Saturday, February 15, 2003

What exactly does it mean to be happy? Are human beings ever really happy? I was asking myself these questions last night, because it seems, I have found myself decidedly stuck in the realm of lasting unhappiness, so-called.

The truth is that I cannot even really define happiness. I do not know whether happiness is active pleasure, or if it only denotes a lack of suffering, or if it is some sort of mystical transcendence of suffering, or if it is something else altogether. But while I have not yet seemed to have fully developed the concept in my mind, I am most sure that I do not have happiness. Or rather to say, I have some happiness, but I do not have Happiness, the ideal.

It seems that I read all of the great books at precisely the worst time in my life to read them. I have a depressed outlook on more things than I ought, perhaps because my greatest influences were allowed no greater power than to shape my unhappiness. For instance, I think I have Buddhism all backward. I can understand it when the Buddha says that “Life is suffering.” It’s a concept I can relate to. But I must admit I’m somewhat baffled when I think that the Buddha then went on to live a rather happy life, full of good laughter and good friendship. I’m not totally baffled. It seems a wasted revelation that only brings tears and sorrow, so I understand that he might find a middle way. But as that fine old Toad the Wet Sprocket song used to go “Life is suffering, tee-hee, ha-ha.” I trip up on the tee-hee, ha-ha, and I’m conscious of the fact.

What I better learned from Buddhism was to be extremely uncomfortable with my own position and station. I remember scribbling down a quote from a Buddhist text I was reading while stuck in a hospital waiting room waiting for one of my mother’s many surgeries to be over. I didn’t cite the source as I wrote the quote, and I wish now that I knew where it came from, but it’s had a bit of an influence on me over time. The quote went “Being in point of fact comes into being only when it becomes conscious of itself. As long as God is content with himself he is nonexistent; he must be awakened to something which is not himself, when he is God.” I do not agree with the quote; my theology is utterly other. But somehow, that quote wormed into the back of my brain, and made me fear contentment horribly.

Last night, for instance, someone on the one of the boards I frequent was saying that he didn’t want to go to heaven, because he wanted to be able to have sex with his girlfriend whenever he liked, and no heaven could be better than that. I said that it reflected a serious lack of imagination on his part. That it was analogous to saying: “A billion dollars better than my shiny new penny? I think not, sir. A billion dollars, whatever that is, certainly couldn’t trump the joy that I derive from my shiny new red penny. So you can move right along with your billion dollars, thank you very much. I’ll keep my penny!”

At the same time, I know there’s something to be said for being glad enough with what you’ve got. As my grandmother always put it: “’Tis better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” And while I don’t think I’m ungrateful for the things in my life, or at least excessively so, it seems only natural and right to want more. The Buddha was all about extinguishing desire. But I’m not. I understand the Bodhisattva’s call to save all mankind before he attains salvation. But I do not understand dispassion. Apathetic though I often am, it’s a concept quite foreign to me.

But in any case, I can’t imagine Happiness. I can’t even conceive of the idea, so I have little hope, I should think, of accidentally stumbling upon it. C.S. Lewis was surprised by joy. I should think I would be horrified of it if it jumped out at me. I have a half developed metaphor in my mind, of a sort of cave of my soul. And when the violent light shines in, all of my beloved little hobgoblins are sent running, and rather than appreciate the exorcism, I whine of feeling empty. It’s true that a person can be in love with their own suffering. Dostoevsky wrote in Notes From the Underground: “Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately in love with suffering.” And I know I’m often guilty of it.

But I don’t want to sound like a broken record, angst filled adolescent goth, with self-esteem issues. I am an optimist at heart. I believe there is something better than chaos and despair. Thomas Merton once wrote that: "Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God and thereby acknowledge that He is above us.” I do not, and will not, choose despair.

So what is the alternative? I do not understand dispassion. I only understand passion. And I know that passion is intricately linked with suffering. I understand suffering, and I understand passion, and therefore, I believe I understand love. Love is a great mystery and I am allowed to know only a fraction of its depth. But that fraction may be enough to save me yet. As Peter, following the Proverb, wrote: “love covereth a multitude of sins.” As St. John, my first real Christian influence, was reputed to have said: "Little children, love one another. If you would do only this one thing, it would be enough." I pledge, as ever, to find love; to be a servant to love, to love in spite of appearance, to love tirelessly, to love and have hope in spite of everything, to even be naïve if I must, all for the sake of love.

On the last day, I don’t think we’ll be judged for all of the mysteries. We can’t comprehend what we can’t comprehend. But a great deal is given to minds of men, and the things which we understand, we will be held accountable for. I may see yet “in a mirror dimly,” but I am not blind. I want to take responsbility for what little enlightenment is given me. I want to work out my salvation.

Today I love the mystic, the beggar and the thief; I love them as if they are one being. Today I feel responsible for all sin, and yet I do not feel ashamed or humbled. Today I feel love. Love as a reality and not as an abstract. I feel the Holy Fool and am thankful for the fact. I love the Earth, and the sky, and the little birds and the blades of grass. Today I feel as close to Happy as I may ever feel on this mortal coil. And my inner being can utter but one prayer: Guide all souls to Love. Let it be!