by Brian Tomasik
Written: fall 2004

This is the essay that I used with the Common Application when applying to colleges. Comments from me in 2017 are in footnotes.

When I first found a small glass jar in the back corner of my grandmother’s kitchen counter more than four years ago, I never expected that it would change the way I look at the world. Yet, it undoubtedly did.a The jar was filled to its brim with octagonal labels that had been taken from Salada tea bags; on the back of each was an anonymous, one-sentence quotation. I looked through the labels casually—glancing at each quote for a few seconds before dropping it back into the jar—until I came across one that has stuck in my memory ever since: “The secret to happiness lies not in doing what one likes but in liking what one has to do.” I held the quotation between my fingers for quite some time before I finally returned it to its container.

That evening, I started a worksheet on the battles of the American Revolutionary War that was due the next day. However, I had barely gotten through the Battle of Bunker Hill before I found myself unable to continue: the tedious descriptions of generals, strategies, battle sites, and dates all seemed so meaningless. But then I thought back to the tea-bag label I had found earlier that day, and I decided that if I couldn’t change the assignment, I could at least change my attitude toward it. After all, what logical purpose is there for allowing oneself to be irritated by something that has to be done anyway? Why not instead endeavor to make the assignment enjoyable, whether by regarding it as an exciting challenge or by viewing it as rewarding accomplishment or simply by remembering that there is no reason that it should not be fun? The surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga did not suddenly become fascinating after these realizations, but I at least made it through the assignment without quite so much resistance.

Since that day, the idea expressed in the tea-bag quotation has come back to me again and again. Whether I am vacuuming my room, waiting in the dentist’s office, or riding in the car for hours on end, I try to view the situation from a rational perspective. Why should I be aggravated by something that I cannot change? Why should I fill these moments with feelings of impatience and agitation when I could instead tolerate the circumstances and adjust my emotions around them? Why not make good use of the time to solve an intriguing puzzle or to meditate upon a complex issue? Why not contemplate how marvelous it is that I am alive, that nothing more than an intricate combination of atoms has the capacity to cognize its own existence? Or why not simply use the time to relax?

This logic is not always successful. There are many times when the soundness of reason makes no more than a small dent in our habitual attitudes. And there are many instances in which we should not try to change our emotional state. After a great emotional loss, for example, it is healthier to ride the course of anger and sorrow than it is to suppress feelings of despair and distress.b

Furthermore, there are many times when annoying situations are avoidable, when difficult tasks are unnecessary, or when troubling problems can be addressed. By no means should we contentedly tolerate the destruction of old-growth forests, the pollution of our air by inefficient vehicles, or the preventable annual loss of millions of lives to hunger, malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS. To the contrary, we should strive to convert our outrage and concern over the world’s most pressing problems into motivation and determination to advance effective and foresighted solutions. One should never try to make the best of a bad situation when the situation itself can be changed; one should never invoke the doctrine of accepting one’s misfortune as a justification for political inactivity. Rather, it is only the inconsequential annoyances of everyday life that one should dismiss; it is only those truly necessary obligations that one should pursue.

Life is as enjoyable and as meaningful as we choose to find it. Yet we only have a short time in which to experience it before it disappears forever. We can decide to spend our precious moments in a state of anger, bitterness, and aggravation, or we can decide to find pleasure, wonder, and purpose in what we do. Life gives us only one chance; we must make that decision wisely.

  1. This was a bit of an exaggeration for the purpose of storytelling. In reality, I remembered the quotation, but I doubt that it, by itself, had an enormous impact on my worldview that wouldn't have occurred otherwise.  (back)
  2. This may be conventional wisdom, but I'm uncertain to what extent it's true. I think ignoring negative emotions can often be a very successful strategy. Riding the course of anger or sorrow is like letting a fire burn until combustible material is used up, while ignoring such feelings can be like preventing the fire from spreading in the first place.  (back)