Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Happiness Smells Like Coffee and Paper

I think nirvana must look like an Internet café. Mine does, anyway. It doesn’t look like the earth rising up toward me as I fall from an airplane. It does not look like a field of knee-high golden sunflowers to skip through while holding hands with my One True Love. It does not look like the ticker-tape parade someone would certainly throw for me when my as-yet-unwritten Great American, nay, Great Universe Novel sets records even the lovechild of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code couldn’t break, even with Oprah’s help. Instead of those big dramatic things, my happy place has Morning Glory chai, dark chocolate-hazelnut cookies, local art on the walls, and free Internet. Friends are always telling me to live life more dramatically – “put yourself out there,” they say. “Get your nose out of that book.” “How are you ever going to be truly happy if you spend all your time on that stupid computer?” “You need to go skydiving, or something. Do something every day that scares you! You have to do something BIG if you want to be happy in a big way! Hits on your blog can’t make you Truly Happy!”

It’s a valid point, friends. I do have strong hermetic tendencies. I can see why a person would want to live life in a dramatic way. I like the fantasy of big things that make you happy as much as the next idealistic young college student. But what would a big thing be? You can’t go skydiving every day of your life. You can’t be perfectly, incandescently happy every single day of your life. Even if you did have a very dramatic life in which you woke up, flew to Ibiza, met your one true love, stumbled into a million dollars, and won an Oscar, all before falling asleep on the billion-count sheets in your free penthouse at the Four Seasons, that would be ONE DAY in your whole entire long life. It’s foolish to even want that kind of life: it’s either impossible to ever have, or at the very least, impossible to maintain. I get the feeling that everyone over the age of about 23 already knows this, and knows enough about life to not even really be sad about it. As my mother used to say when I would tell her she is silly to get so thrilled over something such as a comic strip or a cute little gecko on the garden wall, “It’s the little things, Anna.” I scoffed at this, naturally. The only people who need little things to be happy, thought I, in my preteen arrogance, are people who don’t have big things to make them happy. I was going to meet my One True Love and have my Dreams Come True and be Truly Happy and live Happily Ever After. I thought being easily amused was for those of weak constitution, though I now see that quite the opposite is true. I thought then that the people who wanted dramatically were the ones who loved, and lived, and felt dramatically, and that such big and exciting sweeping desires were the only way one ought to live. (Here is where I take a moment to reflect upon my own stupidity, perhaps the only truly dramatic thing about this story.)

When I was maybe eight or nine I had a bit of a breakdown about this while setting the table. I remember my dad asking me what was wrong, and I said, “Are you happy, Daddy?” I remember thinking that my parents lives must be so boring, they must feel so stifled, they must be so disappointed in how their lives have turned out. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Yeah, I’m happy enough.” That response left me blubbering tearfully into the silverware drawer. Happy enough? I remember thinking, that’s so awful! It took me this long to realize the wisdom of his response. (Congrats, Dad, you’ve learned a lot in ten years.)

There is no such thing as being Perfectly Happy. You would have to be blind, dumb, selfish, and calamitously arrogant to ever think it is a remote possibility, or even a possibility you would want. There are still things in life that are sad, or a day won’t go your way, and you can still be happy – happy enough. As far as I can tell, in my recently recalibrated view of the situation, my parents did marry each other’s One True Love (or as close to as possible), and most all of their lasting Dreams did come true. Yes, they have bad days, they have disappointments, and they have frustrations. But they still act happy. They are still absolutely tickled by small, silly things like a good meal, or a good joke, or something funny the dogs did. They genuinely (as far as I can tell) enjoy each others’ company. As boring and dismal as their life seemed to my eight-year-old self, they are happy. Happy enough to not be a burden but a delight to the people around them. Happy enough to still acknowledge that sometimes life is unjust, unfair, and irrational, for other people as well as oneself. * My mother has been telling me this for, gee, let’s see, my entire life, and it took me all eighteen years and seven months to start to understand what she means: attitude is everything. If you act happy, if you let little things like a card from a friend or a phone call from your misguided daughter make you happy, you are for more likely to be happy.

Happiness isn’t a destination, or a location, or a promotion, or a goal. Happiness is a decision. Happiness is a state of mind. So while I have not done anything classically “adventurous” in the last three days, I have been to five coffee shops (gluttony, I know). That’s as dramatic as I need. Now that I understand this about happiness, I am the happiest – in any kind of stable, lasting, or maintainable way – that I can ever remember being. I’m not wanting too hard for anything, but that’s good. Now that I stop to think on it, I am almost afraid of the kind of Klimtian happiness I once vowed to pursue; it can only be achieved through heavy drug use or heavy delusion. Earl Grey and a book from the library make me happy, not almost dying because it will make a good story. Happiness doesn’t shoot through your veins. Happiness grows from a fertile, ready home.

There’s this Buddhist principle that says that all the suffering in the world is created by desire and that nothing you desire will make you as happy as you think it will. Not until you learn to let go of all this desire, some say, will you ever be able to reach nirvana, the purest happiness. The way I understand it, you ought to just not want too hard for anything, and just enjoy things – “the little things” – as they come. By this standard, all the dramatic wanting and the broad sweeping acts and the desire to be literally or metaphorically skydiving will not only not make you happy, but it actually prevents you from being happy. My parents would never say they are Buddhist, and I doubt they even know this wise Eastern mantra exists. And, yet, they have been living this example for my entire life (and much, much longer, I am sure). So thanks, Mom and Dad, for always telling me I could achieve everything I ever wanted. Thank you even more waiting around for me to realize that I all I ever want is to be happy – that is, to be happy enough.

If you read this parental apologia/metaphysical funhouse in the first several hours after I posted it, the prose contained several mis-typings and other mis-takes. For this travesty of my own doing, I apologize to the fullest extent that I am grammatically capable. As we see, that is not a very great extent. Cheers and thank you for reading.

*While I had hopes to also address this epic dilemma in this post, with the word count nearing a thousand, I had more of an epic-length saga on my hands. So I shelved it, to spare you, dearest readers. So: next time. Or the time after that.

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