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How To Live in the World and Still Be Happy
By HUGH PRATHER
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Hugh Prather
All rights reserved.
Love of Misery
Happiness is easy. It's letting go of unhappiness that's hard. We are willing to give up everything but our misery.
Clearly, we are all a little crazy. Yet to favor unhappiness over happiness may seem sane at first glance. Right now, the world is not an easy place to live, and it never really has been. So why should we think we can live in it happily? Or that we would even want to?
Take for example the things we desire. The irony is, if you want it, it's usually not good for you, and if you pursue it, it will hurt you. But who can help wanting and pursuing? And just look at the unhappy results. It doesn't matter whether the object of our desire is large or small, whether it is wealth, eminence, influence, or merely the juiciest gossip, the tastiest foods, the most erotic pleasures: The outcome is some degree of misery. We dismiss this as the "the downside," but our fear of "side effects" and "fallout" weighs more heavily on our minds than perhaps we like to admit.
Surely the answer must lie in simple hard work. The key is to be a plodder who wishes little and seeks slowly. But even the plodder runs into one of life's ironies. The fruits of our labor, whatever slice of life they represent and however patiently earned, will be taken from us in the end. Lifetime after lifetime, the story is retold of eventual loss, loneliness, and painful death. We will see everyone we know die, or they will see us die. Our loved ones may be in the room when our life ends, but they can't die for us. Can anyone realistically escape how the story ends? And knowing well the outcome, how can anyone expect to live happily and at peace?
So perhaps the potential for happiness is in the many years leading up to death—all the good times that outweigh how our life will end.
No matter what our age, nothing we see in the world is wholly reliable. Even the preschool playground is a place where someone is your best friend today but tomorrow wants only to play with some other child. There is no place where we cannot wear out our welcome. Parents turn away from their children in a thousand ways, and when children grow up, they turn from their parents. In all walks of life, in every form of life, the strong prey upon the weak until they in turn are weak and are preyed upon. The world contains much physical beauty, yet everything lives off the death of something else. This is certainly not all there need be to our experience, but despite the few scattered exceptions, for these and countless other reasons the world is a very difficult place to live.
But is that difficulty a sufficient reason not to be happy? It would certainly appear so. And despite all the forms that misery takes, if there really were a way to live happily, wouldn't it be immoral, insensitive, or inhumane to choose that way for ourselves?
Is it moral to be happy when a quarter or more of the people on the Earth are starving? When a third or more of the nations are engaged in armed conflict? When the numbers of those who can cause nuclear catastrophe or some other form of global devastation are growing inexorably? And what of pollution, discrimination, endangered species, detention and torture, plagues and degenerative illnesses, the signs of pending geological cataclysm, and the worldwide increase in violence and terrorism? What our mood should be is ...
Angry? Shocked? Sad? Outraged? Depressed?
And instead of applying ourselves to becoming happier, what we should be spending our time doing is ...
Identifying and bringing to light the people who are causing all of this?
Working to defeat candidates who disagree with us?
Taking steps to protect our personal supplies of food, money, and shelter?
Giving away what we have to the needy?
Marching? Writing e-mails?
Giving speeches? Holding prayer vigils?
Fear of Happiness
These are indeed bitter questions. And few have agreed on an answer. Obviously there is no widespread consensus, and it's equally obvious there never has been. Nor is it the purpose of this book to make another futile attempt to rally support for still one more unworkable solution. It should be clear that there is entrenched guilt over lightheartedness and substantial fear that when we take time out to be happy we are not protecting our interests, and certainly not doing all we could for the world.
Although for many it's perhaps unconscious, we carry with us the sabotaging belief that we don't deserve to be happy. To have any aspect of our lives run more smoothly than is "natural" is somehow proof of our guilt. Whenever things are going "too" well, we fear some vague, undefined retribution, as if the world has a consciousness that keeps track of these things, and since we are not getting our quota of hardship, the balance soon will be set right.
The news and entertainment media contribute to this attitude. It is very difficult to sit in front of the TV night after night and not come to believe that tragedy is to be expected in every life and that some form of natural law is being violated if this is not presently true for us.
From radio, newspapers, TV, and the Internet; from cause oriented movies, books, and magazines; from scare letters on behalf of every conceivable cause; from a constant stream of out-of-town speakers; and from the warnings and admonitions tucked in conversations throughout the day, we get a steady picture of a world ever fretting and wringing its hands. Whether in good times or bad, the ordinary and the prominent all do it. So we assume there must be some value in this time-honored attraction to misery.
