These essays were previously published as weekly installments of my newspaper column, "Contemplating Life."
Note: For more than 10 years, I have been writing essays for a weekly, self-syndicated newspaper column. I have put together a collection of 101 of these essays in e-book format. Below are the first ten essays of the collection. They are free so please download them if you wish.
Special Current Bonus Essay
“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we’d have a pretty good time.”—Edith Wharton
The primary goal in life for many people is to be as happy as they can possibly be. They devote much of their journey through life to seeking additional happiness for themselves. They focus on what they consider to be the causes of their unhappiness and try to remove all obstacles to their happiness. They usually see wealth, power, and status as the tools they need to attain maximum happiness.
I believe that such people are totally on the wrong track, and I don’t believe that very many of them ever find lasting true happiness no matter how long they live or how many goodies they accumulate. The route they are traveling breeds selfishness, hostility, and constant conflict between them and their fellow travelers—an environment that is not very conducive to happiness. I believe such people are totally misreading our true purpose on earth.
Sir William Osler, the great Canadian physician who helped transform medical education by bringing the teaching of medicine into the hospital wards, was one of the most respected and loved physicians of his day. Osler had a very different view of our purpose in life. He said, “We are here not to get all we can out of life for ourselves, but to try to make the lives of others happier.” I share Osler’s view. I believe that our main purpose on earth is to help reduce the suffering of those around us and to work to make the world a better place for both our generation and future generations. I further belief that those people who dedicate their lives to helping others are far happier than those who concentrate all their efforts on getting as much out of life for themselves as possible.
The very notion that we were born to go on a grand lifetime shopping spree, piling our cart as full as possible, without giving any thought to the needs of others is repugnant to me. Compassion and empathy are two of the traits that I most admire in humans. They are what separate us from lower animal species. These traits make us very special and precious in the eyes of God.
I believe the happiest people on this earth are those who give little or no thought to their own happiness. They are people who feel blessed to have been born and want only to live good lives and help others. They see unmet needs and try to fill them. They see suffering and try to alleviate it. They do these things, not in order to be rewarded, but because in their minds that is what God wants them to do. But, despite their lack of focus on their own happiness, they find they are nevertheless abundantly happy. They don’t seek happiness, but happiness comes to them as a byproduct of their efforts to help others. Think about it.
Copyright 2005 Allen W. Smith
This book is a collection of 101 short essays that borrow bits of wisdom from throughout the ages. The essays are designed to inspire and comfort readers, as well as to stimulate some deep thinking about some very ordinary ideas.
The essays, which were previously published as installments of my weekly syndicated newspaper column, Contemplating Life, tend to reflect the following fundamental beliefs of mine: 1) Every individual is important and special; 2) Each of us has a responsibility to try to make the world a better place and to increase the happiness of those around us; and 3) One of the best ways to find happiness for ourselves is to seek to bring happiness to others.
The essays can be read in any order since each one stands alone. Readers who are looking for something specific can get a general idea of the content of each essay from its lead quotation. A list of the theme-setting lead quotations is provided at the beginning of the book. Readers not looking for something specific are invited to skim the book and choose individual essays at random.
Allen W. Smith
"Learn the sweet magic of a cheerful face--not always smiling, but at least serene."--Oliver Wendell Holmes
We all have our share of troubles in life, and keeping our spirits high on a consistent basis is very difficult for most of us. But there are things we can do to help us maximize our happiness in the face of adversity. Positive thinking has long been recognized as a valuable aid for coping with life. But sometimes it is hard, if not impossible, to think positively. What can we do to make our quest for a positive outlook on life easier?
One of the most effective things that many of us can do is to follow the advice of Oliver Wendell Holmes. We need literally to learn the sweet magic of a cheerful face. There is indeed a certain kind of magic in training ourselves to maintain a cheerful face consistently. Of course, there are times when we face such tragedy that none of us can maintain a cheerful face. And certainly we cannot wear a smile at all times. But, if we can't smile, couldn't we at least maintain a serene expression on our face?
