We’ve just finished up week four on the road, and are headed from Connecticut to Boston. It’s been a weird roller coaster of highs and lows over the last week and a half or so. I’ve had moments that were just incredible, and moments where I was so down on myself, mostly because of my inability to fix the van, especially because this leads to us needing to skip some places here and there so that we can still make it to our set interviews on time.
Two weeks ago as we made our way out of New Orleans I was at an O’Reilly in Mississippi changing Gus’s fluids, and I started chatting with the guy working the counter. He asked where we were coming from and what we were doing, and how we ended up there in Mississippi. I told him about the documentary, and he said, “It’s simple really. Everyone gets depressed. Being happy is accepting what you have. That’s all there is to it.”
But when we delved deeper into what happiness is, and where depression might stem from, he started to get heated. He told me that what we’re doing is wrong, and that we shouldn’t be there. The way he saw it, it was fucked up for us to bring the idea of happiness to people who would never be able to get it. We were coming in and giving them an idea, bringing light to a question that they were aware of on some level, but were able to ignore by not thinking about it, and not offering any sort of solution.
We weren’t the first ones to come to Mississippi and try to fix something, and he said this is the problem with people like us. We don’t stay. We come and make waves, and then leave, and then people are left angry, thinking about something that they won’t ever have. The way he put it, he wouldn’t want a Ferrari if he had never heard of a Ferrari, but the concept had been introduced to him, and so he has this desire for a Ferrari, but will never have the means to get one.
The thing is that I wasn’t trying to offer a solution, I just wanted to ask the question and the idea was to make people think, and to learn, and asked if he thought that we could change the approach to happiness. And while yes, he did believe it could be changed, he asked how I would feel if someone told me that something I had been doing my whole life was wrong.
How would I feel if something I had been doing for a year straight was shown to me to be the wrong way of doing things?
For me personally, I’d be open to hearing them out, because I’m not set in the way I live. However, I do recognize that the way I structure my life, frankly with very little structure, is not the norm. So as one of the main things I’ve taken thus far from this journey is a lesson in perspective, I tried my best to consider his perspective.
Honestly, though, I can’t. And he’s right. While in my mind, if I had recognized something as being wrong in my culture/society, I wouldn’t want to settle for the fact that that’s just how things are. Even if it was too late for me, if I were a father (as he is), I’d think that I would have wanted to change things for the future, so that my children wouldn’t have to deal with the same hardships that I’m going through now, and that they could achieve this happiness that he views as unachievable for himself.
But I can’t imagine what his life has been like, and spending one day there talking with him can’t paint an accurate picture of what it’s like to be a black man in a poverty-stricken, historically racist area. While I want to say that there’s always hope, that there’s always something that can be done, in this case I don’t know that it’s true. And I’ve been really struggling with this idea, because it seems to me like there must be an answer, but I don’t know what it is.
This had me so down, because here I am thinking we’re doing this good thing that can help a lot of people, and I hadn’t even entertained the possibility that we could be doing harm as well. And as I continue to think about it, I think that we will be able to help people with the things we learn, but we can’t help everyone. And that’s okay. As we said when we started, if we can help a single person on this journey it’ll all be worth it, because while we may not be able to change the whole world, we can change the whole world for that person.
I woke up to a text from my best friend Timmy this morning, asking me if I’ve ever had a conversation with someone about life that totally shattered my structure of beliefs and put everything in perspective as to how irrelevant my priorities are, and I think that was an appropriate segway into writing this today. I feel like throughout my life I’ve been able to put myself into the shoes of others relatively well, but when I think about it most of the people I’ve had that with were people that were relatively similar to me, and here I was given an opportunity to put myself in the shoes of someone who lives in a world totally foreign to anything I’ve experienced. I lived a blessed life, and while there were parts of it that were very hard, difficulty and struggle is relative.
For me, struggle was battling my own demons. It was working to be in a place where I loved and accepted myself and could be genuinely comfortable and at peace with who I am. For him, struggle is making enough money to feed his children while working a job he hates because it’s his only option and he has mouths to feed. It’s accepting the fact that people hate him just because of the color of his skin and the neighborhood he grew up in. Accepting that he may never experience true happiness because of the circumstances of his inescapable surroundings, but being able to find joy in the moments he spends chilling with his friends. Accepting that the system is stacked against him, and that he’ll always be playing without a full deck, but going on living anyway, because there’s nothing else he can do.
