Lessons for Living       

The First Four Chapters









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Dagali Press 2001

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"A mind once stretched by a new idea can never go
back to its original dimensions."
~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Where in your life are you today? Are you
comfortable, or are you comfortably miserable?
What lesson is life teaching you today? Can you
hear the message?

Most people do not hear the messages or see the
lessons. Awakening moments pass them by. It may be
that the lesson is so obvious that it is
overlooked. The harried, rude clerk at the grocery
store may be your teacher today, but you are so
focused on what she/he did that you missed what
you did. By contrast, the lesson may be so
profound that it shakes you to your core, and you
lose perspective. Being fired from a job may so
totally disrupt your life that chances for growth
are overlooked; a collapse into despair occurs.

Some people do glimpse the lesson but are so stuck
in a position of wanting life to change--while
they remain the same--that they do nothing. Life
is trying to wake all of us to the fact that we
are responsible for our own changing. To change we
must act, and to act we must see the possibility
of real choice and be willing to take

Each day tries to teach us something. Each day
offers awakening moments. An awakening moment is
an instant of clarity in which new insight is
gained. It is a moment in which "reality" is
clearly seen, options are presented to us, and
choices can be made. To say that reality is
clearly seen means we see what is before us just
as it is. We see the present moment stripped of
the hopes or fears we project into it. We see the
psychological reality we are creating and realize
that it could be different. We see "what is" and
not just what we bring to it. It may be a pleasant
surprise or a rude shock, but it is reality--a
reality that wakes us up if we glimpse it.

For the awakening moment to be useful though, we
must grasp it and perceive its meaning. Once
understood, it brings a new awareness, and the
experience of life is viewed differently. New
opportunities open up, and changes in patterns of
thought, emotion, and behavior occur. Such an
awakening allows the possibility of growth to new
levels of psychological and spiritual maturity.

Awakening moments can be ordinary--as ordinary as
a rainy day. I have a photograph of an awakening
moment. It was taken on a day that started sunny
but soon turned to rain. During a bus ride from
Salisbury, England, to the ancient stone
formations at Stonehenge, a downpour occurred. I
grumbled to myself and to my wife about how the
rain would ruin this long-awaited trip. Later,
walking around Stonehenge in the cold, wet mist, I
was disappointed with the day and continued to
grumble. Suddenly the rain stopped. For a few
glorious moments the sun broke through the clouds,
and a rainbow appeared. My photograph of a rainbow
over Stonehenge captured this awakening moment.

That rainy day, and especially that moment, became
the highlight of my two-week trip to England. It
also opened me to a new attitude. Without the
rain, I would not have found the rainbow. This
simple truth is very profound when it becomes a
lived experience. Grumbling about the immediate
situation does not help. It only distracts from
what is happening. We must be open to every
moment--open to possibility. We never know what it
will bring.


Opening to the moment can be difficult because in
order to be open, we must be willing to change. In
life, we become comfortably settled into routines
which are not easily given up. Sometimes the
comfortable routine is actually more of a
comfortable misery, a misery that is familiar and
whose depths we know. When life is comfortable,
even comfortably miserable, it feels risky to
change. It is easier to stay the same. Why
jeopardize a state of comfort?

The problem is that if we stay comfortable long
enough, we become stuck. Comfort that becomes a
routine can turn into a rut. When a rut is deep
enough, it becomes a grave, and we are covered
over with the inertia of inaction. Life loses its
vitality and meaning.

While it is difficult to change when we are
comfortable, opening to change is less difficult
when we are in distress. It is not that hard to
change when we feel impelled to seek relief.
Awakening moments often come out of broken
moments, which open us to new possibilities.

While we do not intentionally seek broken moments,
life hands them to us anyway. Often they come our
way because we were too comfortable too long, and
lived out the comfortable pattern until it no
longer worked. Had we been more mindful, given up
comfort on purpose, and taken a chance, life may
not have fallen apart.

Learning to seek change, even in the presence of
comfort, can lead to a more meaningful life. The
paradox is that learning to challenge our comfort
zones may also keep life from falling apart. Being
motivated to continually grow and develop enables
us to challenge ourselves to stay on the cutting
edge of life. Being open to change, even in the
midst of comfort, gives life vitality. Each day
we must actively look for opportunities to grow.
For a meaningful life, we must engage in the
daily, intentional challenging of comfort. We must
constantly push our limits to achieve our
"personal best," much the way champion athletes in
the pursuit of excellence seek to set new records.


"Do you want life to go better? Do you want to
change today? Are you willing to work hard to
improve your life?" For nearly thirty years, I
have worked as a psychologist, and these are
questions I ask the people I counsel at the
beginning of every session. They are just ordinary
people with problems. Some are depressed; others
are anxious or angry; some have addiction
problems; some are struggling with a chronic
illness. Family problems, marital conflict, and
job stress may be involved. What I want to know
from them is simply this: "Do you want to get
better and are you willing to work at it?"

