“The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties, and the fullest realization of the world in which we live.” Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970). The Conquest of Happiness, 7, 1930.
As I was preparing my last post I stopped and circulated among my e-mail friends a request for topics and ideas. Several responded and the topics were quite thought provoking. One of them, from a Canadian friend, Ray, who is a covert polymath and a person for whom I have great respect, suggested happiness – or at least a subject we can do something about. In our contemporary flurry of problems du jour, this sat me up straight. Happiness? Happy?
At first glance writing about this seemed tantamount to asking a fish, “How’s the water?” Everyone’s swimming in it but has to have it brought to their attention by an outsider. A trip to the bookstore supports that, with shelf after shelf of How to be Happy books written by everyone from Charles Manson to the Dalai Lama. Why so many?
Throughout my childhood the most common thing people said to me was, “Cheer up. Don’t look so sad.” After hours of mirror gazing to try to discover what they saw that I didn’t I finally settled on the stock response, “That’s the way my face hangs. Live with it.” And here’s a clue: Porpoises ARE NOT SMILING! Their mouths are shaped in ways humans interpret as smiles. And I doubt they are happy to see you, so get your oily ass out of their water and leave them alone.
But around the same time I discovered that I had a facility with wry humor, apparently in unusual and unexpected ways. Where was this coming from? Was there indeed a deep sadness that could morph reality in ways that others found spontaneously amusing, if disturbing? One of my favorite characters on the Mork & Mindy show was the guy who lived upstairs and stayed totally drunk in order to do his job writing those sappy greeting cards we buy in the stores.
In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide we again see the self styled experts intoning on the dark side behind every happy face, the sense of the tragic underlying what we outsiders see only as humor. But is that true? Is humor, or another manifestation of happiness a compensation for some deep, inner pain? When young I bought into the suffering artist meme, that no great works emerge except from pain. But as I got to know actual artists, visual and literary, I found that not to be true. The woman who shared her life with me for several years had long put sadness behind her. Sure, like me she could get irritated at the sometimes idiocy of daily life. But her greatest distress, when there was any, was during times when that daily life impinged on her desire to paint. So, she painted. Was she running from reality? Was she just blissfully unaware? Absolutely not. She could, without a wasted word, perform micro-surgery on the prattle of small minds and the pomposity of big ones. But therein lay the secret; because she could did not mean she would. Avoiding nothing, she took in everything – and put it in its proper place. With an unerring sense of what, for her, was actionable and what was not, she disarmed and resolved problems appropriately, letting other dust settle elsewhere. Newly minted martial arts enthusiasts often walk about tensed and ready for action, exhausting themselves on nothing by the end of the day. She, by contrast, was open and relaxed, rightfully confident in her ability to act as needed, where needed, and when needed. She did not tense herself into exhaustion over imaginary or inappropriate problems. Being with her was pure happiness. Not constant giggling. Not forgetting the ways of the world. But rather the indescribable experience of true mindfulness in every moment, true knowing – but without the burden so many seem to think knowing to be. We could discuss any topic, and often did, all through the night. She knew she had a cardio-vascular condition which would cut her life expectancy in half. And every time I cautioned against the Creamora in her morning coffee she kindly laughed and said, “I won’t be here long.” She was right. She knew that killing time was killing yourself. Oh, and by the way, she was an expert shot.
I get almost the same experience when I am with my dear friend Jamie Butler –firstname.lastname@example.org . In fact, when we have lunch or dinner together I feel selfish. Certainly I’m getting more from being with her than she is from me. Yet, she is kind enough to humor me. After every college class of mine at which she spoke students unanimously commented on how she seemed genuinely happy and comfortable, all the while helping people who were often in end-of-the-road distress. It’s no act. Nor has anyone ever implied it was an act. This is a person who radiates happiness yet is very deeply aware.
So how did/do they do that? Reading books? Were they born that way, and us poor sods can only try to imitate them? How do they perceive what they perceive and not just fold over in pain, tune out, or develop some humor which really, when you think about it, isn’t funny? I don’t know, except that books weren’t part of it.
I do know there are times when you have to save yourself. One of my colleagues in counter-terrorism had previously had a thriving practice as a Master of Social Work (MSW) therapist in a major South Western American city. I asked him what drew him away from this and into our hands. Was it the lure of working with terrorism first response teams, which I deployed with?
He quietly and privately explained that he was not drawn as much as he was pushed. His office had a major contract with the city animal control division. Unseen by the uncaring outside world, his days, and nights, were spent providing psychotherapy to the employees whose duty it was to “euthanize” (read: Kill) the multitude of abandoned, lost, handed over because they didn’t match the new furniture, or just temporarily loose and picked up dogs and cats, including their litters of newborns. To say there were alcohol and other drug problems would be an understatement. Day after day these employees went to Death Row and opened the cages for squirming, licking, tail wagging dogs and cats, kittens and puppies overjoyed at human contact and freedom, licking the employees’ faces even as their forelegs were shaved for the placement of the needle, and slumping helplessly to their final sleep of death. And these were the ones that got the “humane” treatment as opposed to clawing, scratching, crying out in the gas chamber. Their bodies were dumped in a pile for pick-up at the end of the shift.
The toll on the employees was crushing. The toll on my colleague, just allowing these employees to vent and to decry the miserable lack of employment options elsewhere was crushing him. He feared he would begin to drink just to face his own employment. It took a toll on me, at two steps removed. All this largely because people are too lazy, too stupid, too macho to spay/neuter their pets or at least control them.
Even hearing this, as you are reading it now, is this reality a source of happiness? Should we break out in song that All Dogs Go To Heaven? How many people read an article in the newspaper about the local animal “shelters”, the numbers they kill yearly, and do anything beyond cluck and move on to a “happier” topic? And, the purveyors of Happy Books will continue to churn out their soporific pap, with a ready market, a market which often says, “Well, this may work for other people” and goes on to the next offering. It seems happiness ain’t easy. But in this case we can do something about it. We can engage the community, including venues such as PetSmart, to sponsor Spay/Neuter events at no cost or reduced cost. What could be greater happiness than a bucket of balls at the end of a long day? Remember, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.. I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man” — Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948)
If you think this is a turn to the Dark Side, it is. All my life I’ve been light sensitive, to say nothing of information sensitive. Night is my friend. First hearing of the Prince of Darkness I hoped to apply for the position. Night allows me to structure what I see – not to deny anything, for my mind runs 24/7. It allows me to get into that snowglobe and choose the flakes to follow, aware of the others but free from their demands, able to let them take their places as they will without being dragged after them.
This morning my eye doctor told me I have somewhat unusual cataracts developing; on a scale of 1 – 4 they are a 3, but they are brown in color and perfectly clear. No surgery needed. I happily said, “Oh, I’m wearing internal sunglasses!” We laughed at the imagery of that, but I left wondering whether the color has anything to do with the fact that I see the world as basically …. well, you know.
So, cheer up. Why the sad face?
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