We can’t stop what we’re doing, because we do have the power to help people. Honestly, I believe we would have been able to help our friend in Mississippi too, if we had the time to stay and try to understand what life for him is, because I do believe much of our current system is set up to have us fall into depression, but some maybe more than others, and there are aspects of this overhaul of society that I clearly hadn’t considered, so more time and attention is needed in certain areas than others.
After we left Mississippi we headed to Nashville, where Kayla and Paul spent some time walking around talking with people, and I spent most of our three days there working on Gus. I had a list of potential problems with him and why he might not be running, and as I went through replacing piece after piece I finally figured it out on the very last item on my list. However, while taking a Lyft to O’Reilly to get some parts exchanged that they had given me the wrong size for, I met Ric, a singer/songwriter/producer/jack-of-all-trades in the music industry, and Ric was an eclectic character. He met up with us after he finished up lunch, and brought his wife, Seemi, with him. Ric was raised Jewish in Philadelphia and Seemi was raised Muslim in Pakistan. They had met while filming the music video of “Can’t Own God”, a song by Ric’s band, Stone Unturned, which I highly recommend checking out because it carries a great message and has a very cool, funky style to it.
Seemi and Ric offered a very cool dynamic, because they would go back and forth between ideas, disagreeing and challenging one another on their beliefs, before (for the most part), coming to a consensus. They both had unique experiences that had led them to hold unique beliefs, and while their beliefs were pretty on par with one another (again, for the most part), they seemed to have very different justifications and processes that led them to arrive at these beliefs. One of the cool takeaways from this talk with Ric and Seemi was the perspective on God that a) we are all ultimately worshipping the same God, we just have a different manner of expressing that through various religious and spiritual practices, and that none of us own God. We can’t tell anyone else that their depiction of God is wrong, or that ours is right, because God is universal. There is no one true religion. And b) that we are all God. We are all a piece of this universal God. Each an individual wave in one giant ocean of God.
This was a thought I had come across in my studies of eastern philosophy, but not one I had really encountered through the lens of western thought or the Abrahamic religions, and that was a refreshing thing to experience firsthand here in the US.
As we finished up our talk with Ric and Seemi, we finally made our way out of Nashville, and onto Asheville, North Carolina, where we went to check out the Earthhaven Eco-village. Earthhaven was a dream for me, because I would love nothing more than to be able to live in an environmentally friendly, off-the-grid home where I could practice permaculture and grow my own food. Plus, the way that people live there allows them to be present in each moment, one thing that we’ve found is a key to tapping into individual happiness. By being in a place where they get to just be, without the stressors of living in a concrete jungle, they’ve been able to get back to what life is truly about at the root of it. Living, creating, growing, and simply being.
Not to mention the place is absolutely gorgeous. We got to sit down with a couple people there and share ideas, and it was so cool to talk with people who want to remove the divide that has developed in our modern communities, and return to true communal living where people share community gardens and food, and neighbors eat dinner together and get to talk on a regular basis, as opposed to the fences and walls we build that create isolation and separation. In my subdivision, we had something absurd, like 150 houses, and yet I can count on one hand the number of neighbors I actually knew. While some of that may stem from age difference and whatnot, I think that there’s absolutely something to be said about growing up in a setting where life is shared with more than just our immediate families.
The village was set up mostly so that each family/person has their own living space, but dining areas and living rooms were communal, so that they watched movies, cooked, and ate dinner together.
I think this can be so powerful, because it can create a broader sense of what the term “family” means, and also allows for a greater source of learning in children. For every extra person that carries a presence in a child’s life, it could allow for extra knowledge, experiences, and perspectives for that child to be subjected to and learn from.
As we made our way out of Asheville and towards Washington, D.C., we ended up stuck in a small town called Oxford, North Carolina, last Saturday. We had planned on driving through the night to make it out to DC, but around 3 am as Paul was driving Gus started acting up, so we decided to pull off and check it out. I ran through my list of usual suspects when Gus isn’t running quite right, and after everything checked out I decided to take over driving and see if I could figure out what was up. As I pulled out to the stoplight of the Walmart parking lot we had pulled into, Gus died at the intersection, so we pulled back in and decided to sleep it off and I’d give it a whirl in the morning.
I got up bright and early, and again went through, checking everything from the spark plugs to the fuel line to connections throughout the engine, to find that the bolt that supports the alternator had snapped off the night before and had left the alternator just hanging by one small support bolt and the belts that run over it.
