Collected Wisps of Thought

{June 27, 2008}   To be Happy or not to be… Happy?

Here’s the thing… the older I get the more I am convinced that I know nothing. Absolutely nothing. Every single thing seems completely subjective and possibly irrelevent. I know, I know. That sounds harsh. Maybe it is. But that’s how I feel. What we believe passionately today may seem comically ridiculous tomorrow.

So when it comes to conventional wisdom, I’m not always good at following it even though I desperately want to. Why do I want to? Because, frankly, conventional wisdom takes away the agony of indecision. When conventional wisdom lays out the best course of action, the best attitude, the best reactions to life, we know exactly what we’re supposed to do. We have an easy measuring stick against which to regard our own actions and applaud ourselves when we fit in. We make others less uncomfortable. We are given the balm of belief.

I call those people who are able to accept conventional wisdom — whether it comes in the form of religion or just those truths generally regarded as well, truths — believers. I envy believers. I totally and wholeheartedly wish I were a believer, even though conventional wisdom might offer up some cliche about being “true to yourself” and “going against the flow”. But really, will my life be better off for my incessant questioning? Will it? I imagine it must feel wonderful to be able to believe. To accept the happiness that is almost always the goal of conventional wisdom.

Two weeks ago today my grandfather died. He was 81 and lived a great life. Conventional wisdom says this should make things easier. I wish it did. I envy those family members for which this does, in fact, make things easier. People say we should celebrate his life and not mourn him. And on the surface I think, yes, that makes sense and it’s what he wanted, but sometimes I wish I lived in one of those cultures where people shout and holler and beat against the coffin. Why can we not take the time to be miserable? Sure, conventional wisdom offers us, tentatively, the right to be sad. If it’s kept to a minimum and balanced out by our positive attitude and our willingness to immediately go on with our lives. But the important thing is to be happy in the end. And don’t take too long. Those people who achieve happiness despite the most difficult circumstances are the ones we offer up for admiration.

I remember this operating big time after 9/11. We’d had a major tragedy which was devastating on a vast scale, but immediately afterwards there was an unrelenting push to move on. That same day people were calling my office in Manhattan about work related concerns. There was huge indecision about whether to close down our office the next day even though the city had blocked off everything below 14th street, which included us! One co-worker went in anyway. She was admired for her stoicism. And then there were the speeches about going shopping and not letting this get us down, and all I could think was, WTF?! You’ve got to be kidding me? When do we get to scream?

I have never been the same since 9/11. I can say that unequivacally. I knew on that very day that I would never erase the image of a huge plume of smoke rising up from the Manhattan skyline, or the long lines to give blood, or the flood of bodies pushing toward the subways.

I will not be the same without my grandfather in my life either. I don’t care that he was 81… no one should have to die from pancreatic cancer and spend agonzining hours fighting for every single breath before they die. And now there is the push to move on, to celebrate, to make every attempt to return to that lauded state of happiness. But what about the cultures who wear black for a year to mark the time of mourning? What if I wanted to do that? I’d be regarded as practically insane. I know people who have remarried before their spouse was a year in the grave.

Happiness. It’s very, very important to western American culture. I’m convinced that we’re terrified of anything else.

And who doesn’t want to be happy? Right?


Maybe… me.


Shari says:

Thanks for sharing that thought-provoking post. I think you’re right, that we are afraid of emotions that aren’t “happy”. But the human experience runs the full range, right? From the depths of despair to the highs of ecstasy. To truly live life, shouldn’t we allow ourselves to experience it all? Even the hard parts.

I’m sorry for the loss of your grandfather. I hope you feel able to grieve how you need to, and for as long as you need to.

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