Most often the answer is "Yes" and "No." "Yes"
they want to get better, but "No" they really
don't want to work at it. People often are looking
for magic. They want some magic words, a magic
pill, or even a magic wand. Those looking for
magic words go from one counselor to another or
from one self-help book to another and are always
dissatisfied. Those who are looking for a magic
pill hope their doctor can find the right
medicine. They have tried everything and nothing
seems to work for them. If their condition has
worsened, it is always because their medicine has
stopped working, and now they need a new
prescription. Moreover, no one seems to know
where to find the magic wand, so instead of
looking for the wand there is sometimes a frantic
search for the "magical person" (spouse, lover,
guru) who can make life wonderful.

Magic "is" hard to find, but the absence of magic
is not the primary problem. The fundamental
difficulty in changing our lives is one of having
to directly face issues of responsibility, choice,
and action. To improve our lives, we must assess
the situation, determine what we control, make a
choice, and take action. We must create our own
magic. If we want to change, we must take a
chance. We must let go of where we are, so we can
get to where we are going. This "letting go" is a
scary prospect because we know and are familiar
with the relative safety of where we are even if
it is unpleasant at the moment.

Making a change is like leaping from the safety of
one trapeze to another. There is a risky time
during which you are in mid-air. Why would you
attempt such a leap? What if you didn't make it?
Perhaps you could just hold on, refuse to leap,
and stay where it momentarily feels safe. Maybe
you must leap because you cannot tolerate your
present situation any longer. You leap out of a
sense of desperation. You could be slowly losing
your grip; so, you leap before you fall.
Furthermore, you may be roughly shaken from the
trapeze when a crisis arises, and things cannot
stay the same.

Whether you choose to change or have change thrust
upon you, it helps to have a plan. It helps to
have some sense of how life works and what can be
done to regain balance and momentum.


In a psychiatric hospital where I once worked,
patients stayed an average of four days. They
brought intense problems with them, but only
received only four days of treatment. Before the
days of managed health care, they may have stayed
four weeks. While this may have been too long,
four days is often too short. What can be done in
four days?

People can be challenged to use their common
sense. Common sense is just information that makes
sense to us once we hear it. Common sense presents
itself whenever we learn something and then think,
"I knew that." True--we did know it. But we were
not using the information. We had forgotten what
we knew and needed a reminder. In the hospital
setting, people needed reminders to explore their
common sense, evaluate their situation, and then
test out what they "knew" through action.

Common sense "is" obvious and self-evident, but
only "after" we have seen it. Before that, we are
often oblivious to its presence. Later, we wonder,
"How could I have missed it?" Frequently, we miss
the common sense solution because we do not want
to see it. If we acknowledge common sense, then we
face the frightening possibility of having to
change. We are confronted with our responsibility
for our life situation and must decide whether or
not to act on what we now know. If we choose not
to see the common sense solution, we may not have
to change. We avoid responsibility, but we stay


This book is a series of "lessons for living." It
consists of simple, practical essays on how you
can make your life go better. Brief, to-the-point
chapters provide insight into life's problems and
suggest courses of action. Some lessons are a
variation on a basic theme and present the same
information from different viewpoints to aid
better understanding. Each chapter can be read
independently and used as a guide for daily
change. Or, when read as a whole, the series of
lessons provide a model for living a more joyful
and meaningful life.

These lessons also serve as common sense
reminders. They will help you remember what you
know and challenge you to use it. Try out each
lesson and see if it works for you. Your daily
life is a laboratory for such experimentation and
learning. Use each day as an experiment. Try
something new and see what works. You will only
know what works for you by testing it out for

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"Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it
so." ~ Shakespeare

Examine the following statement. Is it true or
false? "You are responsible for all of your
experiences of life." Most people quickly say it
is false, arguing that they don't cause everything
that happens to them. This is certainly true. All
kinds of things happen to you that you don't
cause. However, the statement is absolutely true.
You are responsible for all of your experiences of

Now, it is a bit of a trick. Notice that the
statement says "of" life and not "in" life. You
are not responsible for everything that happens to
you, although you may often contribute to it. Many
things will happen, both good and bad, over which
you have no control--floods, tornadoes, and the
fluctuations of the stock market. These events are
your experiences "in" life. Your reactions to them
are your experiences "of" life. You always control
your experiences of life. This is exciting news.
It means that you can take charge of your life.

Life has rules sometimes known as the "facts of
life." These are not the "birds and bees" facts
but the real facts about how life works. If you
know the facts and the rules and follow them, life
goes better. Here are the "facts."

