Author Interview: Ginny Sassaman

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Lynette Latzko is talking with Ginny Sassaman, author of Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World.

FQ: Global change to make our world a better place won’t magically happen overnight. What kind of quick and simple things can a person do to not only increase their own happiness, but encourage others to act the same way too?

SASSAMAN: I would recommend four immediate steps:

First, begin a meditation practice. That is not only one of the very best things to do for your own happiness and health, but it is also a great way to grow more mindful, not only of our thoughts but also more mindful of the good and bad in the world. Meditation also increases compassion, and that feeds a desire to help.. From that mindfulness and compassion, each of us can begin to find the way/was that we can contribute to making it a better world.

Second, become more aware of, and perhaps ramp up, your acts of kindness. This is such a great strategy, because kindness generally makes the giver feel really good, too. Since being generous and helping others feels good, being mindful of that fact can lead us to want to be an even more kind person.

Third, practice gratitude. With a deep understanding of gratitude comes the knowledge that each of us is dependent on, and receives constant gifts and benefits from so many others (including the many wonders of nature), without whom our lives would be poorer. This knowledge can in turn feed a greater desire to help.

Four, build and/or nurture your community. It is important to understand that while each of us can make a difference, none of us can make the world a better place alone. We need to act in community -- another reason relations matter so much.

Finally, I would caution everyone to be gentle on themselves and start slowly. The world can be overwhelming. Taking baby steps is the best way to start.

FQ: At the end of your sermons you write "may it be so." What is the meaning behind this phrase?

SASSAMAN: Because I am a lay preacher and never went to seminary, I learned how to write and deliver sermons by watching the ministers in my own church. They periodically used the phrase, "may it be so." I decided I really liked it, because, whether I am talking about changing the overarching economic and policy making paradigm or being a kinder person, I truly want that to be manifested. I really mean it when I say, "may it be so."

FQ: When first picking up your book, some people may react negatively to the word "sermon" and don't want to be "preached to, especially if they believe your message has any religious connotations. How would you encourage them to read your book?

SASSAMAN: That is so true! One friend asked me to please not use the words preaching or sermon in the title. The publisher and I struggled with this. The downside of using these words in the title is clear. However, the fact that these are sermons is also one way this book is different from so many other happiness books on the market. And, that is, of course, what they are. Still, whenever I get a chance to speak about the book, I make very clear that there is no religious dogma and that no matter anyone's particular faith -- or lack thereof -- this book can still be meaningful to them. It is an ongoing conversation! So thanks for asking this particular question.

FQ: How did you determine which sermons to include in this book?

SASSAMAN: These are all the sermons I have delivered thus far at the Barnard Church. Because they were delivered to the same group of people over time, I knew that they were only minimally repetitive (my editor and I still had to weed out some repetitive material).

Author Ginny Sassaman
Author Ginny Sassaman

FQ: Do you have a favorite sermon?

SASSAMAN: I have several favorites, but probably my favorite favorite is kindness. I don't think people realize how important kindness actually is, how it is the glue that has held us together, and how it isn't always available to people. I think people expect the kindness sermon to be a little bit lightweight, and are surprised when it isn't. I like a sermon that touches a lot of different emotions, and also contains surprises.

FQ: How do you get past the naysayers who think talking about being happy is ridiculous or that there are far more important issues to tackle?

SASSAMAN: That is another super question, because yes, people often think happiness is selfish and not at all where we should put our time and energy. I generally tackle this question head on. Nobody who knows me personally would ever question my commitment to working hard on big issues, like combating systemic racism and climate change. I point out that happiness is really about being at our best, thriving, flourishing -- and that we really need to be at our best to tackle the hard work effectively. That is the whole essence of the sermon on happiness and activism. I definitely believe we might as well do our best personally to be happy too, since as far as we know, we only live once, so why shouldn't it be our happiest possible life? At the same time, I think that whatever work we do in the world, we can be better at it when we understand and cultivate our personal happiness. I am not in this work to convince other people to be happier in a selfish way (though, that's not a bad goal). I am in this work to convince people that cultivating their happiness can be a great gift to the whole entire planet. It is of bedrock importance for all the other issues.

FQ: What are some of the positives or negatives you came across while transitioning from writing sermons to becoming an author of a book?

SASSAMAN: The experience was by and large quite positive. I was a little surprised at how much editing was needed to make the sermons a better read. Also, when delivering a sermon, I always give credit to the author of a quote, or the researcher, etc. But when it's oral, I don't need end notes! Going back and finding the sources for a lot of this material and then creating the end notes was A LOT of work. Happily for me, my husband Bob and editor Amabel both helped.

FQ: Do you have any writing projects that readers can look forward to in the future?

SASSAMAN: Happiness is my calling, my life's work. I do have another happiness book in mind, one that is not sermons, so I can better reach those who would never buy my Preaching Happiness book. And I am also starting work on a memoir. The central question of the memoir is, how did I get so lucky to have happiness as my work? I admire so so much everyone in the trenches doing life's hard work, whether it's a farmer or a nurse or a plumber, etc. There are so many really important jobs that are such hard work. And here I am, writing and teaching about happiness. So I am curious to explore how and why I got here. I also work partt-ime as a writer for causes. Right now, I am a fundraising writer for the homeless shelter in my part of Vermont. This work is not for public consumption, but it is an example of my ongoing desire to help others.

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