Monday, May 10, 2010

Summer Lightning

Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have.

- Alexander Herzen

I would just add that we menfolk are just as subject to many of the exact same contradictory exhortations to find fulfillment - I've had plenty of well-meaning people tell me that a life without a romantic partner, children of my own, and a more professional, lucrative job is problematic - but otherwise, I agree with Rebecca Traister:

You know what I think? It's all bullshit. Not just the trend stories and the self-help stuff, but the laser focus on happiness itself. I say this as someone who has grown steadily happier as I've aged, but I think I would have said it even more emphatically earlier in my life: I'm just not sure that "happiness" is supposed to be the stable human condition, and I think it's punishing that we're constantly being pushed to achieve it.

...But I would submit also that sometimes dissatisfied is just how life is. And that that's all right.

...Here is what I have deduced so far both from my experiences and from the hissed warnings of those who propel me toward their idea of happiness and simultaneously warn me it will never really be attainable: There will be peaks -- falling in love, seeing new places, enjoying whatever form a family takes, drinking a beer on a warm night, seeing a baseball team win a long coveted pennant. And there will be valleys -- divorces and illnesses, joblessness and money trouble, watching those you love in pain, a ninth inning playoff loss. In those valleys, I'm not sure that it's happiness we first strive for, but rather the power to not get stuck, to move toward just slightly higher ground. A spot within view of a peak will often do just as nicely as a seat atop it.

There is no formula for life satisfaction, no recipe that doesn't produce lumps of discontent or frustration.

That is happiness by my definition, an acceptance of the necessity of discontent -- not merely the inevitability of it, but the necessity. Disasters and heartbreaks aren't merely temporary obstacles, tests of character, or plot devices to make your life's story more interesting; they're not just there to make it that much sweeter when you win at the end, because nobody "wins" and there is no "end".

Also, "happy" isn't the same thing as "giddy". Almost every day, I alternately feel anger, anxiety, and weltschmerz, not to mention any of the other eighty-three problems, but it's fine if I remember that they will eventually ebb without me really needing to do anything about it. I don't know if this is a peculiarly American thing, this strange, ahistorical notion that happiness and success can be on a permanent upward trajectory, but I wouldn't be surprised.