Attitude

So do you want to be RIGHT or do you want to be HAPPY?

 

Dear…

I agree, you are completely justified in your assessment of the situation.  But are you happy? Why not?  Because you would rather be RIGHT than happy.  Who cares who is right?  What difference does it make in the greater scope of life?  You have this obsession with having to be right. Okay, I admit that in this case you are right, but what good is that?  Is your mission in life to be RIGHT or HAPPY?  Is your goal in life to prove how RIGHT you are or to make the world better than it was when you found it?  When you die, do you want people to say, “He was RIGHT” or do you want them to say “He was WONDERFUL!”  What kind of legacy are you planning to leave behind?  As I see it, your tombstone will read:  “I was RIGHT, damn it!”  Our cemeteries are full of people who lived miserable lives because they thought it was important to be RIGHT.  Who determines what’s right anyway?  Most of the time it’s a matter of perspective.  

 

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the wise Buddha who sat on the side of the road.  Three travelers were arguing as they approached the Buddha.  The first traveler explained his point of view to the Buddha and asked him for his opinion.  The Buddha thought for a moment and then said, “You are right.”  The second traveler jumped in and presented his case.  The Buddha nodded and said, “You are right.”  The third traveler interrupted and pointed out that his companions both presented different viewpoints and that they both couldn’t be right.  The wise Buddha nodded again and said, “You are also right.”

 

 If you base your happiness on who is right, then your priorities in life are tragically misdirected.  You are not accepting the fact that another person’s perspective may be just as valid as your own.  He will never have your perspective.  So as long as you base your happiness on his perspective or lack thereof, you are guaranteed to remain unhappy.  You make it a win/lose situation.  Of course, you can be happy if you’re right.  Wonderful!  Why can’t you be happy when someone else is right?  Because it means that you are wrong, God forbid?  Get over it!  Look past the bad and see the good.  You are missing the point of life.  The world is a glorious place if you take the time to enjoy it.  You can find joy in even the most mundane things because they are perfectly right.  And if they are perfectly right and you notice it, then you are FINALLY RIGHT and only then are you FINALLY HAPPY.  

 

Did I ever tell you about the 4 months I worked in Gelsenkirchen?  It was a dirty, dismal, delightful place.

 

Gelsenkirchen is a large industrial city smack in the middle of Germany's Ruhr Gebiet.    It was leveled during the war and reconstructed with utilitarian buildings made of concrete.  Although much better now, when I arrived there in the late 1960's, the soot-filled air had turned those buildings a dingy gray to match the depressing cloud that seemed to linger over the population.  I once stood in a shopping arcade in Gelsenkirchen during the Christmas rush.  Thousands of people tightly bundled against the bitter cold filled the main street.  It took twenty-one minutes of constant vigilance before I finally saw someone smile... a young mother with her baby.

 

When I heard of my transfer to Gelsenkirchen, several German friends offered their condolences.  They explained that I would be blowing my nose frequently to clear the black coal dust that would accumulate every few minutes through the normal breathing of Gelsenkirchen's cancerous air.  As I stepped from the Bahnhof (train station) and scanned the gray streets, gray buildings, gray sky, and gray people, my heart sank.  The stories I had heard were true.

 

I looked for the man with whom I was assigned to work.  He had been a defensive tackle for the University of Arizona.  He was supposedly not as tall as I, but very broad... not fat... just broad.  I wondered if I would recognize him from the description that I had been given.  I scanned the entrance hall.  There was a giant leaning against a column with arms folded and legs casually crossed at the ankles.  His huge, round face was smiling at me with raised cheeks that forced its eyes into tiny slits.  "That face would put Santa Claus to shame." I thought.  I rightly assumed that this must be my new boss.  Everything about his face smiled, and when I turned back to Gelsenkirchen, it didn't seem so gloomy after all.

 

I carried my guitar and a suitcase.  He picked up my oversized trunk (which usually required two people to lift) and put it on his head.  He said, "Let's go.  The Wohnung (apartment) is only a couple of blocks from here."  And off he went.  I couldn't help but smile as I watched him carry my leaden trunk as if it were an empty basket.

 

We walked through a blackened stone underpass over which trains roared.  The skeletons of brown sycamores loomed to our right, while high above I heard the screech of an arriving train as the stone wall rumbled and shook under its weight.  We turned left on the second street.  The shabby buildings put me smack in the middle of a Dickens novel.  I expected Fagan step out of one of the worn and narrow doors.  I heard the clopping of horse hoofs and was amazed to see an old man sitting on a wooden wagon.  The spoke wheels clattered along the worn cobblestones as an old horse pulled a wagon filled with carrots slowly passed. As we neared the next cross street, I smelled fish, a culinary treat I had yet to appreciate at that stage of my life.  A couple of steps stuck out into the sidewalk topped by a narrow black door which had paint curling off in long ringlets.