Some people claim that it is physically impossible to remain sad while we are smiling. Is there something about the physical act of forcing ourselves to maintain a cheerful face that actually makes us feel better? If we consciously work to keep a pleasant expression on our face as much of the time as possible, might it not eventually become almost natural to do so? Some people who have tried it believe that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.
None of us can be happy all the time. During times of great adversity it is natural and even beneficial to grieve, but what about the rest of the time? What about all those times when we are faced with only minor problems? Isn't it possible that during such times we can actually influence our moods by thinking positively and maintaining a cheerful face as much of the time as possible?
And what about the effects of our cheerful faces on other people with whom we come into contact? Can enthusiasm for life and a cheerful attitude be contagious? Is it possible that, in addition to making ourselves feel better, we also make others feel better when we are cheerful? Suppose it were possible to convince every individual in a town, a country, or even the world, to participate in a week-long experiment in which they simultaneously forced themselves to appear cheerful for an entire week? What would happen at the end of the experiment? Would things go back to normal? Or, would there be a permanent change?
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith
"Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads."
—William J. Toms
We are all influenced by other people, and our actions and words often have a profound influence on people who are observing us. People choose role models for a variety of reasons, and we never know who might be looking to us for that purpose. Certainly parents are usually role models for their children, and people who have any degree of celebrity status are often imitated. But sometimes people who have been chosen as models to follow by others may have no idea that they are having such a strong influence on other people.
Our behavior can have a bigger impact on society than we ever imagine. Some of us, who consider ourselves just ordinary people, may not be so ordinary in the eyes of some small child who decides to imitate us. Our behavior may serve as a model for the child who tries to copy our personality traits. If that happens, our behavior may affect that child and everyone he or she comes into contact with throughout life. Even the thought of such an awesome possibility should cause us to reexamine the way we are living our lives.
How can we avoid having a negative impact on others who might be trying to imitate us? The answer to that question is easy. If we live the kind of lives that we know we should be living, we won't have to worry about having a negative impact on anyone. We all have basic instincts that tell us how we should live. The problem is that many of us do not want to live that kind of life. We are torn between what our higher selves tell us we should do, and what our lower selves tell us that we want to do. Most of us are urged by our higher selves to live exemplary lives. But our lower selves nag at us to look out for number one. It is up to us to make the choice as to which urges we will follow. Basically, we choose the kind of life we live.
Certainly external forces often affect the choices available to us, but still we can choose to serve humanity in addition to ourselves, or we can follow our selfish urges and live as if our sole purpose in life was to seek self gratification. Which choice would we like those around us to make? Do we have any right to make a choice different from that which we think others should make?
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith
"Each day the world is born anew for him who takes it rightly."--James Russell Lowell
Each day is the first day of the rest of our lives and offers us the opportunity for a new start. We must learn to live each day to the fullest, and we can do that only if we learn to live in the present. Too many of us consider individual days as little more than stepping stones towards goals in the distant future. We think of them as rungs on a ladder that will move us a little closer to the top. That is no way to live our lives. What if we reach the top of the ladder only to realize that the ladder is against the wrong wall?
Happiness and success are journeys--not destinations--and we can never find happiness or success at the end of any road. Instead, we must travel a road where these conditions exist along the route every step of the way. If we can't find happiness and success in the present, we will never find them in the future. Those who find true happiness pursue the goal of achieving as much success, and finding as much happiness, as possible each and every day of their lives.
One of the great paradoxes of our time is that so many people seem to believe that the surest routes to happiness are the accumulation of material wealth and the attainment of social status. "If I can just become rich and famous, I will be truly happy," so many of us think. But life just doesn't work that way. Since the hunger for fame and fortune is never satisfied, the more fame or fortune a person attains, the more he or she craves.
We must find happiness within ourselves--not in the external world. For many people, happiness comes from the simple things in life and from trying to make others happy. Happiness is contagious, and the more of it we give to others the more we will have for ourselves. Each day we have a new opportunity to find happiness; and unless we are able to learn to be happy on a day-to-day basis, we will probably never find true happiness. Certainly there are times, such as after the loss of a loved one, when we are hurting so much that we cannot find happiness in the immediate future. But, during those periods when we have not recently suffered a major loss, all of us should be able to find at least some happiness in each and every day. If we can't, perhaps we are traveling the wrong road.
