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.”