Thus we have come to believe that we must keep our guard up at all times. We also believe that if we are happy, we have let our guard down. This means our minds must stay focused on all the dark corners. We must never allow ourselves to forget a single painful experience. And we must persistently catalog every upcoming event that could turn against us. Yet have you noticed how much of what we think will happen never does?
Just consider for a moment the countless hours most of us spend fantasizing our reactions to things that will never be, formulating answers to remarks we will never hear. And if for a moment we run out of future twists of fate to imagine, we go back in time and rewrite events and conversations that have long since ended. It is sad to realize how we could use our minds instead. If some step can be taken in the present that will make us or our loved ones feel safer, then let us by all means take it. But that of course is not what we are speaking of here.
The world is indeed a dangerous place, and obviously there are times when the worst we fear does happen. Yet what did being sick with dread ever do to protect us? Fear neither causes the thing feared to happen nor prevents it. It is mere static. It is an absence of music. It is not power. There is calmness at the center of us, a very deep well of happiness that cannot be exhausted, but it will never be experienced while our perceptions are twisted by doubt and fear.
A thousand times a day our love of happiness is cut short by our even greater fear of it. Even a little cheerfulness is checked if it goes on too long. If we find ourselves laughing with complete freedom, singing in the shower, or maybe just whistling loud enough to be overheard, the old anxiety begins seeping in. Our "frivolous" mood is being called into question. For some nagging reason we must resume a "serious" state of mind, although just why this is helpful or proper we are not quite sure.
Happiness is serious. It is very serious, not only as it affects our health, job, children, and all other aspects of our life, but also in how it influences, perhaps even changes, the world. I am obviously not in a position to know the effect each individual's state of mind has on the whole, but it seems clear that we have a mental influence that extends beyond our words and physical gestures.
This influence is usually given negative credit. People talk of the "vibe" being bad in a certain building or the aura being bad around a certain person. But of course it should go both ways, and I believe it does. We are either throwing our mental weight into the balance of fear and hate, or we are adding to the world's measure of hope and kindness. This cannot be seen of course, but it is most certainly experienced. If we need justification for being happy, we might ask, What is the alternative? What do we believe the various forms of unhappiness can do to relieve the world's misery?
Surely we will not lessen anguish by maintaining the very state of mind we wish to see the other members of our worldly family released from. No matter what our words or actions, to be bitter, cynical, or offended is to teach our faith in the value of these emotions.
It is curious how often peace is championed unpeacefully, and how often in the name of a broader kindness we feel justified in being unkind to a few people. Okay to snipe and lash out or to be insensitive and selfish, provided the cause is grand. We even think it's logical to attack our children in order to teach them not to attack, to scold them into being more respectful. But a temporary change in outward behavior is all we get, for doesn't our mood teach what we really believe the most effective approach to life is?
I believe that to be consistently harmless is to bolster this urge within the mental atmosphere of the world—even if in small measure. And I believe that a little gain is better than none.
Who really knows the effect of one happy thought? Is it possible that it circles the globe, finding entry into any open heart, encouraging and giving hope in some unseen way? I am convinced it does. For whenever I am truly loving, I feel the warmth and presence of the like-minded, a growing family whose strength lies in their gentleness and whose message is in their treatment of others. I believe it is good and right to be happy, and I know from experience that it is the only way I personally can be kind.
Can Happiness Last?
The belief that there is no permanent happiness is so widespread and deeply rooted that it's simply a hard fact of life for most people. Should some holy foreign visitor claim—or even appear—otherwise, he or she either is not believed or is thought to be a fake or a phenomenon. And why not? Who has experienced even one day of "perfect peace"? A whole life of it seems preposterous.
We've heard it said that individuals in their right mind would not want consistent happiness. Which raises an interesting question. Is it possible not to want what by definition one wants?
The Merriam-Webster unabridged has this to say about the durability of happiness: "A state of well-being characterized by relative permanence ... and by a natural desire for its continuation." The Oxford English definition includes this indication of where happiness occurs: "The state of pleasurable content of mind...."
Dictionaries merely report how a word is commonly used, and true to general usage, all the ones I've looked at cite good luck, prosperity, and other forms of worldly success as the principle origins of happiness. This is not only how the word is used but also the general belief in how this "content of mind" comes and goes. It is a "beautiful feeling" that we want to endure, but it is dependent on how outward events go. "Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what beautiful day... Everything's going my way."
But for how long do things go our way? We want a better wardrobe. But for how long will it be better? We want a better salary. But for how long will it be better? And so it is with couch, car, or complexion. Nothing remains the best; nothing remains even better—whether lover, lawn, or laptop. Is it any wonder, then, that we don't believe in lasting happiness, even though we have "a natural desire for its continuation"? The way we have happiness set up in our minds, it's a decidedly unhappy subject. For the sake of our own happiness, we had best forget it altogether as a rational goal. That is, unless we can find another source besides "Everything's going my way."
