of blood, meat and milk.
“This is the ultimate gift a Maasai can give,” Naiyomah told Reuters.
Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, promised his daughter he’d do something special for her that no other little girl would have: he’d write her initials on the Moon. After he parked the Lunar Rover for the last time and headed back to the Lunar Module, he took his sample excavator and wrote “TDC” — his daughters initials, next to the Rover. The initials are still there today, and will probably last about 50,000 years.
Norway once knighted a penguin. The penguin’s full name is Colonel-in-Chief Sir Nils Olav.
It takes seventeen muscles to smile and forty-three to frown.
Someone, somewhere, is having the best day of their life.
We can of course debate whether some of what I’ve shared are truly happiest facts of all time. Maybe, maybe not. But with each fact, hopefully you felt lighter than before, you felt the floating sensation of the happiness that has been running through the streets looking for you, the happiness that is your brother and sister and has been missing you.
Why did God create us?
Because God thought we might like it.
How did Dr. King bear up under the struggle?
Because sometimes he went full-on silly with pillow fights.
None of us knows when the end is coming for us.
Let happiness find you, hold your hand.
Know what it’s like to float in a world that can feel so heavy.