So, I drove to AutoZone to see what I could do about removing it, as it was Saturday, and none of the mechanics in town would even give it a look until Monday, so I figured I could take a crack at it. How hard could it be? I thought. Oh, how wrong I was.
Typical protocol for removing a broken bolt is to drill a hole directly in the center of the bolt, and then put this larger, weird, backwards drill bit into the hole and essentially pull it out like a corkscrew. However, with the horrible angle I had to take going in to the engine, I missed the center of the bolt. Badly. That sucker was not moving one bit.
So, we waited, figuring we’d now have to wait for a mechanic to open up on Monday. However! In the meantime, as I was walking through town Saturday night, trying to cool off a bit because I was bumming about the way that day had turned out, I walked into a pool hall, thinking that’d be fun. After receiving a less than warm welcome by a few of the people who worked there, I met this woman named Sandra who was so cool! I didn’t expect to meet someone like-minded while in a small town in North Carolina, but she was so open and was such a pleasant person to come across. We talked for a while that evening, and she came back the next day to talk some more on camera, and as someone who had encountered a lot of difficult times in her life she had such a pleasant outlook and disposition toward life and the way that things are.
Monday morning we were going to have Gus towed down the street to the mechanic about a quarter-mile away, but after learning that we had 100 miles per tow for AAA, we figured we might as well get our money’s worth and had him towed exactly 100 miles out to Petersburg, Virginia, where we opted to bring him to a welder instead of a mechanic, as every mechanic I talked to basically gave me the same “Ugh, that’s terrible. I can’t do it, but try this other guy”, until the last guy I talked to gave me name of a welder, who said they’d be able to pull it out no problem. We pulled up on Monday afternoon, and I spent the rest of the day pulling apart Gus’s grill and front end so that they could get in to the engine to weld a nut onto this bolt and pull it out.
I came back first thing Tuesday morning, getting there around 7:45 or so, to see that they had already gotten the bolt out, no problem. First try, with ease, and only $35! A mechanic would’ve charged us $150. I was ecstatic! And went to work putting Gus back together. After I was most of the way through the re-assembly of the grill, I realized I hadn’t put the alternator back on. Stupid. That was the whole reason we were there. So, I pulled apart the rest of the grill, got the alternator back on, and went back to putting it back together.
In front of the radiator lies a part of the air conditioning system that basically looks like a smaller radiator, and has two really thick hoses that run into the rest of the A/C unit. These hoses, let me tell you, were one of the most frustrating things to deal with. When I went to pull them off the night before I tried and tried with no luck, and eventually had to cut them off, figuring I’d have enough slack to put em back on. I did not have enough slack, but tried to put them on only to realize I ran one of the hoses in the wrong place, and wasn’t going to be able to get the radiator back on with it there. So, I went back to trying to pull them off, and after about 30 minutes of pulling, was about to give up, when I gave it one last tug.
The hose didn’t come off, and the copper pipe it was sitting on cracked. So here we were, in Petersburg, Virginia, with a broken piece that no one in the area would be able to replace.
I was sitting on the ground, at a loss, when the guy who owned the welding shop came out and asked how I was doing.
“Well, to be honest, I’ve been better.”
He looked at the copper pipe, looked at me, and said, “Yeah, you really screwed this up.” But after looking for another moment, then added, “but it’s okay, we can fix this.”
He went inside to have it mended and I walked to go buy new hoses, and when I was back he had fixed it and I was able to get it back together and running, and we were off to Washington, DC.
As we were on the Northern border of DC/Maryland Gus was no longer running strong, so I hopped out and looked under the van and there was transmission fluid everywhere. A line that ran from the radiator to the transmission was loose and spraying fluid all over the place, so I tightened it up and checked the fluid level, which was almost empty.
I pulled into a Jiffy Lube about a mile away so they could fill up the fluid, but when they went to put some in, the engine started to smoke, and as they put more in to show me it was smoking (probably unnecessary, I could’ve taken their word for it), flames jumped up out of the engine, down by the transmission where the fluid was running in.
This was potentially devastating for the trip, because as we’ve been going we recognized we didn’t have enough money to finish the film as is. We’re a few thousand dollars short, and so we’ve been contacting philanthropy executives and business trying to get some sort of sponsorship, and while we had some interest we haven’t had any solid traction yet.
We only have about two weeks of money left, and five more weeks on the road, so having to replace Gus’s transmission would’ve been a possibly fatal blow to the trip.
