Friday, August 28, 2009

Seeking Happiness - Engaging in Life

I have been thinking about my father when he was in his 50s like me, wondering how much I resemble him and whether my struggles with abandoned dreams and self doubt parallel his. Then I read a friend’s blog about her craptacular year so I was in a receptive mood for an essay by Tim Kreider about humanity’s elusive search for happiness.

He questions what we are really looking for. “Maybe we mistakenly think we want ‘happiness,’ which we tend to picture in very vague, soft-focus terms, when what we really crave is the harder-edged intensity of experience.” Certainly some of my clearest memories are not of “happy” moments. I wasn’t happy as I confronted complications following major surgery, but I was certainly fully alive.

And I’m fully alive when I’m on holidays in a foreign country. Everything is new and unfamiliar; I can’t take anything for granted. Whether it’s sitting quietly watching pelicans flying low over the toppling waves in Nicaragua or getting lost in the sun-baked, cobblestone passages of Albaicin (Granada, Spain), the scene is carved in my memory because I was present in the moment. Happiness – in retrospect.

As Tim Kreider says, “Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that chasing it is such a fool’s errand, is that happiness isn’t a goal in itself but is only an aftereffect. It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to — by which I don’t mean ethically correctly so much as just consciously, fully engaged in the business of living. In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomena familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the ‘real’ stars, those cataclysms taking place in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.”

1 comment:

John B. said...

As you say one is happy only in retrospect. Looking back on such times gives though one a guide to present conduct. For me humdrum times with my wife are what I remember. As a child my happy times were very ordinary.

You recall though in Goethe's Faust the pact with Mephistopheles - only when Faust said, "Bleibst du ewig schoenste Augenblick" would his bond fall due and Faust be taken to eternal damnation. Translated - I am just showing off my German - " Stay for ever most beautiful moment".

Faust saw all the pleasures of the world but it was eventually after many years of doing good and seeing the prosperity and happiness of those around him that he said the fatal words.

One great source of happiness is indeed making others happy. Several years ago in London I picked up a season ticket on a crowded platform at Piccadilly Circus Underground. It bore the photo of a Chinese woman. As I made my way up there was a commotion. A Chinese woman was making her way back and it was the ticket ticket holder. I held up the ticket. She could have kissed me but shook my hand with a work-worn hand. A little thing for me to do but a lot for her.

As one ages one's horizons draw in. The possibilities become fewer. I went to the Barrier Reef and dearly wanted to do SCUBA diving but it was not for me. For your father his children and their achievements made up for many of his own shrinking horizons.

As of often said money does not bring happiness but the absence of money brings unhappiness. Like air. One needs enough. There is something to be said for being miserable in comfort. It is disagreeable to see all one's friends prosperous and oneself poor. It is no pleasure either to see one's friends poor.

The New Testament says little about sex but a lot about money. The Church tends to get it the other way round.

The conclusion is simple. As Voltaire suggested, let us cultivate our garden.