Life appears to have two steps. Step One is "Life
Acts" which simply means that something happens in
life. Let's call it X--the unknown. Event X
happens, and it can be anything. You might get
married, get divorced, be fired, receive a
promotion, or win the lottery. Once "Life Acts"--
once something happens to you--it is your turn.

Step Two is "You React." You react to whatever has
happened with response Y. Y also represents the
unknown because it is not certain what you will
do. What is certain is that your response always
includes some emotional reaction. You "feel"
something--perhaps happiness, sadness, anger, or
frustration. Your response also includes a
behavioral reaction. You "do" something. You
respond in some way, such as laughing, crying, or
jumping for joy.

Viewed from a distance it appears that event X
causes your reaction Y. If your boss criticizes
your report, you might get angry, tear it up, and
throw it into the wastebasket. Later, you tell
someone, "My boss made me mad." Thus, it appears
that life has two steps: "Life Acts" and "You
React." External events cause your responses.

In reality, however, life has three steps. Step
One is "Life Acts." Your boss criticizes your
report. Step Two is "You Think." You think about
what happened, about what your boss said. You
start thinking, "He is always picking on me. It's
horrible. I can't stand it." And, Step Three--"You
React." Your emotional response is anger, and your
action is to tear up the report and throw it away.

You have created your own negative reaction with
what you have been telling yourself. You do have
other choices. You could think, "Great, now I can
correct the report before the staff meeting." Your
reaction will be different as you feel a sense of
relief and get busy with the corrections.

In between life's action and your reaction,
something has to be done in order for you to have
any reaction at all. After becoming aware of what
has happened, you must "think" about it. In
thinking, you evaluate the event and create your

Once you become aware that something has happened,
the Voice of Conscience speaks up and tells you
what it means. The Voice of Conscience is that
"little voice" that talks to you. You probably
recognize it as the one that speaks up when you
look in the mirror or get on the bathroom scale.
It can say how wonderful you look or how out of
shape you are. The Voice can be positive or

This Voice of Conscience is simply you talking to
"you." It is you telling yourself about life. Your
Voice of Conscience can talk you into a lot of
trouble, or it can talk you into a positive
outlook that changes your life experience.

Learn to listen to the Voice of Conscience, and
catch it when it is talking nonsense. Catch it
when it is being too critical and when it is too
extreme. Catch yourself when you are making things
worse than they are. Change the nature of your
inner dialogue and life will go better. Control
your reactions to life by monitoring your
thinking. Learn to think realistically--without
exaggeration--about life.

Life will give you enough trouble. Don't make
things worse than they are. When driving to work,
if someone suddenly pulls into your lane making
you miss a turn, don't focus on what a jerk the
other driver is. Don't tell yourself how it always
happens to you. Don't rave and rant about the
injustice of it all. Accept the reality of the
inconvenience and keep driving. You will get to
your destination, perhaps a few minutes late, but
you will be in a better frame of mind and in a
better mood.

Remember: "Life Acts," and "You React," but in
between "You Think." Choose your reaction by
choosing "what" you think. Pay attention to your
inner dialogue. How you talk to yourself is
important. Be sure you are making sense. Take
responsibility for your thinking. Always choose a
realistic but positive point of view and make life
go better.


* Recall a recent event that upset you.
* How did you react?
* What were you telling yourself about the event?
* Was there another more positive point of view?
* Would it have changed your reaction?

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"Misery no longer loves company. Nowadays it
insists on it." ~ Russell Baker

Are you in a bad situation that you wish would
just go away? Maybe it is the dull routine into
which your life has fallen or the dead-end job
that you have. Perhaps it is your small, cramped
apartment. You are unhappy and frustrated and
complain about how terrible it is, but you don't
take action. You won't change. You feel stuck, and
you are. You are caught in comfortable misery.

Comfortable misery is a situation that you don't
like, but one to which you have grown accustomed.
Think of a bad marriage that has gone on so long
that both spouses have resigned themselves to it.
Neither likes it, and both complain about it, but
no one leaves. It is a habit and brings a sense of
safety. Leaving might not only bring loneliness
but also require demanding and risky changes.
Perhaps it is better to just stay the same. Why
take a chance?

Comfortable misery means you "are" miserable, but
you are used to it. You know the limits and bounds
of this misery, and also that you can tolerate a
situation "this" bad because you do it every day.
The problem is that trying to get out of
comfortable misery is frightening. You could make
a change, but then what? You're tempted by the
hope that things could get better, but paralyzed
by the fear that they could get worse. You wonder,
"If it got worse, could I stand it?" You think,
"If I change, I might create something even more
miserable. I could be jumping from the frying pan
into the fire. Maybe it's better to stay the way I
am. At least I know I can tolerate it."

