It really doesn’t have to be alright to be alright

The words uttered many years ago by a lazy colleague are true: if we want to find moments of happiness we have to find them in the imperfection

In a world that sometimes feels like it’s held together with string that could unravel at any time, we do indeed have to find happiness in the middle of imperfection. Photograph: iStock

In a world that sometimes feels like it’s held together with string that could unravel at any time, we do indeed have to find happiness in the middle of imperfection. Photograph: iStock

 

It doesn’t have to be alright to be alright.

The phrase came winging out of my memory one day as I walked to the supermarket.

I had been surprised to notice I was feeling fairly happy although the weather was unpleasant. Earlier, I had been looking at a quotation by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh from his book, The Sun My Heart.

It went: Peace can only exist in the present moment. It is ridiculous to say: ‘Wait until I finish this, then I will be free to live in peace.’ . . . If you think that way, peace will never come. There is always another ‘this’ that will follow the present one.

Maybe that was why I was feeling good in spite of the lousy weather. I had accepted that nothing is ever perfect and that if we want to find moments of happiness we have to find them in the imperfection.

Then that phrase – It doesn’t have to be alright to be alright – which I hadn’t heard for half a century, jumped into my awareness.

It has been uttered by Eamon (not his real name, just in case) who was in charge of a warehouse in London where I had an unspectacular and brief career a long time ago.

Our job was to keep a flow of goods coming in from various suppliers and to get them out in a timely manner to sites around the city. The problem lay with that phrase “a timely manner”. It was not to be found in Eamon’s psychological dictionary.

Several times a day the switchboard would put through, with a sigh, some angry manager whose schedule was falling apart because of our failure to deliver on time.

Because I was new, and didn’t know anything about anything, I took all of this terribly seriously. I attempted to pass these managers along to Eamon who, however, would decline to take the receiver. “You talk to ’im Paddy,” he’d say, with the English accent he had acquired since he got off the boat. “Tell ’im it’ll be there tomorrow.”

Tomorrow sometimes came and sometimes did not and I was the one who took the abuse from managers let down yet again.

As my first Friday came to an end, Eamon could see how stressed out I was by all this. “Calm down Paddy,” he said, pulling on his coat. “It’ll be alright.”

I began to recite the list of deliveries that were not going to be alright. He stared at me for a couple of seconds. Then delivered his line:

“It doesn’t have to be alright to be alright.” And he turned on his heel and walked out.

When, on the side of the street in Dublin, I made the mental link decades later between Thich Nhat Hahn and Eamon, I allowed myself a grudging respect for my old manager – but only for a moment.

Eamon was not a Zen monk who had come to live among the ordinary folk. He just didn’t care about deadlines, that was all

After all Eamon, in many thousands of lifetimes, would never bestir himself to do the things that Thich Nhat Hahn did, like sailing a boat into an active war zone with relief supplies for both sides in the conflict between the Vietcong and the United States.

Come to think of it, Thich Nhat Hahn was sailing into the space between two deadly opposing forces at about the same time that Eamon was sitting in his office in London refining his philosophy.

Eamon was not a Zen monk who had come to live among the ordinary folk. He just didn’t care about deadlines, that was all. A Zen practitioner could spend decades learning not to care. The difference is that, behind it all, the Zen practitioner actually really cares.

But that doesn’t take away from the wisdom concealed in Eamon’s justification for his performance. In a world that sometimes feels like it’s held together with string that could unravel at any time, we do indeed have to find happiness in the middle of imperfection.

And so the courageous monk and the lazy manager agree:

It really doesn’t have to be alright to be alright.

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