Long ago, Deborah Duda believed death had to be grim. It had to be a sad time in the life of survivors, she thought.
“Nobody is happy when somebody they love is dying,” she said.
Then, she spent time with families facing terminal illness. It was then Duda discovered not all was despair. Some, in fact, expressed the opposite.
“What I found was a surprising amount of joy. That got me really curious. What is this joy stuff? What’s the difference between joy and happiness,” she said.
And what’s the deal with those who always seem to be down, she wondered. Why don’t they change their ways and have a happy heart?
Too many people, Duda said, struggle through life.
“They just sort of give in and the sparkle goes out,” she said. “They’re surviving.”
Seeking the answers to her questions took Duda on what she called a 30-year investigation.
“As a joy detective, it became real clear early on there’s an elephant in the room,” she said. “There’s this suffering habit.”
The result is her newest book, recently published, “Lighten Up: Seven Ways to Kick the Suffering Habit.”
Duda refers to it as a “practical guide to increasing the joy in our daily lives by healing the suffering habit.”
Lighten Up exposes the severity of the suffering habit and shares practical, and often fun, options for changing limiting ideas and behaviors “so we can live more light-heartedly,” she said.
She notes that the Dalai Lama said “Joy is the purpose of life,”
Candice Pert, Ph.D., after 30 years of research as a Georgetown University School of Medicine research professor and a National Institute for Mental Health section chief, said: “We are hardwired for bliss, both physical and divine.”
The Kalaheo woman believes they are right.
The people who walk lightheartedly, she said, have the greatest impact on others.
“There’s joy in living and knowing that love is the most important thing in the world,” she said.
She wants people to ask of themselves, “When was the last time I felt joyful?”
If the answer is not today, open her book, she says, and start reading.
The book is based on Duda’s experiences, the people she has met, what she has learned, what they have shared.
“Not everyone is going to think suffering is the worst addiction in the world, but I do,” she said. “It just takes the joy out of life.”
Lighten Up is not a book for sissies, she adds. Change takes courage.
“I don’t care if anybody agrees with me. But I do care if people have choices,” she said. “If you want to be sad, that’s OK by me. I just want you to know you have options.”
“So that’s why I write.”
Duda traveled far and often in life.
Her father was a military attaché to the U.S. Embassy in London after World War II, and she was raised in a small town in Surrey, England. In her 20s, after sailing the Mediterranean for five years, she was admitted to the U.S. Foreign Service.
Duda’s first assignment was to a White House Task Force, answering President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s mail from parents who lost in the Vietnam War. Then, after serving as assistant protocol aide to an Ambassador’s, she was sent to Chile, as Vice Consul and Cultural attaché.
While living in Chile she traveled South America, frequently visiting isolated indigenous villages.
“There she was often in awe of people who lived simply with very few possession and were consistently joyful,” a press release said. “The faces of dirty-faced children joyfully playing in the street with a homemade top or doll touched a core longing in herself.”
Very uncomfortable with U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam in the 1960s and Chile in the early 1970s, Duda resigned from the Foreign Service. She moved to Paris, joined a leader of the Brazilian exiles, and edited his expose of the use of torture in Brazil.
Discouraged by the inability of politicians and intellectuals to create peace in the world, she moved to a San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There she began what she called an inner, spiritual journey, studying alternative healing and metaphysics. To make a living, Deborah designed, manufactured, and sold high-fashion suede clothing to Bendel’s and Bloomingdales.
At 33, she decided to fulfill a childhood vow and take a trip around the world. After living for a time in a Nepalese village in the Himalayas, she had a dream about Mother Teresa.
She traveled to Calcutta and met Mother Teresa. Inspired, she earned a master’s in psychology from Goddard College and to become a counselor with the terminally ill.
Mentored by Mother Teresa and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, she wrote a book, “Coming Home, a Guide to Dying at Home with Dignity.”
Search for joy
Before spending time with families facing terminal illness, Duda thought death and dying was mostly about sadness and suffering. Instead, she found a surprising amount of joy. She remembered the joy of poor children she’d met in her travels, and made a promise to herself and to god to learn more about joy and why most of humankind doesn’t feel it more often.
Throughout her journey, Duda found not only joy but also discovered what she calls, “the least recognized, most widespread, most pernicious addiction of our time – suffering.”
“Most of humanity believes suffering is inevitable. While feeling emotional pain is unavoidable as we make peace with the often-profound changes in our lives, suffering — pain prolonged — is optional,” Duda said.
Happiness, she said, is temporary. It’s more about liking the way things in life are going right now. But change, she notes, is inevitable. It’s then happiness can slip away.
“Those happy moments can be gone in a second,” she said.
Joy, though, is “something much deeper,” Duda said. It is finding gratitude in today, not worrying about the past, fretting about the future.
“Joy is a sense of wholeness, completeness when we touch into something a lot bigger than ourselves,” she said. “For a lot of people in their daily lives, joy seems elusive.”
This world, she said, bombards people with daily doses of bad news — war, abuse, death and destruction. The movies people see and the TV shows they watch are often marked by violence and pain. Tragedy is a popular theme.
Even listening to music can be a downer, as the lyrics tell of lost love and broken hearts.
“Country western songs are particularly rich,” Duda said, smiling.
It’s not like people want to suffer, she said, but they do. People are addicted to drugs, alcohol and work. There is a constant sadness and depression, a lack of spark, much mopping around.
“It’s a quiet, not every clear, cry for help,” she said.
Duda does what she can. She is hospice co-founder, Spanish teacher, coordinator for a FEMA mental health recovery project, and facilitated support groups for prisoners in New Mexico and Kauai.
She initiated and coordinates a volunteer grassroots initiative, “Kauai Share The Care,” to help families care for loved ones at home without burning out.
Duda believes religion hasn’t been overly helpful.
“Religions have done a lot to muck up joy, and muck up being joyful and happy,” she said. “I’ve got some gripes with that.”
Faith, though, is trust in the unseen, she said. It’s knowing you’re going to be OK, that life is working out, even if you can’t see it now.
“That is setting your intent to live within the now and be a happier person,” she said.
Feeling good is our natural state. We just have to find it by shedding some long-held beliefs, she said.
“To me, it’s like uncovering what’s already there. And what’s already there are a whole lot of limiting beliefs” passed down through generations, Duda said.
Until people know of options, they’ll struggle. That’s where Lighten Up comes in.
In a way, the book is simply about remembering what we know, about recalling the youthful joy we once had, she said.
“We had it when we were little. We used to be happy. Really joyful at the drop of a hat, playing at the lake, jumping into the truck, the swing, swinging off a rope.
“How do we get back there?
It’s a long process, but we can find our way, Duda said.
The most important gift someone can give to their families, their community, she said, is to be a person who is content and shares their delight in life.
Oh, and don’t give up.
When you fall down, and you will, Duda offers this advice:
“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get going again.”
It’s those people, she said, who will find joy in life’s moments.
“You don’t know how many more moments you have,” she said.
Duda will be signing copies of her book from 6-8 p.m. Sept. 20 at Talk Story Bookstore in Hanapepe.
Lighten Up is available on Amazon in print and eBook, on Kindle.