Today’s Solutions: May 28, 2023

Let your experiences make you happy

Tijn Touber | Jan/Feb 2006 issue

The other day I was walking along the beach with a friend. The sun was setting and the water took on an orange hue as a fishing boat slowly glided by with a whole flock of seagulls in its wake. I breathed the cool sea air deeply into my lungs, looked at my friend blissfully and said, “What a beautiful sunset!” She started to cry. The last time she had seen a beautiful sunset was with her husband. But he was gone.

Words are loaded. Every word has a past that immediately colours the present as soon as it escapes your lips. By uttering just those four words I had wiped out the present experience of the setting sun, the boat, the seagulls, and the orange waves from my friend’s mind, reducing them to a painful memory.

But it doesn’t have to turn out that way. A few years ago I was standing with an Englishman on top of a hill in Tuscany. The only thing I knew about him was that his name was John, and even that I had not heard personally from him. I had seen his name on the list of participants at the silent retreat we had both signed up to attend. John and I had taken a number of walks together without exchanging a word. And then we stood together looking at a beautiful sunset.

If we had spoken the usual words at that moment (“What a beautiful sunset!”), that sunset surely wouldn’t have been as beautiful. Our words would have reduced the experience of the sunset to thoughts about the sunset, in the same way some tourists photograph and videotape everything they see. Instead of experiencing the moment, they try to capture it in a permanent form.

Recently I was walking a dog along the beach. Once again, the sun was setting and the water turned burnt orange. The fishing boat glided slowly past with seagulls in its wake. I looked into the dog’s eyes, which were wondering when the ball would be coming their way. Delighted, I cried: “Would you look at that beautiful sunset!” The dog just looked at me and said nothing. In his eyes I read: There’s a big difference between being happy and thinking that you’re happy.

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