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith
"It is helpful to look at your life and ask: 'If I had one more year to live, what would I do?' We all have things we want to achieve. Don't just put them off--do them now!”--John Goddard
Far too many of us live life as if it were going to go on forever. We put off things until tomorrow when we can never be sure there will be a tomorrow. Suppose we all knew for sure that we had only one more year to live. How would we spend that year? Would we continue to live very much the way we are now living? If we can answer yes to this question, then we are probably doing a pretty good job of living our lives already. But, if we would behave very differently during the next year if we knew we had only one more year to live, then we are probably traveling the wrong road.
When we are young, time seems to pass so slowly that "the rest of our life" seems almost like an eternity. We feel that we have so much time left that we can afford to squander it. But, as we grow older, the pace of life seems to accelerate at an ever-increasing speed so that we become increasingly aware of our own mortality. As we move into our senior years, some of us begin to panic. We have so much yet to do and so little time in which to do it. We begin to see the importance of each and every single day and try to get as much out of each day as possible.
Isn't it a shame that we can't take a more mature attitude toward life while we are still young? Wouldn't it be so much better if we could all understand the limited nature of life in our youth and start trying to make the most of each day in our life? Some people have done exactly that, And they have accomplished so much during their lifetimes that we wonder how they ever found enough time. They simply saw time as a precious gift that should never be squandered no matter how long we think we are going to live.
Some of us believe that our purpose on earth involves more than just trying to accomplish things we want to accomplish for ourselves. We believe we have a duty to try to make life better for those around us and to try to make the world a better place for future generations. Those who share these views realize that we should never squander time. Any time we have, in excess of the time we need for ourselves, should be spent trying to make this a better world. If we all shared this view and behaved accordingly, wouldn't this be a very different world?
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith
"A friend may well be reckoned a masterpiece of nature."--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Friends are priceless gems that enrich our lives beyond measure. Without friends, there would be nobody with whom to share our joys and our heartaches. There would be nobody with whom to communicate our most private thoughts. A life without friends would be a very empty life.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The happiest moments of my life have been in the flow of affection among friends." Few people in the history of mankind have had the superb talents and accomplishments of Jefferson. Yet, this very extraordinary man considered the times he spent with friends the happiest moments of his life. Is the same not true for all of us?
If we all sat down to make a list of our most important and valuable assets, many of us would be inclined to put material things like possessions and careers at the top of the list. Some of us might even forget to include friends among our assets. But some people contend that, "Friends are everything." Perhaps, in a large sense, they are.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "A friend is a present you give yourself." John Keats confessed, "I would not live without the love of my friends." Friendship is an asset that is not related to one's financial wealth. Some of the "poorest" people have very close friends, and financial wealth is more likely to be a hindrance than a help in developing true friendships. Unlike other assets, friendship is within the reach of every living person. It takes time and work to develop good friendships, but everything worth having requires effort.
Perhaps it behooves us all to take inventory of our friends. If we are well blessed with good friends, shouldn't we be careful not to take them for granted? And, if we feel that we have too few friends, wouldn't it make sense to work just a little harder at developing friendships? Maybe one of our major goals in life should be to strive to enjoy the company of our fellow human beings as much as possible.
Friends come in all sizes and ages. We need not restrict our attempts to develop new friends to people our own age. Some of the best and most productive friendships are between the very young and the very old. Each age group has so much to offer other age groups. The wisdom of the elderly can enlighten their juniors, and the enthusiasm of the young is a source of rejuvenation for seniors. And we must never forget that our very best friends are often members of our own family.
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith
"Behold the turtle: He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out."--James Bryant Conant
It is human nature to be reluctant to take chances. Most of us prefer the security of the status quo over the gamble of taking chances that might lead to success, but also might lead to failure and embarrassment. But how much progress can we make either as individuals or as a society if we are not willing to stick out our necks occasionally? Eugene O'Neill wrote, "Happiness hates the timid! So does Science!" Was he right? Does timidity reduce our happiness and impede progress?
