22 July 2011

On Happiness

One of the characters in Denys Arcand’s 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire suggests that one sign of the decline of an empire can be observed in the increasing focus on the pursuit of personal happiness evident in the general population. In the film, that happiness occurs for both the men in sexual activity, marital and extramarital, in partaking of fine foods and wine, and physical exercise and attention to body image. These are intellectuals bored by their students, fairly inactive in the production of new knowledge, and self-absorbed in their quest for a happiness that seems to equate to some sensual pleasure. They are never truly happy unless they are engaged in sensory and/or carnal activity.
It is a cliché that many of us want for our children to be happy even more than we desire happiness for ourselves, and I am fairly certain that I can define what it is I want for my children. When I say I want them to be happy, I refer to an attainment of some degree of personal happiness. And it is for this quest for happiness that I hope I have prepared them. But I wonder what I expect them to be like when they are happy! I think I believe that I am a member of that community of questers who cling irrationally to the reality of the golden ring despite actually having early learned along with Holden Caulfield, that you can’t prevent anyone from falling off the carousel horse when they reach for that ring. I think I teach this conflicted vision. If the meaning of that golden ring seems to be defined by a notion of material happiness—when you catch that prize-ring you receive some physical reward, then Holden acknowledges that you can’t stop anyone from reaching for that ring even at the risk of falling and getting hurt, sometimes seriously. Finally, Holden accepts that he can’t be the catcher in the rye preventing innocent children from falling off the cliff into adulthood, the latter characterized by phoniness, and ipso facto, unhappiness. His hope for Phoebe appears hopeless. Thoreau realized happiness despite what he termed the meanness of his life. I think he didn’t even believe in golden rings.
I think about happiness often myself, and I wonder of what it might consist. It cannot be a constant state or else it would be unrecognizable; I know happiness in part by its absence, and it strikes me that happiness is not a state in which I would permanently reside but rather one to which I aspire to realize. It is the process of my activity and not its product. Happiness is what I seek, but once attained it soon vanishes; the carousel continues on and I reach for the next brass ring. If I refrain from grasping, then I have to enjoy the ride itself. The rabbis say that I need not finish the task but I am not permitted to forgo it. And the question becomes: what is the task? What else might I do on the carousel but reach for the golden ring? If it were merely the attainment of the golden ring then the carousel ride ought to cease when I reach it, but the carousel continues on. If the ring is so easily acquired, then it lacks value. Clearly, the task ought to be interminable if the Rabbis agree I am not obligated to finish it. And if the achievement of the golden ring is the ultimate pursuit of happiness, then do I feel justified to do whatever is necessary to attain it?  Perhaps it is this privilege that suggests the decline of the empire. There is no question that for the past century and more America has aspired to empire. And reading the newspapers I can see that we are certainly in decline!
But finally, I think, to live by such a philosophy of pleasure seeking seems to stand in a contemporarily blind epicureanism. If the epicureans believed that the soul will be fulfilled by indulging the body, then today our pleasures are bodily sought in the absence of concern for our souls.
But if the task to which I aspire is something else, then I wonder what it might exactly be. Would it be the pursuit of the opposite of happiness, in which case we seek misery? But that would be too depressing to consider. What about a stoicism, a tolerant immunity to all emotions? Thus, I seek to avoid happiness and sadness, joy and grief. I would seek a certain balance, but I can’t imagine what that might feel like: not a numbness but a certain detachment that might appear to be a form of deadness. It seems to me that the energy required to maintain such emotional composure would entail an enormous output of energy better used for engaging in life. I personally prefer to leak.
If the pursuit of happiness is a sign of decline, then I suppose to attain it would be a form of defilement. Instead,  I prefer to consider that happiness occurs in the pursuit of something and not in its attainment, in which case I am happy when I am active even though not only do I never actually acquire the golden ring, but I often fall off the horse in my attempt to reach it. I hurt myself. Usually, I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again. When I am lucky. Perhaps I realize happiness only in what I do and not what I attain. Happiness is the pursuit and not the accomplishment, the latter merely a by-product of the former and only ephemerally, briefly rewarding and disappointingly forever gone.
I am always suspicious of people who tell me ‘they are great,’ and ‘things couldn’t be better.’ This never accords with my understanding of the world. There is a certain blindness to which I ascribe this stance. Just reading the daily news ought to darken their spirits: things are certainly breaking up out there, and to assert such exuberance seems rather self-absorbedly blind. And I am also suspicious of those who have ceased to struggle and who pursue with quiet desperation their daily lives. The sequel to The Decline of the American Empire was the 2003 film, The Barbarian Invasions. This time the same group of friends gather to say good-bye to their dying friend. It is a touching farewell, not least because they each have come to understand the futility of their quest for happiness, and realize now how they lack the energy to redirect their lives. I think they live lives of quiet desperation.  The state of the world saddens me, but I am happy when I am engaged in its repair, though the work is difficult, never-ending, and even sometimes sordid. I need not complete the task, but neither am I permitted to forgo it. I am happy for that.


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