One day a man met a hungry tiger. He ran. The tiger chased him. Coming to a cliff, he jumped, catching hold of a tree root to stop himself falling to the bottom where, horror upon horror, another tiger waited to eat him.
He hung on for dear life to that thin root.
Then a little mouse appeared and started to nibble at the root. The mouse was hungry and the fibers started to snap.
Just then, the man saw a ripe red strawberry near him, growing from the cliff face. Holding the vine with one hand, he picked the strawberry with the other.
How sweet it tasted! How happy he was!
There’s no good time to have a heart attack. They really mess up your plans.
The timing of mine could have been worse, though. I guess I should be grateful.
It didn’t seem that way: alone, midnight, searing pain in my spine, chest, arms. Raw fear.
At least I was at home. That’s something to be grateful for.
Three months earlier I’d been directing a show in India. Then a short trip to run a corporate training in Malaysia. I was home in the UK for less than two weeks before I’d flown to China for more corporate work.
Back from China, I drove north to Scotland to sort out my mother, moving her into a care home. A lifetime of books, pictures, clothes, and memories distilled to… almost nothing. How do you fit a lifetime into a small room?
Through all those trips, in airports, mid-workshops, late in the night, I’d had shooting, crippling, breath-stopping chest pains, which I always found some way to ignore. They passed.
I was in my fifties and fit. I was fine. There’s always some explanation, other than the obvious, when the obvious is too scary to face.
The day of my heart attack, I drove eight hours from Scotland to England and, exhausted, collapsed to bed.
I was woken by pain at midnight. At least I woke. That too is something to be grateful for.
It wasn’t a good time to have a heart attack, but it could have been worse.
There’s a lot I can be grateful for.
“Looks like a heart attack,” said the paramedic, studying an ECG print-out in the back of the ambulance. “Let’s get you to the hospital to confirm.”
“Yes, a heart attack,” confirmed the doctor, some time before dawn. “We’ll find you a bed and work out what to do with you next.”
“Not a good time,” I thought, wires taped to my chest, old men wheezing and muttering in the other beds. “I’m due in Greece on Tuesday.”
My clogged arteries didn’t much care I’d booked my flights. Things happen when they happen.
I was in the hospital for ten days. There were daily discussions about how to treat me. My heart attack had not been very bad, but not very good either.
Open-heart surgery or stenting?
In the end they couldn’t decide, so they left it up to me. Open-heart surgery is more invasive but maybe safer in the long term. Stents could be done in an hour and I could go home. They might not be enough though.
I chose stents. Attention to my body is the foundation of what I do. I couldn’t bear the thought of being cut open. At least, I couldn’t bear it as long as there was some other way.
A good choice?
Time will tell.
I had to wait four days between decision and surgery. Four days in the hospital when I should have been in Greece.
The morning after I chose my treatment, I experienced something very strange. Not another heart-attack, though it happened in the region of my heart. I discovered I was happy.
Not happy about anything. Not happy because of anything. Just happy.
Completely, unconditionally happy.
I’d woken at 5am. It was June, so already it was light. The hospital was quiet.
Sunlight streamed through the window, and I lay looking at the tree outside. My bed was curtained-off, so I was wrapped in privacy.
I started reading my book, relishing the early hour, and being left alone.
A bird sang outside.
I felt spacious.
I was happy.
It was simple. It was quiet. There was a bird in the tree outside, singing, because that’s what birds do.
All that existed was a very quiet “now.” Book, sunlight, scrubby early-morning birdsong.
I was alive.
I didn’t know for how much longer, but in that moment, I was alive, and that was enough.
Two months later, I spent a week on an island off the Atlantic coast of Ireland. I was taking myself through a disciplined rehabilitation.
Each day I walked a little further.
I ate well and slept a lot.
I worked my stress and anxiety, which I’d ignored for decades.
A small Irish, Atlantic island in summer is warmer than in winter, but not much else changes. There’s wind and rain and wild beauty. I walked, morning, noon, and night. Each day I went further, took more risks. Slowly, I learned to trust my body again.
On the third day, I stood at the top of one of the larger hills. There was a gale blowing off the sea, and the rain was sheeting down.
It was viciously cold.
My waterproof jacket had given up, and spiteful rain ran down my spine.
I sheltered behind the hilltop cairn, and muttered, “This is vile.”
Then a warmness of the heart.
“I’m happy again,” I thought. Once again, not happy because, or happy to, or happy that, or happy for… Just happy.
A few times in the eighteen months since, I have felt it.
A moment of simple happiness.
What is it?
We spend so much time seeking happiness through achievement:
If I can afford this house, I’ll be happy.
If I am in relationship with this person, I’ll be happy.
If I get this job or pass this exam…
If I live by the sea…
If I had more friends…
If I had…
We seek happiness from outside. We see it as a consequence of things beyond ourselves. As if happiness was a perk of a new job, a company car, or access to the gym, or some secret room in a house we want, one day, to occupy.
But happiness is not a by-product. Happiness is.
We seek happiness from outside, extrinsically, ignoring that it lives only inside. Happiness is intrinsic.
The things that come to us from outside, extrinsic rewards, are not in our control. To rely on them for happiness is to put ourselves at the mercy of fate and luck. If we find happiness within, though, it is truly ours. We can learn to nurture it.
The new house, job, love, car, will not make you happy, though they may distract you from your dissatisfaction for a while.
Only embracing happiness in this moment will make you happy.
Like a grouchy old house cat that will not let you pet her, spurns the food you lovingly put out, and hisses if you get too close, happiness will, unexpectedly, curl up on your lap and comfort you from time to time.
Does that mean that we cannot make ourselves happier? That happiness is arbitrary and we must suffer until it visits us?
Though we can’t force that grouchy old cat to come, we can learn to sit quietly, giving her space and encouragement. We can learn to quieten our mind and allow the happiness of being alive—in this moment—to enter us. We can invite happiness in, by opening to it.
Not doing things to become happy. Letting ourselves be happy.
If I stop seeking outside of myself and start experiencing what it is to live this moment, then happiness might curl up in my chest and comfort me.
Happiness lives on a mountain in a summer gale. It sneaks into an early morning hospital room. It is here now if, between one word and the next, I pause my typing, and I wait.
It lives inside me, not in things I want, or think I need.
Now is a good time to be happy.
Now is the only time there is.
I am grateful I am here, now.
I am grateful that, somewhere inside me, now, there’s happiness and if I stop looking for it out there, perhaps it will come to sit on my lap.
How sweet it tasted! How happy he was!
About John Britton
John Britton specializes in presence, interconnection, and creativity. He works as a consultant, teacher, and mentorwith corporate, educational, and community clients, mentoring individuals in applying the 8 Principles of Presence and Communicating With Confidence. He is the author of two books: Encountering Ensemble and Climbing the Mountain and an e-book on the 8 Principles. His course "Be Confident" is on UDEMY. John publishes regularly on Medium: selfwithothers.medium.com.