This type of thinking holds you back and keeps you
stuck. While you are miserable, you are not
miserable enough to change. How miserable do you
have to get?

You can wait until your situation becomes a
crisis, and you are impelled to act, but this
isn't the best way to change. It is better to take
responsibility and plan your action. Look around.
What are your choices? What can you do? Be
realistic about your resources and possible
outcomes. Anticipate what might go wrong and be
prepared for it. Accept the fact that you might
be somewhat more uncomfortable as you go through
the change process, but be optimistic and hold
onto the expectation that things will improve.

Which is better--quick and intense or slow and
steady? Think of a Band-Aid that you need to
remove. Do you pull it off quickly to get it over
with, or do you remove it slowly so as not to hurt
yourself? Slow and steady can actually be more
painful. Quick will also hurt, but it is soon

Quick is when you directly confront the misery of
your alcohol abuse by choosing the difficult path
of going into treatment rather than waiting to hit
bottom. It is when you choose the discipline of
joining the health club rather than continuing to
complain about the difficulty of losing weight; it
is when you break the misery of a bad relationship
by packing your bags and leaving.

Comfortable misery gradually increases in
intensity. Action is the best remedy for
comfortable misery. It may be temporarily
unpleasant, even difficult, as you change, but
life can get much better when you are no longer
stuck. You can jump out of the frying pan and over
the fire. You can leap in to a new opportunity--a
new possibility.

Remember: you have the power of choice. Take a
chance. You only have your misery to lose.


* Recall a past state of comfortable misery.
* How long did you stay in it?
* What did you do to get out of it?
* Are there current areas of your life in which you are comfortably
* What can you do today to give up comfortable misery?

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"Life is full of misery, loneliness, and
suffering--and it's all over much too soon."
~ Woody Allen

Most people's lives would improve if they could
just learn to be realistically unhappy. To be
realistically unhappy means to react to the
negative events of life, such a divorce, losing a
job, or failing at an important task, with an
appropriate amount of distress. It is normal to be
upset by these events--to a point. Being
realistically unhappy helps you to accept the
unfortunate events in life, and gives you the
motivation to move past them.

Not everyone accepts realistic unhappiness. They
avoid it in one of two ways: denial or
exaggeration. Those who deny their unhappiness
pretend they don't have a problem (when they do)
by saying things like, "I can stop drinking
whenever I want." Or, "This job stress never
bothers me." Denial is like sweeping the problem
under the carpet. It only gets bigger when out of
sight. It grows in the dark until it can no longer
be ignored and becomes a crisis. It is better to
directly face the issue and be realistic even if
it makes you unhappy.

Some people avoid reality by exaggerating and
making everything worse than it is. Whenever
anything mildly unpleasant happens, they start
thinking about how bad it is going to become and
about all of the things that may go wrong. They
reach out into the future of imagined bad
possibilities and bring them back into the present
moment. They begin living as if the worst case
scenario is their new reality and become much
unhappier than the actual event warrants. These
people are "unrealistically unhappy" and create
more trouble than they need.

For example, the loss of a job is a real problem.
Most people would be distressed. Let's say that
most people would be about 50 percent miserable,
and let's call this normal.

Now, suppose you get a layoff notice and lose a
job. You respond by becoming 50 percent miserable,
but on the way home you start thinking. You tell
yourself, "This is terrible. I bet that I will
never get another good paying job. My spouse will
be upset. My kids will be mad. My car will be
repossessed. I will lose my home and wind up
living on the street. This is terrible." By the
time you arrive home, your misery may have doubled
to 100 percent. Where did all this extra misery
come from? You have created it from an imagined
future of bad things that have not happened. You
have made yourself unrealistically unhappy.

If, in a few days, none of these imagined bad
things happen, and you get a lead on a job, you
may rethink the situation. You may shrink your
misery back down to 50 percent. You return to
normal. Your life will have improved, but you
still have a problem. You don't have a job.
However, you are now "realistically unhappy" and
can use this normal degree of unhappiness to
motivate yourself into action.

Remember, when life gives you a problem, don't
create more misery than you need. Learn to be
realistically unhappy, and life will go better.


* Are you currently unhappy?
* What happened to cause your unhappiness?
* Have you added to it?
* Is your unhappiness realistic or not?
* Can you rethink your situation and improve your life?

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Thanks for reading these lessons. I hope that you
enjoyed them and found the information helpful.

You can order the book online from Amazon.com 

Or, get it from your favorite bookstore.
Just ask for:

Author: Daniel H. Johnston, Ph.D
Softcover, 208 pages
1st Edition August, 2001
Dagali Press
ISBN: 0-971265-0-9

Dan Johnston, Ph.D.

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