Once upon a time, there was a man who seemed completely despondent, utterly unhappy. And he said to his friend, “I am so unhappy that I could just die.”
“Why are you so unhappy?” asked the friend.
The distressed man replied, “Well, you see, two weeks ago, an elderly uncle of mine, whom I really didn’t know at all, passed away and left me a hundred thousand dollars in his will.”
“Well,” replied the friend, “I’m sorry about your uncle, but a hundred thousand dollars doesn’t sound like something to be so unhappy about.”
“But wait, listen,” the unhappy man went on. “Last week, another elderly uncle of mine (who I’d never even met) passed away—and he left me two hundred thousand dollars.”
“Well then,” the friend replied, “what do you have to complain about ?”
“Well,” the sad man replied, “this week, so far, nothing.”
Happiness-- or unhappiness-- is sometimes, is just matter of perspective.
“Say that you are happy,” one of the characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot says to the other.
“I am happy,” the other responds dutifully. But then there is a pause, and he stares out vacantly and asks, “What am I to do now, now that I am happy?”
Happiness (in its shallowest form) can be sort of an addictive drug, like eating too many sugary bonbons. There’s that nice sweet taste at first, maybe even the surge of a little sugar fix of energy—then, bam, as quickly as it came, the energy dissipates, and disappears; we’re still hungry; we want more sugar; we need more sweets to fill the void.
I’m afraid that if we focus merely on being happy, or on simply the feeling of being happy, and not on the wider picture of what our lives represent (the deeper meanings inherent in them) then we’re going to be like that sad sack in the story I told at the beginning.
Now, we all have been around this world long enough to know, as my friend Hilda Dube in Vermont used to say, that life is not a bowl of cherries on the table with whipped cream. Sooner or later, there will come a week when the inheritance check won’t arrive, and things will not turn out as we might like.
We cannot hope, any of us, to experience only happiness in this life. To think that we can, of course, is to live a sham, an illusion. To worship at the altar of narrow personal happiness alone—to pursue a sort of shallow, superficial pleasure as the chief deity of our lives—is to worship at the altar of a false god. It is to delude ourselves, and set ourselves up for disillusionment and disappointment.
Yet how incessantly some seem to clamor for that sugar fix! We know that eating the whole bag of gum drops is just going to give us a belly ache (and probably a headache, too) in the end—but how often we do it anyway. As one observer has put it, “We place our happiness in things beyond ourselves, and more often than not, we place our happiness simply in things, more and more things, or in success, or beauty, or popularity…”
We place our faith in all kinds of stuff that can be weighed and measured and somehow verified as (somehow) “real” out there, in the world at large. “The accumulation of capital, of wealth, is the driving motor of our culture,” Bruce Southworth points out. All too often, I’m afraid, it is the driving motor of how we define “happiness” as well. Why is it that the picture we have inside of our heads of the “good life” is always defined in material terms alone? Especially when we tell ourselves as well, as we do, that “Money can’t buy happiness” and we know darn well that human experience is absolutely full of examples of people who had more money than God (as the expression goes) but who were absolutely miserable, and profoundly unhappy.
The chief problem, I think, is that we see the source of our happiness as something beyond ourselves, something outside of ourselves. If only we get that new car, that bigger house, that long-awaited promotion— then—then—we’ll be happy. Then, we tell ourselves, we will have arrived at that place where we want to be. Then, we will be happy at last. Then, we’ll be able to really start living our lives.
But, as the Buddha taught, clinging to things outside ourselves—clinging to anything, really—brings only suffering, and not happiness. That’s because all things change, and pass away, and any idea of permanence in this world is merely an illusion. When we get that new car, the new house, the big job (or, in this economy, any job) we’ll have a momentary sense of happiness: that surge of pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, accomplishment. But it seldom lasts for long.
Because, very simply, the things that really last, that truly abide, are not those things outside of ourselves, but those that lie within. As Helen Keller put it, “Carry a vision of happiness in your hearts. Make your home and your world conform to that vision. External conditions are the accidents of life, its outer trappings. The great enduring realities of life are love and service. Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow. Resolve to keep happy, and you shall form an invincible host against any difficulties.”
The “deep” part is first of all, striving to know ourselves, as best we are able. We need to know both our strengths and to be honest about our weaknesses. We need to discern within ourselves those gifts of the spirit—our own unique and particular array of talents, insights, and possibilities—with which a joyful life can be built.
Knowing who we are is basic to a deep sense of personal happiness. But in and of itself, it is not enough. We need breadth as well as depth. Just as important as knowing who we are is knowing how we contribute to the world beyond ourselves. The person who constantly dwells only upon himself or herself can find a hundred thousand reasons, at least, to be unhappy. Indeed, I would bet that self-absorption and self-indulgence are at the root of most of the unhappiness we see in our modern world.
But the person who lives for something beyond himself or herself—for country, for faith, for world peace, to feed the hungry, to uphold the rights of the oppressed—can place the petty concerns and anxieties of life in proper perspective. A person who has something to live for is a person who can face tomorrow joyfully and expectantly and without fear.
People who understand how they are repaying their debt to the world radiate a sense of trust and benediction back to the world. They also radiate a profound sense of joy and contentment within themselves, as well. When we give our real selves to something greater than we are, the “real world” outside can grow into harmony with the “real world” inside. And in that sense of balance, joy can be born.
“I do not condemn the pleasures of this world,” the French philosopher Diderot once wrote.
Nor do I. Nor do I suggest that we feed ourselves all our days merely on a thin gruel of severity and abstinence and self-denial. No, the pleasures of this world—the physical pleasures, no less than the spiritual ones-- are gifts of our Creator. They are given to us to experience, and enjoy, and savor.
But—Diderot continued—there’s something more to life than pleasure alone, and he went on:
“I do not condemn the pleasures of this world.
But it seems to be infinitely sweeter
To have helped the unfortunate,
To have given salutary counsel,
To have read an agreeable book,
To take a walk with a man or woman dear to me,
To have given some worthwhile instruction to my children,
To have written a good page,
To have fulfilled the duties of my place…”
True happiness is never an end in itself, but rather a byproduct of our commitment to those things greater than ourselves.
It is when we commit ourselves to the dream of spring in spite of the winter all around us that we feel the joy of spring finally arriving, and that we can feel the happiness of waiting for the spring to arrive.
It is when we commit ourselves to a love of life in spite of its inevitable pain and sadness that we feel the surge of joy when life’s loveliness does break through, and that we can know, too, the happiness of waiting for the loveliness to come.
It is when we commit ourselves to others, especially at those times when it might seem easier to live for ourselves alone, that we will know the joy of love taking root and coming to flower.
True happiness is not about adding up how much we’re getting from life. No, it’s probably sensed more clearly in knowing how much we’re really living our lives, and that often means knowing how much we’re giving to life.
An ancient Chinese poet once wrote:
“The clouds above us join and separate,
The breezes in the courtyard leave and return.
Life is like that, so why not relax?
Who can keep us from celebrating?”
There is much suffering in life, and we will all have our fair share of pain and sorrow. Yet, we human ones were not created in an image of despair. We are made, rather, with all that we need to pursue—and find—the joy that awaits us.
But we do not live these lives we have for ourselves alone. As Anne Sexton reminds us, “The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, dies young.”
Nothing on this Earth compares to the human communion of lives shared. I believe it is the closest we come on Earth to knowing the kingdom of heaven. It is the closest we approach to that illimitable joy, to the heart of love that beats at the very center of all creation.