Helen Keller once said, “External conditions are the accidents of life, its outer trappings. Success and happiness lie within you.” I want to explore that idea a little more deeply because I think it can get misunderstood when taken to its extreme. Helen Keller was a woman who couldn’t see, hear, and speak. She was “lost within herself” and cut off from the rest of the world. However, her teacher, Anne Sullivan was able to find a way to enter into Helen’s locked internal world and open the door for her to experience life more fully. Simply being locked within our own soul doesn’t provide us with happiness. If we take Helen’s quote too literally we might believe the happiest life is one in which we withdraw into ourselves and ignore what’s outside of us. That type of thinking reminds me of tales of Eastern gurus who escape life, live on a mountain, meditate continually, and take very little food and nourishment throughout the day. These are people who ignore the external world and only focus on the internal experiences that deep contemplation and meditation provide. This is not happiness, this is escapism. Happiness is derived from an engaged social life where we experience the full range of our emotions and risk our very souls in pursuit of love. We were created to give and receive love meaning we were created to give ourselves to another and in faith believe the “other” will receive us with care, concern, and affection. Likewise we receive others who in their vulnerability trust us with their very soul as well. So we don’t want to fall into the trap of spiritual escapism and misunderstand it as spiritual bliss.
A truly happy person does a number of things. First, they live healthy lives getting enough physical exercise, eating healthy, and moving, stretching, and using their bodies as they were designed to be used. More and more studies connect feelings of peace, well-being, and the ability to flourish to having a healthy lifestyle. We don’t escape from our bodies, we learn to use them as they were intended to be used in service to God. Another thing happy people do is engage their minds in learning, exploring, and searching for insight and ideas about the world. Human beings are naturally curious creatures and if we direct that curiosity at what is good, beautiful, and true, we are happier. Again, studies show older men and women who continues to learn new things, engage in puzzles and challenging reading, all have a healthier and happier mental life. Another way to be happy is to be emotionally balanced. By allowing yourself to feel the full range of human emotion and respecting it in other people you’re able to see how emotions are a key element to living and experiencing life. In particular, we must learn to love well. So many psychologists and spiritual masters remind us we become what we love and when we love well and properly we flourish. Happiness depends on knowing and expressing your emotions. Happiness is also about being a relational person. One of the biggest fallacies about being a spiritually mature person is you’ve evolved to a point where you need no one in your life and you are the sole source of grace and wisdom for other people. The implication is a spiritually mature person doesn’t need other people to counsel him or her, he or she is the source of counsel. People were created to give and receive love which means they were created to be in relationship with God and one another. One of the greatest sources of unhappiness I’ve ever encountered is when clients come to me and say these two words,”I’m lonely.” We cannot simply withdraw into ourselves, we need relationships with other people.
So if being a happy mature person requires you to be physically well, mentally acute, emotionally stable, and involved in loving healthy relationships, where does spirituality come in? In the end, we can never ignore that along with all these other aspects of being human we are spiritual creatures. We seek transcendent values and experiences. We long for a connection with the divine, love that extends into eternity, and connectedness with something greater than ourselves. However, we are not MERELY spiritual so without the other aspects of being human the spiritual would become ungrounded and irrelevant. It’s because I have a body and I’m incarnational that I find spiritual pleasure in creation. It’s because I have a mind and emotions I weep at the insights I encounter by thinking about heavenly things. We don’t find success and happiness ONLY inside ourselves we find it through experiencing what’s outside ourselves and processing it within our spirit.
The wisdom in Helen Keller’s quote is not in the assertion we find happiness in ourselves it’s the fact we have the ability to make choices that bring us happiness regardless of our life situations. We cannot always control our health, living conditions, or social status. These are as Helen states, “accidents” we must deal with in some way. However, we do look within to transform what’s outside. A well formed soul choosing love, gratitude, kindness, virtue, and peace can take the most horrific conditions and find grace filled moments that lift the human condition to moments of eternal insight. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps discovered that within these horrid conditions it was the men and women who could find meaning and purpose every day they suffered that survived. Those who allowed the outside conditions to control them died.
It’s my hope the spiritual life you practice is one drawing on all you are; body, mind, emotions, relationships, and of course your spiritual self to engage the world around you. Yes, the conditions themselves are not what give you peace, happiness, and success, it’s the fact as a transcendent incarnational creature you’re able to bring heavenly things into earthly experiences. It’s because you do have choices on how to react and process your external conditions that happiness is as Helen notes, “within” you and not outside of you. Never forget a key element of living the spiritual life is allowing who you are to inform what you choose. That is the key to happiness.