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Deciding to Choose Happiness

Life’s happiness?  Find out what you do well -- and concentrate on that.  Unhappiness?  Seeking for that which you are not very good at.

I have a series of interests: writing, dancing, tennis.  I arrived at my love of each in a slow, selective process.  I have, since the age of 10, been good at athletic games -- baseball, soccer, tennis, handball, swimming.

I enjoyed the competition -- but which sport should I focus on?

The process of selection was slow: I learned as I tried, as the years accumulated.  I liked maximum responsibility.  I didn’t want others to mess up my game, but I didn’t want to mess up the game of others.  At the same time, I began to realize that I wanted a minimum number of people -- one other suffices -- to interact with.  Tennis, which I was sort of good at, turned out to be the game for me. From the ages of 12 to 18 and 25 to 32, I hardly played any tennis at all.  Since 1971, the year I arrived iIn Traverse City, I’ve engaged almost exclusively in the sport of tennis.

It has become my sport of choice -- but realizing that took time.  The process of selection was slow, and hardly ever on a conscious level.  I didn’t consciously know l wanted “maximum” responsibility, or a “minimum” number of other players.  In a sense, I watched my own behavior draw out principles, which made me realize what I liked -- and ultimately, because I became conscious -- I increased the behavior that pleased me: during the summer months I often play tennis four hours each day.

I will continue with personal examples simply because I cannot explain how you arrive at your game of choice; I can explain how I arrived at my dance of choice.

I used to dance all kinds of dances -- couples dancing, square dancing, folk dancing, contra dancing, Polish dancing.... I knew I liked dancing -- I am a Dancing Fool -- but as I went through each form of dance, I began to sense what I liked and what I disliked.

I sensed I did not like squares -- but I didn’t know why I didn’t like squares.  I listened to others talk, and suddenly something someone said to me long ago became, now, my answer: “I don’t like to be told what to do.”  That’s it.  In a square, you are at the mercy of the caller -- who calls whatever he chooses to call, and you cannot concentrate on dancing, on music.  You must listen to a voice that is often so garbled, you don’t know what has been said.  Of course I am stating a personal preference.  I have had others tell me that what they like about squares is that hesitation -- that not knowing, until you are told, what it is you will do.  They see the challenge; I see the control.

After years and years of couples dancing, I realized I didn’t like dancing with only one person opposite me: that’s pressure to perform -- to lead your partner in the right series of moves -- and as a man, the pressure is on me.  In a sense, couples dancing is the mirror image of tennis: one single other is the worst of all possible worlds.  One opponent, one partner, one person you and only you dance with all dance long, is wrong, for me, in dancing.  I’ve also suddenly realized I do not go to dance in order to perform for others, not one other, or many others -- an audience. To perform, one must practice. I don’t like to practice dancing; I like to dance.

All the above became clear to me during a recent one week-long dance camp in Brasstown, North Carolina.  I was immersed in dancing and realized what I didn’t like, and what I did like. Suddenly, cumulatively, I realized I go dancing to lose myself in the music, to forget.  Simultaneously (Which is the chicken? Which is the egg? How long was the incubation period?) I found that form of dancing that allows me to forget: contras.

Any of you who have danced a Virginia Reel -- or done a do-si-do, or a right-hand star -- knows something about contras.  As in the Virginia Reel, there are two long lines of dancers facing each other.  Contras are called "long lines for as many as will."  Again, for me, my rules for sports are reversed.  In dancing I want many others.  One of the most pleasurable aspects of contra dancing is that you often dance a part of the dance with a lady who is not your partner.

Contras begin with the dancers relying on a caller; he must tell the dancers how the moves they already know well, how those moves have been combined in this dance.  Contras move toward a Silent Dance: you don’t have to listen to anyone else, and you don’t have to listen to yourself.  You can lose yourself in the music; the moves are on automatic pilot.  Happy people are those who find what they like to do, and do that, and little else.

Unhappy people?  Those who wish to be world-famous Opera Stars, and do very little singing daily. Those who tell me they wish to write, and when I ask if they write, daily, in a notebook, they tell me that they never write and read very little.
Look at what you do well -- carpenter, car-driver, cook, loving-caretaker, computer operator -- look at those things you do daily, seek out what gives you pleasure when you do it.  Don’t focus on goals that are really not part of your daily behavior.

Try to learn what it is that pleases you.  Do those kinds of things that give you pleasure -- and are within your reach (financially, socially, athletically).

“Happiness is a by-product of intense involvement in anything but the search for happiness.”

This was one of my columns while I was a Record-Eagle columnist.

Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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