Is it possible to say, "Nothing has to go right today" and still be happy? In fact, it's the only way.
Because nothing will go right, as I'm sure you've noticed by now. It started again this morning. A little something spills, certain people are late as usual, our hair is never quite right, and then there's the neighbor's dog. Forget hate and greed—is there any real hope of eliminating all annoying noises, smells, poor workmanship, overpriced products, traffic gridlock, and rudeness in stores? Then why get so caught up in the very nature of the day that simple enjoyment becomes impossible? As the song says, "You can't roller-skate in a buffalo herd, but you can be happy if you've a mind to." The key is "having a mind to."
The Grounds for Happiness
There is a mental state that passes gently and easily over the endless nonsense that litters the day. Like a soft breeze, it refreshes everything but disturbs nothing. It's happy just being itself. And being something, it has something to give. Its opposite is the mental state that is constantly getting entangled and pulled down by almost everything. Unhappiness is unfocused, agitated, and above all, scared. Having no integrity, no calm inner direction, it takes its cue from whatever problem is perceived to be before it now.
The mind can be trained, yet in most instances our thoughts are so chaotic and vulnerable that we go through the day looking at everyone through a thick mental haze that blocks from view what each person is at heart. Yet it is seeing the urges of the heart that makes us happy. Babies and very young children, for example, make us happy because we allow ourselves to see their basic innocence. In their case we are quick to see because we are slow to judge.
Although it's by no means inevitable, the ordinary efforts made during the passing of years can occasionally bring about a small measure of the mental wholeness needed to permit a gentler vision. That is why older parents, and especially grandparents, often enjoy children more than do "the young and the restless." By the time we reach middle age, we have sometimes learned enough to devote ourselves to our children and not just squeeze them in among a bewildering array of conflicting pursuits.
Children, like everything else of value, cannot be hurried. The pleasure that a baby or young child has to offer is as delicate and subtle as a sunrise. Sitting quietly in the hush of dawn, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, we hear the waking sounds of the Earth and see the shifts in light and shadow that a more hurried mind will miss. Haste makes unhappiness. The happiness within us is very still. It is not physically slow; it is merely at peace.
It is silly to hold children up as models of behavior. They obviously don't come into the world equipped with everything they need to remain happy, or else they would remain so. But children do start with certain strengths, especially mental strength, that many of us have lost. A child can prove that it is possible to be extremely active and interested in everything and still be happy, provided that a uniting goal dominates the mind.
Gayle and I were asked to bring our son John to the first wedding we conducted, not only to the service itself (during which he comported himself reasonably well for someone who had been alive for only two years) but also to the formal wedding dinner that followed. The meal was to be at a "nice" restaurant, and I asked the couple if they knew what they were letting themselves in for. "Oh yes!" they laughed. Even though Gayle and I know it is best to take children only where they can be their age, the wedding party were unusually child-tolerant folk. So we decided to make an exception.
The table was formally set, with a rolled white linen napkin inside each empty water glass. As a boy I had learned that at nice restaurants, unless one is eating bouillabaisse, one does not tuck one's napkin into one's collar, and in the case of bouillabaisse, one titters guiltily as the waiter applies the bib. But somehow I had missed the one about the proper moment to put the napkin in your lap. With an ancient fear I looked at it elevated before me. Any mistake now would be highly visible.
John pulled out his napkin, played tent for a few seconds, then put all his utensils into the glass.
I started to speak to him, but looking around and seeing no consternation, I held off.
He took out an imaginary box of matches and began "lighting" each fork, spoon, and knife. He explained to the whole table that this was a birthday cake and they were going to blow out the candles. As the glass was passed around, he watched carefully for omissions and patiently pointed out such things as, "You missed the spoon," and made the person blow again.
All this was taken in great spirits, and so I began to relax a little and just watch.
The first course served was salad. It came garnished with olives. I knew John didn't like olives, but whereas not liking an ingredient could ruin a dish for me, John saw that these sliced black olives were actually racing tires, and within seconds he had set up a drag strip on his bread plate. The right combination of black olives and white porcelain can simulate "laying down rubber" with remarkable resemblance.
I will not go through the entire dinner in which the grated cheese became modeling clay, and so forth. Obviously John was operating within an exceptional atmosphere. Plus the fact that all young children know they have you at their mercy in a place where you don't want to make a scene.
Excerpted from How To Live in the World and Still Be Happy by HUGH PRATHER. Copyright © 2002 Hugh Prather. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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