Fortunately, the mechanic we took it to said that the tube that the transmission fluid dip stick sits in had come loose down where it enters the transmission, and as they put fluid in it had leaked out on to one of the exhaust pipes. Transmission fluid is one of the only really flammable liquids in an engine, so that combined with the extreme heat of the exhaust pipe (I’ve touched it while fixing things under the van after it’s been running, and trust me, it’s hot) was a recipe for ignition.
He put the pipe back in place, topped off our fluid levels, and we headed to New York City.
While in New York we met this incredible man named Donald on the Staten Island Ferry. Donald has been sober for 36 years, and is a long time HIV survivor. The most powerful thing he said, in my opinion, was that he was grateful for getting HIV. When I asked him why, he said because it taught him how to live now, and enjoy every moment.
When it comes down to it, Donald is able to find happiness every day because he lives each day to the fullest, like it’s his last one. When he was diagnosed his life was not expected to last much longer, so he started enjoying the hell out of every single day he was gifted with.
And here he is, 28 years later, carrying that same sense of enjoyment and happiness with him everywhere he goes.
People like Donald carry such a strong lesson. The people who have been given the most unfortunate circumstances, but instead of letting that become them, break them down, or destroy them, it elevates them. It teaches them and gives them life. Donald was such a light to come into our lives this week, and I think he can be an example for the rest of us.
No matter what happens, we have two options. We can either let the negative things be negative, or we can use them as a positive, in order to learn, grow, and blossom as humans.
As much as I was down from my discussion with that guy from Mississippi, He brought an important lesson to me. He showed me how important it is to keep humble and recognize that what works for me is not going to work for everyone else. I don’t believe that means that I won’t be able to help others, but just that I can’t approach every situation as if it were my own, because it’s not.
There were moments where the car troubles have really brought me down, but every single time we’ve run into an issue I’ve learned so much. It gave me an opportunity to learn about Gus and his engine, and I feel like I’d be able to fix most issues we have now. This is all such valuable knowledge, and even beyond that, I’ve met someone so cool each time we get delayed and have to spend more time in a place than we would have normally. Ric and Seemi in Nashville, Sandra in Oxford, the guys at Gale Welding in North Carolina, Arin from Jiffy Lube and Justin my Uber driver in Maryland. We wouldn’t have had any of the experiences we’ve had thus far on the road had it not been for the car troubles that set us just in the right places at the right time.
Last night we made our way into Connecticut and met with Lionel Ketchian, founder of an international organization called the Happiness Club, and more importantly, a man who has been happy for the last 26 years. Talking with Lionel was like talking with an old friend, and he had such brilliant thoughts on happiness.
For Lionel, happiness is everything. Happiness is the most important thing in the world. Happiness is love. Happiness is power. Happiness is focus. Happiness is the only way to truly have control in your life, and it comes by letting go of control. While there are so many things that could be said about our talk with Lionel, the one I’d like to share here is a sentiment regarding free will. We all have free will, and can choose the way we act in the world. To be happy is to exercise free will, because we make that decision to remove ourselves from the cause and effect chain that we are all raised in.
Through unhappiness, we find ourselves reacting to what happens around us. Something happens, we react. Cause, effect. By choosing to recognize that we have no control over the things that happen around and to us, we can break the chain. We no longer are stuck in this perpetual system of operating under the impression that the world and events around us must dictate our emotions. As Lionel put it, only when we choose to be happy to we actually have free will.
Before we make that decision to approach the world and come from a place of love, peace, and happiness, we are reacting. When we make this decision to live a life of gratitude and happiness, we separate ourselves from reaction, and get to see the world through a whole new light.
He brought up the Aristotelian perspective that everything is a means to an end, except happiness, which is an end in itself.
I loved this sentiment, and it just made me think that happiness is an end from which we must all begin. We have to come from this place of happiness within ourselves. It isn’t out there somewhere at some final destination where we’ll arrive at some point, and we have the ability to access it, we just need to have the tools to make it happen.
I think I really needed that reminder, because I was creating more problems for myself by letting some things get me down on this trip, and like Lionel said, when we let a problem make us unhappy, we now have two problems. We have the original problem, and we have the unhappiness, and both need to be dealt with. By remaining calm, cool, collected when a problem arises, I get to keep on being me, and I can solve my issue much more effectively.
What’s the point in letting things I can’t control take away my happiness? I shouldn’t let that bring me down or make me feel shitty about myself, because love is what I’ve got, and I need to make sure I continue to hold that for myself.