Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Discernment in the Wake of Tragic Fate

That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
-Emily Dickinson

The Pursuit of Happiness is at the forefront of the majority of humanity’s thoughts and imaginations in the current mainstream and sub stream cultures in the United States as well as around the world. Even if not apparent, every human in the modern world, subconsciously or consciously, introspectively reflects on their own state of being- on what drives them mad, on what brings them contentment, and on what kind of life they are living. Such ponderings are evident in a Time Magazine poll entitled Just How Happy Are We? In which over three-fourths of Americans categorize themselves as happy most if not all the time. These are rather surprising findings, for in a world so disconnected and chaotic, being able to truly say that you are happy is a very complex and sublime statement. I might argue that the polling base of Time’s poll was skewed, that it’s participants had incongruous understandings of happiness, or that it’s participants only had a superficial, cursory experience of real happiness in their lives. Or perhaps my overcritical view of happiness is unable to fit in with Time’s poll.

Perhaps such a limited and restrained view of real happiness is the greatest impediment in actually achieving happiness; the false hopes that society and popular culture advertise may restrict the imaginations of the common man to understand what it really entails to become happy. In fact, perhaps stories of wasted extravagance seen so commonly on the news have such a pull on the common man’s interest because within us all lies a latent displeasure with our lives and a desire to make them better. The degree to which American culture is saturated with images, stories, movies, propaganda, and advertisements having to do with everything visceral, everything esteemed to be of value by popular culture, evinces the presence of this indwelling dissent.

In the words of Peter Mayle the good life appears to be solely “a succession of golden moments shared by young, attractive people with superb dentistry and no weight problems if viewed through the lens the mass media.” Such an exceptional fascination of perfect people living perfect lives may stem from our dissatisfaction with our own lives, and symbolically represent how unfulfilling that ‘idyllic’ way of life really is. Ironically, our pursuit of what we believe to be the good life may not only be misled but its very pursuit may hinder our own ability to discern what the good life really is. So then, what is the good life?

Such a question comes with motley assumptions and generalities. Mayle comes to the conclusion through experience that the good life is the “gradual accumulation of habits, friends and possessions-the moss we gather around us-that provide regular, sustained enjoyment.” Mayle’s forthcoming distinctions of such a life dictated by this view entail a certain devotion of money to become effective, a certain devotion of money that not everyone is capable of. For this reason, Mayle’s definition does not satisfy me, for I seek a definition more applicable to the entirety of humanity, regardless of class, statues, situation, location, or circumstance. Upon asking my mother she stated that in her opinion “the good life is a life lived of things one loves to do, with close friends and a steady devotion to improving the lives of desperation in the world.” Certainly in a world so arbitrarily mutating and transforming a reliance on something as transient as materialism is a risky venture. I also have great faith in the principle that typically, excluding situations of direct oppression or tyranny, every human has the capacity to at least be content with who they are day in and day out despite however much adversity and misfortune they may find stacked up against them. I believe that there is one fundamentally important quality in the realization of this philosophy: the understanding that in every circumstance we as humans do have the capacity to enjoy contentment, and equally the majority of cant issued forth which ostensibly claims to define the good life, is incidentally, sorely mistaken. From this point on, it is most reliable to pursue one’s own instinct to define what the good life entails, rather than rely on a strict definition, however I will proceed to describe what I envision such a life to be.

For myself I would say that the most reliable definition of the good life is this: The good life is the life that results from the eager embrace of the gamut of qualities about oneself that are wholly and completely unique and exclusive to one’s character. I firmly believe that every person contains within themselves particular qualities which when expressed through their work, relationships, or study, essentially complete their character. The significance of acting with the intention to further your personality, perhaps, to become more in touch with your soul, is that there is little expectation for material reward, and more importantly there is no prerequisite of material possession. Everyone no matter who or where they are is gifted with the capacity to connect and relate to those around them, and make choices about their own lives. It is in these choices that the sacred is separated from the mundane, that beauty is distinguished from disorder, and that fulfillment is found in the least likely places. For in this ideology the good life slowly becomes a life no longer dictated by an expectation of tangible reward, but instead a life of gradual acceptance of the tumultuous storm of finality known as fate and a growing devotion to living in spite of it.

When I took Biology a few years ago I enjoyed the class to a level that I did not expect. It was not so much the particular subject, nor the people in the class, nor the teacher, but the reality of how I decided to engage the class that brought me such great joy during the year. As I reflect back on that year I feel as that it would be an accurate statement to say that part of my natural disposition includes a likeness to learning, and in an environment as fortunately facilitated as that class was, my subconscious affinity for education surfaced, and I was honestly quite happy during that time. It is necessary to remark that my friends in the class were indispensable in the context of how events turned out, which points out another critical point: The best way to go about discovering who we are is through other people. Friends are some of the most valuable resources we are gifted with, and to recognize how important they truly are is a significant portion in the process of actually realizing the good life for ourselves. Equally, I would say that all humans share an instinctive, universal inclination, towards connection with other people, whether it be a deep romantic relationship or simple friendship. The acceptance of this quality of being a human is also fundamental in achieving happiness. I have found in many cases despite what the reality of my life is, friends can bring me simple joy that just can’t be found in other places. Undoubtedly, friends play a crucial role in the good life.

Overall, the physical interpretations of what the good life is should be discarded in the pursuit of happiness, however even then lies a deeper impression within us that living correctly is analogous to feeling good. Perhaps instead feeling joy is finding contentment and truth in the midst of difficulties that seem to never leave. The uncertainty of life calls for one to seemingly be constantly prepared for the unthinkable, and constantly attempting the undoable, however from my experience I have at least learned that this perception is very self destructive. In this context it is indispensable to accept the fact that the life we envision as being perfect is not only empty but also nearly implausible of ever occurring. The continual pursuit of a personal imagination of happiness, separate from public opinion and influence, is key in truly discovering true happiness. Forbearance and an open mind are the best tools in this journey. Throughout such a life, I will hopefully unearth the elusive joy that seems so fleeting, but yet so necessary to survival. In this unfaltering mindset of resistance and flexibility the basis for living benevolently is finally found. I will conclude with a quote from the Buddha, which I find especially relevant in the context of abandoning societies views and establishing new, personal views of the world:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. –Buddha


evolveintobirds said...

wow...that was a really excellent post! i've been reading the book "Stumbling on Happiness" lately. it's a good read...but light.

the thing that always made buddhism attractive to me was the attitude that happiness is freedom from suffering. that's open to pretty wide interpretation and worked well for me in that it didn't force me to try to achieve some happy clappy version of joy that doesn't come naturally to me.

Nice and Blue said...

Thanks evolveintobirds.
I haven't heard of "Stumbling on Happiness" but I'll look into it if I ever finish the stack of books I already have lined up to read.

Also, the exact aspect of Buddhism that you just mentioned is the reason why I found it to be so alluring even before I had become an atheist. There is something about an intimate pursuit of peace and fulfillment, tweaked towards the individual and based on whatever comes naturally to us, that trumps dogmatic religious tenets any day.