Of course, there is a difference between timidity and reasonable caution, but the line between the two is indeed a very fine line. According to an old Malaysian proverb, "Fear to let fall a drop and you spill a lot." Too much caution can be just as bad as too little. Helen Keller wrote, "Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold." How many of us settle for a less enjoyable life than we could have if we were less afraid to take chances? How many of us are too afraid to cultivate friendships for fear we might be rejected? How many of us are afraid to try new things because of our fear of the unknown?
Some of us exaggerate the consequences of having something we try not work out. We have an unhealthy fear of failure. Perhaps if we tried more things we would discover that it is not as bad to face failure occasionally as it is to be afraid to try new things. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment."
The problem for all of us is to strike the right balance between caution and boldness. We all know people who are not cautious enough. Some people risk their own lives as well as the lives of others because they are not fearful enough of the dangers that face us all. In matters that could pose a real threat to our lives and safety, most of us would rather err on the side of being too cautious than not being careful enough. That seems to be only common sense.
But what about those situations where the worst that can happen to us if we fail is embarrassment? Is the threat of embarrassment, or even total humiliation, sufficient reason for us to forego trying things that might enrich our lives? In the words of Logan Pearsall Smith, "What is more mortifying than to feel that you have missed the plum for want of courage to shake the tree?"
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith
"This time like all other times is a very good one if we but know what to do with it."--Ralph Waldo Emerson
How many of us spend much of our lives wishing for better times? We may wish we could turn back the pages of time to an earlier period that now appears to have been much better than the present. Or we may wish to move forward in time to some hoped-for happy moment in the future. It is the present that most of us have trouble living in. Yet that is the only time period in which we can ever live.
Is it possible that the "good old days" weren't as good as we remember them? Are we remembering only the good parts of the past and blocking from our memories the unpleasant parts? Are we focusing too much on the negative aspects of the present and ignoring some pretty good aspects of our current lives?
Walt Whitman wrote, "To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle." Most of us cannot even come close to this level of positive thinking. But if we really try, can't we almost always find something good about almost every day, or at least every stage, of our lives?
Certainly we all face times of great tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, during which our grief prevents us from seeing the positive things that are going on around us. But, aside from such difficult times of life, isn't there something good about all phases of our lives?
Growing older, having our children grow up and leave home, and retirement are examples of things that bring about major changes in our lives. Many of us find that as we grow older we are forced to give up some activities that we enjoyed so much in our younger years. But aren't there new activities available to us that can replace the lost ones? And if our children who get married and leave home provide us with grandchildren, isn't that at least partial compensation for our losses?
Even such tragedies as the unexpected loss of a job can sometimes have a happy ending. Often people who lose their jobs enter new even more-rewarding careers. We must be careful in making such generalizations, though. Many people who lose their jobs have to settle for less-rewarding jobs, and we must try to understand why these people often justifiably feel bitter.
But perhaps our biggest challenge is in knowing how to adjust to change. Maybe Emerson was right that this time is also a good time if we know what to do with it.
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith
"Never exchange a good conscience for the good-will of others or to avoid their ill-will."--Charles Simmons
We all like to please, and sometimes we are tempted to compromise our principles just to avoid conflict. But we must be careful that we don't bend too far. It is better to offend someone than to behave in a way that we will later regret. None of us have to win any popularity contests, and most of us who truly stand by our convictions will at times experience the anger of others. But, making someone else angry may be a small price to pay for being able to live according to our own conscience.
This does not mean that we should be confrontational about most things. Most of the time our disagreements with others are over such minor things that it may be best to keep our mouths shut. All of us are entitled to our opinions, and just because the opinions of others are different from our own doesn't necessarily mean that they are wrong and we are right. Often it is best just to agree to disagree with others.
There is, however, an important difference between matters of principle and matters of taste. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current." Differences in tastes are a natural part of life. We are all unique individuals, and we each have our own set of tastes. We should usually not question or criticize the tastes of others so long as they are indeed tastes that do no harm to others. It is in matters of principle, where actions can create pain and suffering for others, that we must stand like a rock.
