Years ago I worked for a nice Jewish doctor. His wife was an Irish-American Buddhist and so his Judaism, and his science, were both greatly colored by her spiritual discipline. One day we got to talking and laughing, with one of our Chinese-American grad students, about the affinity that the Jews and Chinese seem to feel for one another.
“It’s simple,” I said, “both are cultures that assume life is suffering and that happiness is not a right or a given.” His big Ph.D., smartypants-neuroscientist eyes opened wide and he bellowed a great laugh.
Ask your random person on the street what they want out of life and I’ll bet you twenty bucks the answer is something along the lines of, ‘I just want to be happy.’ I can’t think of anything more antithetical to the American experience than to not just desire, but to feel entitled, to happiness. It’s enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as a right – what other nation can say that?
I thought about this at 6 a.m. today as I walked through my bucolic suburban neighborhood in a deep blue funk. My best friend called me in breakdown mode a few nights ago and said everyone he knows is ‘in their own hell,’ and that goes for the two of us, too. So it’s ironic – here we all are banging our heads into the wall trying to achieve some amorphous state of happiness yet running up against the essential truth of the human condition – dissatisfaction, ennui, alienation, and disappointment (just for starters), all of which are unavoidable and comin’ at ya like a Mack truck just by virtue of being a breathing human being.
It’s as though if we fail to float through our day with a sense of well-being, achievement, and satisfaction, we are failures as people and as Americans. How are you supposed to feel when you’ve done all those things you’ve been led to believe will bring you happiness – made the money, bought the house, traveled the world, had the kids, driven the German-engineered car, whittled the waist, written the book, whatever (not to mention if you haven’t) – and you’re still being eaten away by a vague sense of is that all there is? Think about it; all that pressure from our not-just-a-right-but-almost-a-duty to pursue happiness cultural ethos – where does that leave one when finding oneself adrift on a sea of samsara, trolling the inevitable lows that accompany the equally-reliable highs? It’s almost unpatriotic to be bummed in this land of milk and honey.
We beat ourselves up for not being ‘happy,’ and ‘happiness’ seems to elude us no matter our station or achievements (or lack thereof). Who doesn’t feel like a jerk when mooning about what’s missing when we’re obviously so blessed – but who can help it? It’s in our nature. Perhaps the only true peace we can seem to find is knowing that along with the ebb comes the flow and that the unavoidable dark hours we walk through are just as much our birthright as the bright spikes of joy that relieve it.