As Dee and I took our bulkhead seats on our flight home to Hawaii, we noticed a young newlywed couple seeking their seats in the row across the aisle from us. They were on their honeymoon, obviously very much in love and excited about their adventure. When they realized that they were assigned seats apart from each other, both in middle seats one behind another, their countenance dropped like a 5 year old whose ice cream cone fell on the sidewalk.
The passenger sitting next to the husband, a woman well beyond newlywed age, sensed their upset and very kindly offered to switch seats with the bride so she could sit next to her husband. The young lady was delighted, and the women changed seats. As the older woman took her seat, I complimented her, "That was very generous of you to trade your bulkhead aisle seat for a middle seat farther back."
The lady smiled and answered, "I was a newlywed once, and I know how they feel. Besides, I’m going to Hawaii! I’d sit in the cargo compartment if I had to!"
Her comment caught me by surprise. Dee and I are generally fussy about our seats. We travel a great deal, we are both tall, and we make extensive efforts to get roomy seats on airplanes. This woman, however, was in such a state of joy and appreciation that she was just happy to be on the plane, wherever she sat. Her exhilaration was so great that she created a miracle for the newlyweds. The contrast between my fussiness and her willingness was humbling. She reminded me that happiness has little to do with conditions, and a lot to do with attitude.
Counselor Steve Sobel notes, "From speaking to many cancer survivor groups, I have learned that the watch on your hand no longer says, tick, tick, tick. It now says, precious, precious, precious. When you understand that, every chapter you write in your life becomes fascinating."
In my book I Had It All the Time, I recounted a life-changing experience I had at the East Maui Animal Refuge, a private non-profit foundation where director Sylvan Schwab and his wife Suzie oversee caring for about 600 injured or unwanted animals. The Schwabs and their staff work selflessly, tirelessly every day from before dawn until after dusk, feeding the animals and attending to their medical needs. A magazine reporter recently interviewed Sylvan at the refuge, and she came up with the same conclusion as me – that Sylvan is like a modern-day St. Francis. At the conclusion of her interview, the reporter noted to Sylvan, "I guess that when you leave this world your chances of getting into heaven are pretty good." Sylvan smiled and replied, "I don’t have to leave this world to get into heaven – I’m already there."
Not many people would think that taking care of injured and unloved animals practically 24/7 is their idea of heaven, but Sylvan is there – which teaches me that fulfillment has less to do with conditions, and more to do with following the path that makes your heart sing.
A Course in Miracles asks us, "Why wait for heaven?" What a powerful question to consider! Many religions have told us that heaven is a place you earn by suffering on earth. The worse it is here, they teach, the better it will be there. But what if heaven is an experience you could attain even while walking the earth? Indeed we have all had moments of it. What would it take to make that experience more constant?
In the film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray portrays Phil, a cynical fellow who wakes up one morning to find himself in a bizarre time warp in which he just keeps reliving the same day over and over again. No matter what he does, including killing himself, he wakes up to live the same day once more. When Phil realizes he has become practically immortal, he starts to indulge himself to the max – hey, he can’t die, so why not? He scarfs down massive portions of junk food, he hits on women, and on and on. Yet, in spite of these indulgences, he still ends each day depressed, maybe more so. Finally Phil tries something new – helping people where he can. When he shifts his theme from "How much can I get?" to "How much can I give?" two amazing things happen: one, he feels happy for the first time in a long time, and two, he finally wakes up from his recurring nightmare.
As the charitable woman on our flight sat back in her cramped middle sit with a big smile on her face, I leaned back and reconsidered my need to get my choice seat. That lady, I decided, was an angel sent to be my teacher. (Sometimes the best teachers show up in odd or unexpected situations and packages.) When we finally landed and began to deplane, everyone was happy. The newlyweds got their seats together; the other lady made it to Hawaii; and I received one of the best spiritual lessons ever.