We should all be concerned about justice and injustice in life. And when those around us are advocating action that we believe will lead to the suffering of others we should stand tall and firm even if it means that we will lose the good-will of some people. In the words of Henry Ward Beecher, "Expedients are for the hour, but principles are for the ages." We don't have to be crusaders to make a difference. All we have to do is be willing to stand up and be counted when the principles we strongly believe in are being violated.
There is much virtue in being diplomatic and trying to avoid needless arguments. And there is no need to alienate those around us when our differences are nothing more than matters of taste. In such situations it is probably best to heed Jefferson's advice to "swim with the current." But, in matters of principle shouldn't we "stand like a rock?"
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith
"We should gain more by letting ourselves be seen such as we are, than by attempting to appear what we are not."—Francois de La Rochefoucald
We cannot successfully hide our true selves from others no matter how hard we try. Even if we are brilliant in our efforts, the most we might do is to fool some of the people some of the time. It is a serious mistake to try to bluff our way through life by pretending to be someone other than our true selves. Each one of us is special with our own unique set of talents and experiences, and we should work hard at developing our talents and being our unique selves to the best of our ability.
There is a tendency for many of us to be too self conscious. We imagine ourselves unattractive. We think we are deficient in talents. In short, we tend to put ourselves down. This is a terrible mistake. God created us as individuals for a purpose, and we should be proud of who we are and make the most of God's creation. Some of the most famous people in history once had low opinions of themselves and were judged poorly by others.
Abraham Lincoln grew up in poverty with almost no formal schooling. His mother died when he was only nine years old. He was extremely tall for his age and quite awkward. No doubt other boys made fun of young Abe and caused him much heartache and self-doubt. During most of his adult life Lincoln was not very distinguished in the eyes of his contemporaries, and he probably suffered from self-doubt much of the time. The first woman he asked to mary him, Mary Owens, turned him down. He ran for Congress in 1842 and lost. He was elected in 1846, but his two years in Congress were so undistinguished that he was not re-nominated by his party. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1858 but was defeated. Even when he was elected President in 1860, many people ridiculed him for his lack of formal education and cultural sophistication. They believed that he was so lacking in administrative and diplomatic skills that he would be an incompetent president.
Yet, Abraham Lincoln brought to the presidency such an uncommon degree of personal integrity, intelligence, and humanity that he has become one of the most revered and beloved leaders of all time. In every age, there are people who seem ordinary to themselves and those around them. However, when some of these people are faced with the proper challenge, they distinguish themselves as extraordinary people. So don’t we just be ourselves and see where that takes us?
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith
"Take care that old age does not wrinkle your spirit even more than your face."—Michel de Montaigne
None of us can avoid the physical aging process that eventually wrinkles our skin. It is an inevitable part of growing old. But we don't have to allow it to wrinkle our heart and spirit as well. As we grow older our physical capacity gradually diminishes, but our mental capacity and our emotions need not be affected.
Some people are just as sharp mentally when they are 90 years old as they were in their youth. And many have an even brighter outlook on life than people half their age. Our mental and emotional capacities do not have to diminish as we grow older, but they often do simply because we allow them to do so. Everybody seems to recognize the value of physical exercise in keeping our bodies in shape. But many fail to recognize the need to work at maintaining our mental and emotional capacities. We need to practice sound mental and emotional health right up to the day we die.
Every stage of life has both positive and negative aspects. When we are young, we have the enthusiasm of youth and, since our whole lives are ahead of us, the sky is the limit as to our dreams. But there is also much insecurity in youth. We worry about such things as finding the right person to marry and choosing the right career. We worry that we will lose our jobs or become incapacitated and be unable to earn a good living, and there are so many other uncertainties.
In our senior years most of these worries are behind us. We have had our failures along with our successes, but we have survived them. If we have children and grandchildren they can be a source of much joy, and we have the time to enjoy life. Once we are retired, we can spend time doing things we have always wanted to do but for which we never had sufficient time before.
Some seniors find their last years the happiest, whereas others are miserable during their last years because they have allowed the aging process to wrinkle their heart and spirit. Many things are beyond our control. Some of us have more serious health problems than others, and these factors are bound to influence our attitude. But, if our only major problem is just that we have become old, we can continue to find happiness if we maintain the proper attitude.
Copyright 2004 Allen W. Smith