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Austin, Abraham and Happiness, South by Southwest

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I may have just met the happiest man in Texas. I was in Austin for a talk at the University of Texas, right before this year's South by Southwest festival was to begin, and my driver for two days was an Ethiopian gentleman named Abraham, which seems to me appropriate, because I think he could lead almost anyone to The Promised Land.

A standard greeting, "How are you this morning, Abraham?" would inevitably be answered with something like, "Wonderful, as always! It's a great day!"

The second time I heard such a response, I said, "I'm starting to think that, for you, ever day is a great day."

He replied, "Yes! Always!"

As I got into the black town car outside the hotel for a drive over to the university's conference center, Abraham told me that one of his friends this past December hadn't seen him in a while and ventured to ask how his Thanksgiving was. Abraham replied, "Which one?"

The man looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"

Abraham quickly explained, with a big smile, "Every day is one of Thanksgiving for me!" He's clearly a count-your-blessings kind of person.

Coming to this country at the age of 19, the man quickly decided that this is a place amazingly full of blessings, however big or small. He told me of some friends who also came to America from elsewhere and who have a different opinion. In a completely nonjudgmental, but merely descriptive tone, he told me, "They're always complaining about their jobs, or their girlfriends, or their life situation. I tell them, America is the easiest country in the world to leave. If you're not happy here, go somewhere else and try there. But you may be coming back."

Nothing seems to bother Abraham. He always sees the silver lining. And he's a consummate professional at his job. If you need quiet, he'll give you quiet. But if you feel like talking, you can learn a lot. Not everyone who hears his advice, however, takes the advice.

One much older friend of his was living through a difficult and challenging time. Abraham suggested to him, "Maybe you should go to church."

The man said, "Why should I go to church?"

"Well, don't you want to go to heaven?" Abraham asked.

The man said, "Why should I want to go to heaven? All my friends are in hell."

Of course, my new friend reported this to me with a hearty laugh. He said, "People ask me if I really believe in heaven. I tell them, sure, I'm already there." It's a perspective shared by quite a few people in downtown Austin, and especially inside the big Whole Foods store, where Abraham gets lunch most days.

The great philosopher Plato long ago drew a firm distinction between appearances and realities. He reminded us that things are rarely what they at first seem, and was convinced that most of us suffer from illusions that hold us back from what we could be experiencing. And, when you think about it, our feelings and attitudes are most normally tied tightly to appearances. When things seem good, we feel good. When things seem bad, we feel bad.

But if appearances are often misleading, why should we allow our feelings and attitudes to be tied to them?

After being around Abraham for two days, I began to have a realization about this. Perhaps happiness is something like a skilled behavior that requires a certain discipline. Our perceptions and beliefs, mediated by our values, give rise to our emotions and attitudes. The problem is that our perceptions are of appearances, and since appearances often belie realities, the easy beliefs that we form about the world around us from what we see and hear will often be false and misleading.

But there's a simple solution. If we hold deeper beliefs, as Plato did, and as Abraham does, and we discipline ourselves to let those beliefs govern our feelings, rather than the ones that are easily formed by appearances, we'll not be so tossed about by the negativity of illusions on any given day.

Is there a traffic jam? So, there's a traffic jam. Maybe you'll be late to a meeting. Will you meanwhile be balled up in agitation, or will you allow yourself to take these extra minutes to enjoy the wonder of being alive? Do you think that sounds silly? Then, perhaps the delay will allow you to have more of a great conversation that could not have happened without the traffic tie up. Or you may get to enjoy more music along the way. But what if you are indeed late and someone's angry about it when you arrive? Then, they're experiencing an unnecessary emotion that they'd be better off without. Maybe you can bring them a word of comfort that they need. Perhaps the whole situation was set up so that you could help them see beyond their initial reaction. Or maybe it wasn't set up at all, but you can treat it like that, anyway. There are many ways not to be bothered by the problems and disruptions of daily life that come to us as appearances.

If, like Abraham, you embody a deep happy calm, really an inner joy, that greets each new day as a wonder, and treasures other people, whatever they're saying, or feeling, or going through, you may be in a place from which you can truly provide help, whether that happy effect of your words is readily evident or not.

Too many students walk away from their first course in philosophy thinking that its point is to trouble the waters of the mind and make us doubt everything. But what if its real purpose is just to help us doubt the appearances of life that cause our emotions to be like a roller coaster, and as a result free us from their domination? But that can't happen unless it helps us to discover deeper beliefs beyond the realm of appearances, and then discipline ourselves to allow these beliefs to be our filters as we move through the world, and our real sources for emotions and attitudes.

So the question is: What drives your feelings? Does the ever-changing flux of misleading appearances? Or, rather, does a deeper set of unchanging convictions about the true nature of things? As Mr. Abraham Asrat, informal guru of ExecuCar, taught me, the right driver can make all the difference.