I define “happiness”, very generally, as a sense of well-being…
I’ve seen people who consistently radiate a sense of well-being, and so I can accept that true happiness does exist.
But of all the people I’ve ever met, those folk are in the minority. Of the rest, I’d say most seem to have found some degree of happiness, or at least, seem capable of experiencing moments of happiness.
But happiness, for this majority, is usually conditional. A lay-off, a foreclosure, a divorce, an illness, an accident, a crime, a death can wreck the delicate balance of our happiness.
Even if the event is beyond our control, we may still feel like failures. We’ve failed in our main goal. We’ve failed in our pursuit of happiness.
Given the wild vicissitudes of human life, perhaps we should drop “happiness” as a goal. Life is difficult enough, why add the extra burden of trying to be happy?
Don’t get me wrong—if happiness happens, that’s fine. But it won’t be my main concern.
If it does happen, hopefully I’ll still be aware of the hidden risk. I don’t want to become too content. I don’t want to become complacent.
We know how dangerous complacency can be. Our authors and filmmakers keep reminding us…
They’ve often told us of societies destroyed by their general sense of complacency (think of Europe before WWII).
They’ve also shown us how such destructive upheavals can raise certain people up, out of their contented slumber, to perform heroic deeds (think of Oskar Schindler).
It’s ironic: we think of happiness and contentment as key life goals, yet tell ourselves a different story…
In our archetypal story of upheaval, we conclude that growth is the main goal of life.
True, the main character is often rewarded with a happy ending…
…but this happiness doesn’t come until she’s grown. First, she must rise to the occasion when trouble arrives: she must choose the heroic path, the path that will take her through hell and back.
Here’s another irony: at the end, she may not be so concerned about her own happiness. As a result of all her tribulations, her life goals may have greatly expanded.
Of course, such a cataclysmic heroic high road isn’t available to all of us. So though we keep repeating this story to ourselves, perhaps it doesn’t belong in our new mythology.
Nonetheless, it’s such a good story—I’d hate to lose it. Perhaps we could add this note, for the benefit of all:
Each one of us must deal with a multitude of challenges in this life. Every day, we face challenges. Who among us doesn’t experience both minor and major upheavals?
So perhaps, we should think of every life as being a heroic journey—at least, to some small degree.
That idea may sound fantastic, but I believe it’s a good belief. If I think of myself as being on a heroic quest, then perhaps I’ll act accordingly. I’ll aim for the high ground. When struggling with the tough choice, I‘ll ask, “What would the worthy hero do?”
This belief could also raise my level of empathy. If I recognize that you are also on a quest, that we’re doing the same basic things, and failing or succeeding in the same basic ways, I’ll surely treat with you with more understanding.
As my empathy rises, I may indeed feel sad if I realize you’re unhappy. But I’ll satisfy myself with this thought: at least, there is growth.
(This entry was originally posted on September 18, 2013. I gave it another rewrite, because…well, I wasn‘t completely happy with it.)
© 2015, Michael R. Patton
Common Courage: the book