Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Mantra From The Boss

"It ain't no sin to be glad to be alive!" -Bruce Springsteen 

I heard artist Wayne White use this quote on CBC radio as he explained the title of the documentary about his life, "Beauty is Embarrassing." He quoted Springsteen as part of his argument for doing the "embarrassing" thing- for claiming and celebrating our love of making beauty in all forms, our experience of joy wherever it finds us.

I could feel something inside me respond to the Springsteen quote- a relaxing in my belly, a soft tug in my chest. The belly response was a kind of quiet, “Yes!” a release of unconscious guilt for being happy in my life. The heart response was a pang of sadness for all the joys uncelebrated or glossed over, all the gladness unexpressed. 

And I wondered - Why would anyone ever think it's a sin to be glad to be alive?

What came to mind was scene from my childhood: arriving home with a report card of straight A’s and having my mother quickly tuck it in a drawer, muttering, “You did well." She’d explained in a conspiratorial tone that we could not “make a big deal” about it because my younger brother had not done as well, and my grades would make him feel badly. When other kids in the neighbourhood were given gifts or taken on outings to celebrate passing a grade, we were told such fanfare was "ridiculous." As my mother put it, “It’s your job to work hard and do well. No one rewards your father for doing his job or me for the work I do at home.”

Being glad to be alive isn’t just about celebrating or being appreciated for our accomplishments or milestones, but I think this story points to something that might give us the idea that feeling glad, celebratory or joyous is, if not wrong, potentially problematic.

My parents, conscientiously trying to pass along survival skills, wanted me to be able to work hard without the promise of external rewards or recognition that may or may not come. And to some degree it worked. Angry at having my report card hidden I clearly remember (at the ripe age of eight!) consciously considering doing badly for one term so subsequent efforts would be appreciated. But I decided against it, decided I would do the work, revel in the learning for myself whether or not anyone one else noticed. This attitude has no doubt been helpful for spending long hours at the keyboard even when I am unsure if anyone will want to read what I'm writing.

But there’s another piece to this. If my brother had also had high grades, we may have celebrated. I don’t know. But I do know that the message was clear: if someone else is not doing as well as you are, your joy must be muted so they will not feel worse by comparison. Again, it’s not that there is no truth in this. I may choose not to talk extensively about the optimistic ecstasy of new love when I am sitting with a friend going through a difficult divorce. It’s okay to be sensitive to the conditions others are experiencing relative to our own. But we need to be careful not to unconsciously tag all joy with guilt, muting our appreciation for our day or our lives because there is suffering in the world. It’s not necessary and it doesn’t help anyone.

Living in Canada, I have a privileged life. That privilege comes with a responsibility to participate in co-creating change that can alleviate suffering in the world. And this ability to respond is much more likely to expand and be fulfilled in a sustainable way if I am glad to be alive, if I can feel the joy as well as the sorrow, appreciate effortless grace and beauty as well as hard work.

So, I think I’ll use Springteen’s line as a bit of a mantra to lift any residual reservations from the moments when I find myself smiling for no particular reason, remembering, “It ain’t no sin to be glad to be alive.”

Oriah (c) 2012

12 comments:

  1. Oriah, thank you for this! For many many years I've struggled with this. There have been times in my life when I'm happy and I can see how this seems to irritate people! In more recent years, I've observed my reservations to fully embrace happiness in fear of rejection or guilt. I woke up this morning with a lovely sense of peace, happiness, and well-being. Thanks to you, and The Boss, for the delightful validation to embrace it!

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  2. "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive"... the Boss deserves his lyrics transcribed accurately. You can hear the song (a long time favourite of mine) here: http://tinyurl.com/7d3rs3l

    It's a wonderful transcendent song about rising above the restrictions put on you, and about doing that by living fully every day. One of the first songs by him that I fell in love with.

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    1. Thanks for the correction Peter- although I think I did accurately quote White quoting the lyrics inaccurately (that's my story and I'm sticking to it.) I need to learn to check these things on google. Mind just not go there! Learning.

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  3. RIght on! This is a fabulous post!

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  4. Interesting – for me, this sentence doesn't work exactly in your sense. Being a daughter of two people who experienced the horrors of World War II as children, I always heard: "You can be glad for being alive, for having enough to eat and to dress and for having a safe roof above your head. Everything else is pure luxury." For my parents, it is even a *duty* to be glad to be alive, but it is a sin to wish for anything else like things that simply give you joy, fun, or some kind of further fulfillment. And here the circle is closing with your position – I neither was allowed to really enjoy life, love and success. They thought that to be redundant gadgets. I developed quite early a resentment against being just alive, I insisted that The War is over now and that life should give me something more. Songs like that of Springsteen! :-) Thanks for your post.

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    1. Nora, thanks for this reflection- and to some degree I received some of the same philosophy from my parents. My mother often said- with emphasisn and a kind of fierceness, "We don't WANT for anything!" by which she clearly meant- because we have a roof over our heads, food to eat, all the necessities of life and safety we shouldn't want anything more. "Luxuries" - like post-secondary education- were not something we "needed" to survive and be out of danger, so we were not supposed to want them. Amazing how our experience, and the experience of our parents shapes how we see being glad we're alive :-)

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  5. Dear Oriah, I,ve just found your precious blog and I decided to write you a few words.
    Your book Invitation has been a great source of inner strength, awareness, inspiration for me for years. Amoung many books I have, this is The one, that I open again and again. It actuallly feeeds my soul, my inner being, like fresh water. Every word is alive, honest and brings light, space inside. It helps me remember me. How many times I feel like you, when you were writting this poem. Amoung many people and words, but not connected... So I could clearly see, feel in my body, you writing this poem..Thank you for sharing it with us. I can always find something in it, what is connected to my currently experience and what helps me immediately.
    I like creating hand made cards in my spare time. So I started my creativity blog in october 2010 and the first there published card was intended to me. I printed in it your poem, The invitation. If you want to, you can see it on:
    http://tanja-lightwithin.blogspot.com/2010/10/namesto-uvoda-povabilo-instead-of.html

    Thank you once again, I,m sending you many many blessings from Slovenia/Europe. And warm, warm greetings. Tanja:))

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    1. Welcome Tanja, so glad you enjoyed the book and thanks for sharing the poem. Lovely to connect here. Blessings, oriah

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  6. Like you, I was raised to not brag. It had more to do with not giving your child "the big head," as my parents called it. If I came home with even all A's and one B, there was no mention of the A's, only "what's with this B? I think that position was generational (WWII), but it stayed with me far into adulthood and I yearned for a pat on the back. These days I ask for that pat on the back and am thrilled to get it. Guilt is gone the way of saddle shoes and poodle skirts! ~Jan Myhre

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    1. Jan, if this is a repeat I apologize- my reply disappeared. So glad to hear you have learned to ask for and receive appreciation- and you head has not grown at all, has it! :-) blessings, oriah

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  7. Christianity gives us this ideal of an ascetic lifestyle, and then makes us feel guilty for enjoying the pleasures all around us. From the Talmud, "A man will have to give account on the judgment day of every good permissible thing which he might have enjoyed and did not." Life is divine; enjoying it is a privilege AND a duty.

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    1. Great quote from the Talmud- thank you!

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