Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Choose your own adventure

“One book, Inside UFO 54-40, revolved around the search for a paradise that no one can actively reach; one of the pages in the book describes the player finding the paradise and living happily ever after, although none of the choices in the book led to that page. The ending can be found by disregarding the rules and going through the book at random, sequentially, or by accident. Upon finding the ending, the reader is congratulated for realizing how to find paradise.”

"Happiness is like a butterfly.
The more you chase it, the more it eludes you.
But if you turn your attention to other things,
It comes and sits softly on your shoulder."
Henry David Thoreau

When I was a young man I used to love a series of books called, Choose your own adventure. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, reading these books allowed you to make various choices as you read through the book, each of which altered your destiny in the story in some significant way. Whether it was chasing ghosts, or roaming through the old west, or even traveling through space, I loved the idea that each one of our little choices could lead to much more important consequences

In one particular story, referenced at the beginning of this essay, you found a kind of utopia by not playing the game correctly. You had to essentially stumble on the page by accident, or even totally disregard everything you had been told about how to read the book to find it. Upon finding it, you are congratulated on realizing how to find your own personal utopia.

I was wildly fascinated by this. What was the author trying to say? That the rules were completely unimportant? I’d always thought this myself, but that philosophy had resulted in a lot of trips to the principal’s office and lots of trouble. Was there some hidden message encoded in these children’s books? I thought about this for several years and then slowly but surely slouched into adulthood, never really following the rules without making a conscience decision not to do so. Cut to 20 some years later and I was in a thrift store looking for books, and while browsing stumbled across a copy of Inside UFO 54-40, the very book I had been so intrigued by as a kid.

I sat there for almost two hours taking a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and inevitably, just like I had when I was a kid, I somehow found my way back to utopia by not following the rules. It was a moment of cosmic significance that I was desperately in need of. This was it. Finding happiness by ignoring the rules had been the secret to whatever happiness I had found thus far, although, much like that kid in the principal’s office so many years before, this road less traveled had come with plenty of less than perfect consequences.

All of this was particularly fascinating because I had just been though a situation where my life as a comedian and my life as a psychotherapist had collided. Like I had been reminded of so many times before in my life, I was told there was a time and place for comedy, and that I was going to have to continue to evaluate when exactly this was. But I already knew the answer. Laughter is always appropriate.

Many people would take issue with that. What about death and suffering and disease and all kinds of other things that come up in our lives? Is laughter an appropriate response to these things? I still think the answer is yes. That is not to say that there aren’t situations that require empathy and gravitas and somber reflection. There are. These tragedies are not only possibilities in our lives, but downright inevitabilities. As RD Laing said so eloquently, “life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is 100 percent.”

What other possible response to this is there than laughter? None of these storms that reverberate in our heads are really of any consequence. We are dying ashes on a cosmic fire that will burn so much brighter and longer than our little moment of time here. What we do leave behind in this echo chamber of collapsing time is the way we made people feel about their time here while we knew them, and that is why I have tried to spend so much of my time trying to make people laugh. I have failed often, and will continue to fail, as what looks funny through my personal kaleidoscope does not always register in someone else’s. I accept that, but also think there is perhaps no greater tragedy than becoming convinced that our little cubicle or office is the center of some kind of terribly important business that the universe cannot do without it. That’s a lie that takes some people a lifetime to understand.

The takeaway for me is therefore that it is not the what of life, or even the why, but actually the how that is most important. We don’t get to chose not to be sick or not to lose people we love, and we sure don’t get to chose immortality, but what we do get to choose is how we are going to spend this little handful of fairy dust we are given to sprinkle around the universe. Jean Houston said, “At the height of laugher the universe is thrown into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” I think this is incredibly wise, as by taking this idea into our hearts we can not only share our own absurd view of the kaleidoscope, but also begin to look more deeply into other people’s as well, and really, to me at least there is nothing that connects people more strongly in this world than shared laughter. We are screeching through the universe on a malfunctioning rollercoaster, and we can choose to suffer through this reality or chose to laugh about it, even laugh hysterically about it, and that is the way I want to take the ride.