A Chinese Student in America: Reflections by Du Jing (杜璟)
Once there was a snail, who had a very big shell on his back. He did not like his shell at the very beginning, for it was so heavy that it made him creep very, very slowly. He had to stop, once in a while, to take a rest. He even wanted to get rid of the big shell, the heavy burden on his back.
However, when night came, the snail realized that the shell turned out to be a cozy house for him to live in. During the night, he had a sound sleep and pleasant dreams.
From time immemorial, people have diverse perceptions on happiness. For some people, happiness means not to be controlled. For some others, happiness means to do whatever they want to. For still others, happiness is simply to be free. In my eyes, there is another form of happiness, that is, the sweet burden, like the shell on the back of the snail.
The snail had to carry his shell, that heavy burden on his back wherever he went, which seemed to be very tiring. However, when we look at the other side of the coin, how much happiness the shell had brought to him! The snail was willing to carry it about because he knew it was a sweet burden.
The same is true with the human beings. When we were born, we were entrusted to bear all kinds of burdens. But does that mean that we will live miserably? Probably no. Rather, our happiness may build on some sweet burdens.
A pregnant woman, suffering from sickness now and then and from inconveniences of various sorts, but never feels happier because she knows that a lovely angel is coming to her world in the near future. How happy she is!
We may feel tired of and impatient with our moms’ chattering,for they are always telling us to take good care of ourselves and keep repeating similar things time and again! In fact, this is a natural way for them to show us their care and love. How happy we are!
At this very moment, when I am sitting in the library of New York University, far from my home, my hometown and my motherland, and typing this article on happiness, I’m reflecting on my own case: Am I happy?
On making the decision to pursue further learning overseas, I knew I had chosen a long and not easy way to go: I had to work much harder, than if I chose not to go to learn abroad, to become qualified. I had to make great efforts to make preparation for and pass all the required tests, from TOFEL to GRE, to be accepted.
Moreover, on arriving in this completely different nation for the first time, I had to overcome home-sickness and cope with culture shocks. Nevertheless, I see myself as a lucky one who, thanks to my parents support, has got the chance to come to this vast land and experience this wonderful outside world. It is worth every effort I have made! How happy I am!
If you are worried or complaining about something bad or uncomfortable, please think about the snail, especially the heavy shell on his back. The things that make you struggle now may be or become some form of sweet burdens on you, which may bring you happiness some time later.
Sometimes they are protective and sometimes they are burdensome, but always we carry them.
They are not made of calcium like the shells of snails, but rather of the circumstances of our lives, some of which we have chosen and some of which are given to us, quite apart from any choices we make. In the language of Whitehead, these circumstances are the many which become one in every new moment of our lives. We ourselves are these new moments.
At any given moment in our lives, the given circumstance include our bodies and genetic makeup, our early childhood experience, the families into which we were born, the ethnicities and nations into which we were born. Sometimes these circumstances are pleasant and sometimes painful, but they are always part of us. They give us our sense of identity and they also present us with challenges.
The chosen circumstances include the decisions we have made in the past which become part of what is given to us in the present. Du Jing made the decision to come to the United States to study. Now as she writes her essay, that decision is part of her past. As a result she is sitting in a library in New York as she writes her essay.
Her situation reveals something important: our shells grow over time. There is more given to us today than was given yesterday, because new circumstances are being added to our lives, moment by moment, and we ourselves become new with these circumstances.
Du Jing points out that there's something still more beautiful that is given to us moment by moment, and that is our own freedom to choose our response toward what is given. This freedom is a deep mystery in human life, and some of us don't know we have it. We let the circumstances of our lives determine our happiness, forgetting that we are inwardly free in the present.
This freedom in the present -- a freedom to choose our response -- is not a freedom to remove all influences from our lives. The idea of a completely autonomous self, devoid of any influences from others, and in complete control of his or her life, is a delusion. Nor is the freedom in the present a freedom to do anything we want. Always there are given conditions which provide structure for our lives.
Happiness does not come in escaping all influences from others or in satisfying every desire. It lies in responding, wisely and creatively, to the given circumstances of our lives, and helping others in the process. If we cannot change the circumstances we can change our attitude.
This does not mean that we look at everything that has happened in our lives and in the world and say "it is good." Tragedies occur all the time which are not desirable and sometimes quite terrible. They place burdens on people which are immensely difficult to overcome. We can make bad decisions and wish we hadn't made them. But no matter what happens, we can respond to where we are -- whether in a library in New York or back home in Wuhan -- in a free way. And along the way we can also offer counsel or support to others who might find themselves in a similar situation.
Du Jing does this by counseling other Chinese students in America to take heart, to realize that the burdens they face -- loneliness, culture shock, homesickness -- can be sweet burdens.
Learning to see burdens as sweet is a little like wine-making. It involves taking bitter grapes and turning them into sweet wine. The bitter grapes are the burdens we might face in life, some given and some chosen, which are difficult. The process of turning them into sweet wine involves patience, courage, a seeking of perspective, and helping others.
We process thinkers believe that this process is one way that the very spirit of God is within each person, moment by moment. We speak of the spirit of God as the spirit of creative transformation. So often our receptivity to this spirit begins with appreciating the beauty in life and also acknowledging the burdensome dimensions.
There's no need to pretend everything is pretty. But still we can approach life with a kind of faith. If not faith in God then at least faith in a mysterious reality called Happiness. Those two realities -- God and Happiness -- are not so far apart, especially when, as we see in Du Jing, they involve helping other people.
Happiness occurs by degrees. There are levels and depths of happiness that supercede any small achievements in life, and which give life its deeper meanings. These levels are found, in the beginning, by realizing that some burdens can be very sweet.