 

"Here we are.  Home sweet home."  He balanced my trunk on his head with one hand and reached into his pocket for the key.  When the door opened an overwhelming stench of fish accosted my nasal passages.

 

"What's that smell?" I said.

 

His face contorted into his jolly smile again and he laughed.  "We live above a fish market.  You'll get used to it.  I don't even notice it anymore."

 

My nose cringed as it was assaulted by the intensity of the odor.

 

My trunk barely fit up the steep, narrow staircase that led to our room.  At the top of the stairs was a tiny landing with a door straight ahead.  "That's the toilet."  I thought that he meant bathroom, but as I soon discovered, it was only a toilet situated in a closet so tiny that I had difficulty sitting and closing the door at the same time.  There was a miniature skylight just above the toilet in which the glass was cracked and broken.  I remember many winter mornings, sitting cramped on the toilet, shivering in misery as snowflakes fell on my head.

 

He kicked open the door on the left and I viewed my new living quarters for the first time.  I ducked my head at least six inches in order to fit my 6'4" frame through the opening of the squeaky door.  The room was about ten feet by ten.  We were obviously in an attic.  Although the ceiling was nearly seven feet high at the room's entrance, it rapidly sloped down to three feet on the right side, meaning that I could stand up straight in only a two foot slice of the room. Good for pacing.  Behind the door was a small sink with a single water tap.  I looked at my companion.

 

He smiled apologetically.  "Cold water."  He pointed at the single coil on an electric hot plate.  "We have to heat our own.  Usually one pot of boiling water mixed with a little from the tap is enough to wash with in the mornings."

 

"Beds?" I asked with some trepidation.  "We have two rooms," he said encouragingly.

 

I walked to the opposite end of the room and peered through the smudged window with its six tiny panes of glass.  The traffic slapped along the cobblestones.  The people bundled tightly against the cold winter.  A slight chill shot through me.

 

"Does that work?" I asked, pointing at a brown ceramic oil stove.  He hesitated and then sheepishly said, "Sort of."

 

I took a deep breath and stooped under the arch that separated the two rooms.  The bedroom was a carbon copy of the "living room", except that there was a large wardrobe along the wall, which left only a three-by-two-foot section in this room where I could stand up straight.  The head of the beds just fit under the sloped ceiling.  In fact, I often bumped my elbows on the ceiling while turning over in the middle of the night.

 

"I gather we don't have a shower." I said, hoping I was wrong.   He shook his mammoth head.  "We go to the Stadtbad (city bath) on Saturdays."  My left eyebrow raised in disbelief.  It was only Tuesday.

 

I closed my eyes for a moment hoping it was all a bad dream.  I was about to spend my first winter in Germany in a dingy old attic, taking sponge baths in a pan of water, in a room that smelled like dead fish where I couldn’t even stand up straight!

 

"What do you mean by 'sort of?'"  I asked.  He looked puzzled.  I continued, "You said the oil stove 'sort of' works."  He stammered,  "Oh.  Well, ah, it is very hard to get started."  As my fears materialized, I said, "Go on."    He swallowed, "It usually takes about an hour before we can get it to light.  Then it takes another hour before it produces any heat... by then we are usually ready to leave for work.  So, we don't usually turn it on.”

 

I bent over again to look out the window.  An organ grinder was setting up across the street.  I had never seen a real organ grinder before.  "It's not so bad," he said.  "It's just like the fish... you get used to it in no time."  I looked him square in the eyes.  They turned into slits, as his smile became the warm sun on this cold winter's day.  The organ grinder began playing his music across the street.  I surveyed the room one more time, shaking my head.  I looked at my new boss and couldn't help but smile, too.

 

That winter was the coldest winter I had ever experienced... anywhere.  Each morning I would stoop and walk across the room to look out the window.  I would scrape off the thick ice, which had accumulated from the condensation of our night's breathing, and then I would peer out to see if snow would be falling on our toilet.  Everything I had been told about cinders in the eyes and coal dust in the nose was true.  There was, on the surface, nothing redeeming about Gelsenkirchen.  Everything was gray... even the snow.   It was cold, ugly and miserable.  

 

Yet my inner memories are very different.  They are best remembered in those twinkling slits through which my smiling companion saw the world.  He was able to magically transform seventy-hour workweeks in miserable surroundings, into constructive fun... even joy.  He taught me something that I have always remembered: Attitude is everything.  It is a secret power to which we all have access.  It is the one thing in our lives that we can control.  We can't control nature, or people, or things in the past, but we can control our attitudes... they belong only to us.  We can choose to let other people control our attitudes, or leave the control to the weather, or to unfortunate circumstances, but that is our choice.  A magical power is available to all of us through our attitudes.

 

Everything that I first thought was wrong with Gelsenkirchen turned out to be exactly right for me.  But being right didn’t matter.  Being happy did! And I was very happy in Gelsenkirchen.