In 1913, as world anxiety mounted with the rising international tensions that were to explode into the Great War, a children’s book was published, and so seized the public imagination that a million copies soon sold and social clubs dedicated to practicing the book’s simple teaching sprang up. The human heart, confronted by darkness on so vast a scale, turned yearningly within to find the peace so quickly vanishing from human society. The book was Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna, and its beautifully simple teaching was that there is always a cause for rejoicing—for gladness—no matter what challenges life brings.
My own mother was born during that cataclysmic war and reached Pollyanna’s own age at the time of the great Wall Street crash of 1929. Her father, a Chicago banker, lost both bank and livelihood. The family withdrew to a simple cottage in Michigan while the father tramped the city streets trying to make a fresh start. At a time when so many were giving in to despair, my mother made a decision—one from which she never withdrew for the rest of her long life—simply to be happy. Her last four years she lived in a room of the Ananda school’s girls’ dorm, bedridden and in pain but endlessly grateful for her life, rejoicing in her good fortune: “This is the life of Riley,” she would say: “Breakfast in bed—what could be better!” A steady stream of kind souls came to visit, drawn by her loving, good-humored magnetism. To each one she would say, and mean it, “Glad to see you.” And if someone specially touched her heart, she would say, “Glad to know you.” Often she would think of someone, prop herself up in bed and pore over the Ananda phone list with her enormous magnifying glass until she found the name, then call that person up simply to say, “I was thinking of you.” Later it would come out that her call had come at a time the person badly needed encouragement and comfort—and that just hearing her scratchy voice, so glad to be speaking to her friend, brought light and cheer and new courage for the future. “Make me a Smile Millionaire,” Master wrote, “that I may scatter Thy smile in sad hearts freely, everywhere!”
Our Master so often encourages us to be Smile Millionaires, to be joyful in ourselves, and from that inner center to share our joy with all mankind. Pollyanna would have understood Yoganandaji’s teachings with the loving intuition of her heart. Confronted at an early age with deprivation and loss—poverty, her mother’s death, and then her father’s—Pollyanna has already deeply absorbed her father’s loving guidance: to find always in whatever comes a cause for gladness. What her father calls the “just being glad” game begins when Pollyanna, hoping for a doll from the Ladies Aid barrel, is given instead a pair of child-size crutches, for no doll is available. How to be glad? “Just be glad,” her father speaks with great kindness, “because you don’t need ‘em.”
Pollyanna’s education in gladness enters a new dimension when she is taken in by her Aunt Polly, not from love but because Aunt Polly, with her rigid Victorian morality, “knows her duty.” Grim, repressed, and unwelcoming, she plants Pollyanna in a tiny attic room, bare and comfortless, lit by a single window. Pulling herself out of her initial disappointment, Pollyanna focuses on the window. Looking out with an open heart, she feels only gratitude at being given such a beautiful view—to her more beautiful than any picture that might have been on her bare walls. Even when Aunt Polly, to punish the child for letting flies in, orders her to read an admonitory pamphlet about flies, the irrepressible Pollyanna pours out heartfelt thanks for being given something so interesting to read: “I didn’t suppose flies could carry such a lot of things on their feet.”
Her gratitude overwhelms Aunt Polly’s sternness; all her efforts to quash this bright spirit only feed the great ocean of joy within her. For Pollyanna, so deeply immersed in her game that gladness has become her natural state, sees through any surface gruffness in others only their potential for happiness, held down perhaps but simply waiting to be released.
And so she goes about her new home and new town with her own mission—not defined in words but simply the natural outpouring of her innocent, loving heart. Whomever she meets, she at once befriends, and, with the intuitive perception of a pure heart, reaches out to share her joy. Her loving heart searches out the secret sorrow in each one, and keeps on searching till she finds also the way to heal that sorrow.
The town minister, deeply distressed at the pettiness, backbiting and little jealousies that are fracturing his congregation, is sitting alone under a tree, contemplating excoriating his flock with Jesus’ great denunciation—“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”—seeing no other way to shock them out of their downward spiral of negativity. Suddenly he becomes aware of a bright presence—Pollyanna, her eyes luminous with sympathy for the suffering she sees. With innocent candor, she tells him of her own father, a missionary minister who often wore the same look of sadness she sees now. When she would ask why, her father would answer that all that kept him serving as a minister were the “rejoicing texts”—that in a time of special doubt of his calling, when he was poor and sick and worried and grieving the loss of his wife, he had felt guided to read the Bible in its entirety, and that in doing so he had found some eight hundred texts that urged the faithful to rejoice and be glad. The minister under the tree hears divine guidance in Pollyanna’s words, takes new heart, tears up his excoriating sermon and determines to lead henceforth by pouring energy into the good that lies within every soul: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, ye righteous, and shout for joy all ye that are upright in heart.”
Pollyanna’s greatest test comes when she herself is struck down, her legs paralyzed, suddenly unable to summon the gladness that has buoyed her spirits so long. It is in this time, when she has lost the mobility that has allowed her to fly from person to person spreading light, that God’s grace flows most strongly into her life. Everyone in her little town has been touched, often transformed, by her joyful enthusiasm and kindness. One by one these grateful ones come to see her lying in bed, and each one offers to her the very reason for gladness that she had so compassionately offered to him. The town doctor, crushed and despairing at the suffering he sees every day, has learned from Pollyanna to find gladness that he is helping the sufferers. An old woman, permanently bedridden, has learned to rejoice that her hands still work, and to use them with loving delight to knit bright colors for others and for her own room, so that what has before been a dark and gloomy sickroom is now a sparkling rainbow of bright colors, welcoming and healing to everyone who enters.
Pollyanna, her heart healed by the gratitude of those she has inspired, finds gladness in the good her legs have allowed her to do while they worked—and, in the end, when a special therapy is found and physical healing begins, glad to have lost the use of her legs for the joy of having them work again. “Thank You, God, for our gladness.”
“All the world is my friend
When I learn how to share my love—“
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing