Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Is There Really Such a Thing as Happiness?

During the crushing times of the Great Depression, my financially restricted family patronized a local grocery store run by a man we respectfully called MR. Thompson. He was a very important person in our neighborhood because he supplied us with the needed cold cuts, veggies, milk and butter. As it often happens in times of social stress, we had great “community” solidarity. Everyone was poor—or so we thought. Everyone was struggling just to survive. And we were impressed with Mr. Thompson’s formidable skills in running his “Food emporium”. And, further, we, with our rough New Yawkese, were awed at his fancy New Hampshire accent whenever, with his loose fitting dentures, he discussed Shakespeare and classical literature. Although he wore a battered old gray fedora all year, a long dirty apron (like the waiters in the paintings of Lautrec) and glasses that kept slipping down his nose, we thought he was very “cultured”.

He had come to New York seeking his fortune and wound up running a tiny food supply store and living in a walk up, third floor, cold water flat. He worked six days a week and saved Sundays for his passion and enjoyment----reading. I recall when I was a high school sophomore just beginning to marvel at the joy of books, he mesmerized me with a re-cap of Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village” which he had read the day before. His eyes sparkled and his voice vibrated with palpable joy as he shared this classic with a dirty necked kid from the streets. He had had a happy Sunday. I was struck by this. An old man with very little of this world’s goods can sit huddled by a primitive stove in a near slum and experience something of what every single human being wants—happiness. How can this be?

I had been raised in the world of the pragmatic. Get a good job, preferably a City job. Move out of this seedy neighborhood. Study only that which will help you get more money. Don’t study useless stuff like poetry or philosophy. Material security is what really matters. Save for your old age. Watch out for your pennies and the dollars will watch out for you.

Endless were those admonitions. And it made great sense in the terrible world of the early 20th century where hunger and street evictions were commonplace. But even in the world of the 21st century where opulence abounds and potbellied stoves are a quaint reminder of an earlier and more restricted era, we see such throwback examples as the Citibank highway signs: “Money can’t buy you happiness but it can buy marshmallows which is kinda’ the same thing.” Energy and time are invested mainly in the tangible and material. One’s hope for happiness is based on the size of one’s bank account. Obviously, without some kind of material resource, human existence would be short lived. Who pays the rent and the food bill and the clothier? Who pays the tuition for the kids’ education? How does one move about without a car? Who pays the medical bills? The list is endless and must be factored into the question. But the needs Pyramid gets to a point where there is something more needed for this elusive quality, so difficult to define, which we call Happiness.

With all our money, we have widespread anxiety, distrust, loneliness, fear, and discontent. We observe something close to a terror of being alone. Why are we so often unhappy in spite of our enormously improved material status? Why is this? What does it mean? What kind of world view allows some one like Mr. Thompson to extract from a limited environment such profound feelings of contentment and fulfillment? On the other hand, how is it that some one I know who owns a $4,000,000 apartment in a very fancy building on the East Side, is miserable on a daily basis? He has money, good health, a successful career, a family, and a reasonable Faith level. What is he missing? Is it genetic? Or emotional? Or social? Or cultural? Or what?

Is happiness a relative thing? I recall that, years ago, the advertising industry used to attempt to plumb such dimensions. How frequently we were bombarded with those eye-catching slogans -- “ Happiness is a Kent cigarette” or “ Happiness is owning a puppy dog” or “Happiness is owning a house in the Hamptons”.

Clearly, happiness has a large subjective dimension in its makeup. What pleases me can be another man’s poison. Is it merely another Rorschach test? Nonetheless, a common variable in this search has to be “contentment” which is some kind of pervasive feeling that the “hand” I have been dealt can be fulfilling, valuable and generally worthwhile. I recall one of my professors in Graduate school telling us how he looked into the mirror each morning, reviewed his assets like health, love, a fulfilling job, friends, a sense of humor, a lively Faith and life, itself, and said to himself: “Not bad.” This is not character dwarfism but the very contrary. The more one appreciates what one has, the more one appreciates life--- and gains even more. This does not lead to smugness, stagnation or indifference but, paradoxically, to personal growth. It leads to the freedom of “looking around” and seeing what is there!

It is ironic that the more one “sees” and appreciates the specific values and goods of life, the more such an emotional treasury expands. It is remarkable that sometimes we cannot recognize the happiness potential right under our noses. Experience endlessly teaches that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. It hardly ever is.

Where does all this lead? One startling conclusion is that Negative factors in life and contentment, (even positive resignation) can make surprisingly congenial bedfellows! It depends on how one views “life.” At the same time, it is interesting that Jesus never promised happiness in this life. He did clearly promise something called “shalom.” This is a profound inner experience of Order. Of Tranquility. Of oughtness. But it differs from happiness which is obviously so difficult to define.. Permanent happiness belongs to Paradise, the state of Heaven, but the deep interior feeling of Things-are-the way-they-are- supposed-to-be is attainable in this Valley of tears. But how?

I suggest that the earthly happiness/ Peace/ contentment constellation would include the following:

1. Living in the Present or one day at a time. Remorse, regret and guilt are often a waste of energy. I can control my Now but not my past or my future.

2. Cultivating a habit of gratitude for the blessings and joys in my immediate cosmos. Constantly recalling the street wisdom of the half-filled glass.

3. Noticing what goes on in my world. Cultivating the habit of seeing the many good things under my very nose. Becoming aware of the phoniness of the “beautiful” people hoopla. Seeing that the glitz of the media is largely superficial and consequently discovering freedom from envy.

4. Instantly halting the first inklings of self pity realizing that the “pity pot” is close to the most damaging human emotion.

5. Cutting the roots of the silliness of perfectionism again realizing that the notion of perfection is an illusion which discourages real attempts at human growth.

6. Getting deeply rooted in God and His truth whereby one finally discovers one’s own value as the Lord’s own child. Understanding, as a consequence, that life is meant to be enjoyed and that having appropriate “fun” is not only permitted by the Lord but is highly encouraged. This is highly linked to an authentic religious way of life which brings that profound joy of the inner awareness of walking with God.

Everyone has a right and even an obligation to figure out the best way to live one’s life. Of course, we can lose that which makes us happy in this life while Heaven is for ever. Yet, we should, it would appear, make the most of what we have in this life and get the maximum of the happiness/peace/contentment potential in our lives. May God and Our Lady direct us to lead the good and merry Christian life.

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