Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, part 1

“I just want them to be happy.”

It’s a sentiment commonly expressed by parents about their children. But a life of meaning – a life that feels real – is more important than happiness. Parents who say they just want their child to be happy may be talking themselves into letting go of some expectation. Secretly they were hoping the girl would go to medical school – or that the boy would become a teacher – or that their child would one day take over the family business -- and when it becomes clear that’s not going to happen, the parents coach themselves into accepting that alternative career paths are fine. So they say: “I just want her to be happy.” Or him. Or zir.

If meaning is more important than happiness, then why don’t parents say they want their child to have meaning? I’m not sure. Maybe they think “meaning” would convey that that they are projecting their own assessment of what would constitute meaning, and “happiness” seems more objective -- and feels more like you're leaving it up to the child. Or maybe they wish they could spare the child the challenges and some degree of unhappiness – the toil that may come with a life of meaning.

Another way to say "meaning" is to say that we want to be of use. Marge Piercy expressed it well in her poem, “To be of Use.”
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
It says something that we’re more likely inclined to wish happiness for our children, or perhaps for our partner, than for ourselves. You’ll hear, “I just want them to be happy,” more often than you’ll hear, “I just want to be happy.” At some level, we understand that contributing to someone else’s happiness is meaningful – that a life helping others be happy is a life of purpose, of being of use. But a life of just being happy feels rather shallow.

In the 1999 film, The Matrix, Laurence Fishburne offers Keanu Reeves the choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill frees one from the machine-generated dream world and allows escape into the real world, but the "truth of reality" is harsher and more difficult. On the other hand, the blue pill represents a beautiful and pleasant life without want or fear within the simulated reality of the Matrix.

We admire the one who chooses reality – with all its struggle and anguish -- over the one who chooses happiness. Nowadays "red pill" and "blue pill" have become political metaphors. Naturally, we all believe our own political opinions are the correct ones – otherwise, they wouldn’t be our opinion. But if our certainty grows rigid – if we lose the context of humility that recognizes that we could be wrong, that our opinions were formed by the same sort of hodge-podge, higgledy-piggledy brain deeply oriented by its built-in cognitive biases as every other person – then we begin to wonder how it is that other people can be so foolish or pig-headed as to disagree with us. We can fall into the trap of thinking we ourselves see reality while those others have taken the blue pill of ease and delusion. Of course, this trap is itself the blue pill. The most common blue pill there is, is the ease and delusion of thinking yourself to be among the few who have taken the red pill – that you see the truth while most other people are stuck in their dreamworld.

What this reflects, though, is that we want the red pill. We want reality, truth, meaning – and will choose the difficult challenges of meaning over meaningless comfort. Not always. There are times in every life – and in some lives more prevalently that others – when one is so worn down, tired, abused, oppressed, or in pain that one would gladly reach for a blue pill if one could. But by and large, most of us, most of the time, choose meaning over happiness – choose reality over withdrawal. Of course, discernment of reality is inherently skewed and distorted, so I might better say we choose engagement over withdrawal, for what we engage with IS our provisional sense of reality.

We choose to be present, as much as we can be, over being absent. There is that in us which stirs and moves in resonance with John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech in which he said:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard – because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Whatever you might think of the moon mission – and its impetus to display military might -- we do yearn “for work that is real,” for undertakings that are hard – hard enough to “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

And yet, there is also that in us which is influenced by a culture obsessed with happiness. This idea that we should pursue happiness is in there -- in our hearts and the presumptions of our thought -- in most of us. And, you know, I don’t think it’s helpful.

I’ll come back to that in part 2.

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