Choosing a Good Life: A Lesson from People Who Have Found Their Place in the World
By Ali Berman
One of the things I found most fascinating about Sungrai came out during a conversation we had about worrying. I’m talking about the kind of worry that keeps a person up at night, the kind that rules their thoughts and emotions and makes it impossible to focus on anything else— a sensation I’m fluent in. You’d think a man like Sungrai who is constantly waiting for the phone to ring, whose illness could take a serious nosedive any day, would always be on edge, overcome with anxiety. He’s exactly the opposite. He sleeps soundly. He said his head hits the pillow and that’s that until morning. He’s able to accomplish this remarkable feat because this magical man doesn’t feel worry the same way that I do. And his solution to the worry problem is also how he’s been able to live with no regrets.
Sungrai said he received some of the best advice in his life when he was studying at Sarah Lawrence with his mentor Dorothy De-Lay. “She said, ‘A lot of people worry so much. Before the concert they worry. After the concert they worry.’ And she said, ‘But that didn’t help anybody. Why worry? Instead of wasting time worrying, do something about it.’ And I took that into my heart. So instead of worrying about it, I just go ahead and do things. If I have to learn something, I go ahead and learn it instead of worrying about it. So she really helped me in a professional way, and that really got into a lot of other things, life in general.”
Sungrai’s advice is among the best I heard during the interviews I did for this book. If he thinks he may be able to effect change in a given situation, he works as hard as possible, giving it his all, to influence the outcome. At that point, even if he fails, he knows that he has done his best. He believes that if one always works as hard as they can, there is no room for regret in a life. I like to think of it this way: If I have a test coming up and study a moderate amount but know I could have worked harder, I might get a C, but I’d feel like I could have earned a higher grade. However, if I study for a test and fully dedicate myself to learning the material, giving it my very best effort, and still get that C, well, that’s a different feeling. At that point, someone with Sungrai’s outlook on life would probably shrug and say something to the effect of, “Well, I tried my best. No regrets. No worries.” For a man like Sungrai, with chronic health problems, being able to set aside worries goes far in safeguarding his health.
People who live a good life aren’t immune to the normal ups and downs. They still feel the full spectrum of human emotions. Unlike me (and maybe you), they don’t dwell in their negative emotions. If something bad happens, people like Sungrai are able to rebound
faster than the typical person.
Most would say that Sungrai has the right to be sad, depressed, angry, or any combination thereof after spending so many years fighting for his life. He doesn’t seem to be any of those things. When I asked him how he handled getting disappointing news, he told me, “I think I’m generally a happy person because I don’t get depressed really. I thought I was depressed a few days ago, because why aren’t they calling me for surgery? Time is up. Come on, let’s do it. And then I thought, Am I hoping someone will die? And then I felt really bad. That took about five minutes of depression I guess and then I started getting busy again so I forgot everything.”
What Sungrai is describing is something called the “Hedonic treadmill,” the idea that good and bad life events might impact our emotional state for a period of time, but that we will always return to our baseline. Sungrai felt momentarily upset that his phone had not yet rung. Why wasn’t it his turn? Hadn’t he waited patiently long enough? He then realized that his desire for a new liver to save his life was directly linked to the death of another person. And this made him feel even worse. Not only had he not received a donated liver; he was, in some ways, hoping for another person to die so that he could live. That insight was enough to make him feel, as he said, “really bad.” How long did it last? Five minutes. Then, Sungrai’s negative emotions bounced back up to his normal level of happiness. As he said, he got “busy again.” He didn’t— and doesn’t— dwell on what he can’t control. No navel gazing. He’s far too busy to sit wondering or worrying.
It’s not as if someone dented his car or he stubbed his toe, small life events that would momentarily disrupt his emotional state. The man is waiting for a liver. His own liver is failing. His continued life is directly dependent on the death of another human being. If he stayed in bed for a week listening to sad music with a pint of ice cream in his hand, I don’t think anyone would judge him. But that’s simply not how his mind reacts to negative stimuli. Sungrai instinctively chooses to think of all the positives in his life rather than indulge in the difficulties. Focusing on the good things leaves him feeling exceptionally grateful, an emotion that helps him appreciate what he has rather than lamenting what he doesn’t have.
At the dinner table before we started eating, Patricia asked if we were religious. Gary and I responded no, but said that we have no problem with a prayer. She thought about it and told us that she’s not necessarily praying to God. It’s more the act of saying out loud all the
things that she is grateful for that she finds so important.
Sungrai was much the same. When we spoke, he kept talking about all the people in his life who have helped get him to where he is today. His parents who he loved dearly. His wife who accompanies him to work each day just in case the phone happens to ring and they
need to get to the hospital. The doctors and caregivers in his life who have helped him survive. His brother- in- law who donated a lobe of his liver. Sungrai is surrounded by goodness in the people he chooses to have in his life.
One of the hardest parts of practicing gratitude or getting up to do something new is that our negative emotions can at times feel like a cage with no exit. That can even be true when we know what tools would make us feel better. The important thing to remember is that getting up and forcing ourselves to do something, even when we’d rather stay in bed, is one of the best ways to help us regain our mental equilibrium. It takes discipline and practice. The more we do it, the more firsthand proof we will have that it works, and the next time, we’ll be able to get up faster. For those of us who don’t have Sungrai’s natural abilities to rebound, we have to push ourselves a little bit harder.
On February 28, 2014, I went to visit Sungrai in his office. It was seven months after our interview, and he was still waiting for his phone to ring. He looked wonderful when I saw him, but just two months earlier had spent weeks in the hospital, in pain and unsure of his fate. That’s Sungrai’s reality. He doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring. He only knows that he has to value today, because it truly is precious.
During that lovely chat in his office, he told me something I didn’t know, that his diagnosis was what prompted him to change the way he lived his life. His illness has caused him pain and years of struggle, but it’s also given him an incredible gift. Sungrai has lived more fully than almost anyone I know since he learned he had hepatitis B. He doesn’t put things off until tomorrow. Tomorrow he might be sick or get a call from Mount Sinai. Today matters because that’s where he is right now. Planning for the future is important, but the present is the only place any of us can live our lives. It took a life- threatening chronic illness to help shape Sungrai’s outlook on life. The truth is no one gets a guarantee that they will live to be 100, or that the life they lead now will be the same life they lead tomorrow. Adopting Sungrai’s philosophy— to always do your best, not to worry, to make each day matter, and to never procrastinate— is something I hope we all do. I know it’s already helped me in immeasurable ways.
In Choosing a Good Life, Berman explores what it means to be at peace with ourselves, our choices, and the world around us in all its glorious chaos. She takes us into the lives of people who, despite their vastly different talents, challenges, and interests, have achieved a deep sense of balance in and satisfaction with their lives. Stories include those of Holocaust survivor Emery Jacoby, who rose above anger and bitterness to reaffirm the good in himself and others, along with Sungrai Sohn, a violin prodigy and gifted teacher who lives in the shadow of a potentially fatal illness, and many other inspiring life stories. Berman then pinpoints their common approaches and qualities to reveal how they have found contentment – and how we can too.
With Choosing a Good Life you will have the tools and guidance to accomplish the following:
- Identify what you truly value
- Make use of the pain and trials of life to make you stronger
- Set priorities to find more time and energy for the things that bring you satisfaction