Bittersweet

celastrus_scandens.jpgWhatever happened to the emotion known as bittersweet? 

In a world that feels the incessant need to drive emotional sensibility out and force the typical into divergent extremes, it is a sorely missed human trait.

We have sacrificed complexity and nuance for the convenient speed of simplicity and suffered sorely for the choice.  Society has been fooled into believing that sadness and happiness cannot occupy the same space.  This is simply not true.  Emotional mixtures can be as complicated as the human spirit itself.

Pop psychologists and pharmaceutical companies seem to believe that happiness is attained simply by removing the sadness peg and replacing it with one dipped in happiness.  A five-step plan here and fifty milligrams there and the problem is fixed.  Birds sing louder and the sun shines brighter.

We are worth substantially more than this.

There is no magic pill.  We are not emotional vassals able to be empty and filled at a moment’s notice.  Our experiences stay with us until our last breath and constantly contribute to our identity.  Our hope of gaining happiness is not to vanquish sadness- for then what would happiness be- but to end the day with more positive experiences than negative ones.  That is our charge.

Once upon a time I buried a dog.  He had been struck by a car and left to lie in the middle of the road.  I had rescued him a a few months earlier- covered in mange and God knows what- from an inner suburb of Atlanta.  As I dug, two emotions clouded my soul- heartwrenching grief and the honest belief that the dog had died knowing it was finally loved by someone who chose to give a damn.  There was a fullness in my chest as the two emotions settled deep within me.  There was no competition- the grief sat alongside the joy and held muted hands as the piles of dirt grew higher.

Years later, the experience left me neither “happy” nor “sad”- to claim as much would denigrate both the sanctity of the experience and the memory of the dog.       

In my quest to discover happiness, it serves me well to remember this. 

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Pace

Today is my “long” day.  I have classes at 10:00, 1:00, 2:30 and 5:30.  Which means I’ll be in class for about six hours today, and I won’t get home until around 7:45. 

If I think about that too much, it will start to effect my happiness level.  It’s not that class itself makes me sad- it’s mostly knowing how the day is going to turn out before it actually does that leads to melancholy.  If variety is the spice of life, Tuesdays tend to be a giant bowl of boiled cabbage.

As of now, I have two techniques that I use to combat the dreariness of Tuesdays.  One is to try not to focus on the near future, but simply on what is happening at the moment.  Each moment is unique in and of itself, even if the larger picture appears to be the same time and time again.

Last night, for example, I took maybe 25 photographs of one cat.  Each one was different.  Some were similar, but each one showed the creature in a different light or slightly different pose. 

Tuesdays are no different- they seem monotonous, but each one holds mystery and magic waiting to be discovered.  Part of overcoming my mental block about today is realizing this and spending my time searching for the ways the day is different.

Secondly, it helps to realize that I chose to run this academic gauntlet on Tuesdays.  Scheduling all of my classes on only two days has its advantages- I am able to work more on the days I have off.  If my classes were spread out in a more traditional format, I would have to rush back and forth to work and constantly check the time.  That would be bothersome, to say the least.

One day I was watching an episode of Dora the Explorer with my niece and was tickled by the ridiculously easy choices it offered kids.  For example, at one point she asked the audience to choose between two paths- one was blocked by an obviously hungry crocodile, whereas the other one was clear and lined with pretty flowers.  It was a simple decision.

Life doesn’t typically work out that way.  Each choice we make often has both good and bad ramifications.  We make the best choice we can with the information we’re given, and then go from there.  It does us no good to look back with remorseful hindsight and wish we’d done things differently.  Our only option is to maximize the good benefits of our decision while dulling or redirecting the negative aspects as much as possible.

So, I could spend the day bemoaning my self-chosen fate, or congratulate myself on making the right choice while realizing that certain parts of that choice necessarily put me in a tough situation for a few hours a week.  Then I can attempt to experience each moment, instead of tuning out and unconsciously painting a glum wash over the whole day and going to sleep tired and unhappy.

Seems like a pretty straightforward choice- I think I’ll avoid the crocodile.

Happiness Quote Week Three

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Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.    

 – Mark Twain

There’s not much to discuss regarding this quote.  It’s pretty straightforward and succinct in its instructions.  This is remarkable, considering the lengths and effort Twain would often take to prove an otherwise simple point. 

I think most humans would benefit from asking someone older than them (i.e., their parents, grandparents, etc.) the things they regret about their lives.  I wonder if Twain’s maxim would hold up to the light of day- do people really regret the things they didn’t do, or do they regret the things they did?  It could be argued that you’re really talking about two different sides of the same coin- not doing something would mean, by definition, doing something else. 

One of the reasons I rescued the plant yesterday- by the way, it appears to be doing a little better- is that I knew I would regret it if I didn’t.  There was a secret and silent song in my heart that let me know it was the thing I was meant to do in that moment and time.  It would probably serve us well to listen to that voice more often- to drown out the static that pervades our daily lives and tune in to the one channel that matters: our own.   

Purpose

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Today my wife and I visited the local Walgreen’s to pick up a few items.  As she was grabbing the things she needed, I browsed the aisles. 

Walgreen’s is always an interesting place- they seem to have a constantly rotating stock of random stuff in the center of the store.  On this trip, they had what you would expect- some baskets, some type of water fountain, candles, etc.  Then I saw some plants.  At first I thought they were fake, but then I realized that half of them were dying.  I looked closer and saw that most of them hadn’t been watered in at least a week.  When you picked one up, over half of the leaves fell out and wafted slowly to the floor.   

I looked through them carefully, and picked out the one that I thought had the best chance of living.  It’s some exotic plant from India whose name I can’t pronounce.  I bought some potting soil and took it home, where I transplanted it into a larger pot.  After watering it, I sat it out on the front porch.

I’m hoping it will live, but it’s already been through a lot.  I thought it deserved a fighting chance, though.

I guess as humans we often place our hearts in the same predicament.  We starve them, ignore them, refuse to give them the things they need.  And we wonder why they don’t grow. 

Life is indeed difficult.  Arrows and slings of Shakespearean misfortune will surely rain down from time to time, and there’s not much we can do to stop it.  However, we owe it to ourselves to shelter that part of us, that if lost, will never grow again.  For me, taking care of those things that need help remind me of this- unlike a plant, I can’t just go buy another heart.  So, by using the techniques I’ve written about on this blog, I give my happiness the best chance it can get- because the world and those in it might not always be so kind.

Just ask the plant. 

Happiness Quote Week Two

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

– Albert Camus

While perusing quotes about happiness, I encounter a great many that seem to trumpet this principle that the quest for happiness is always fruitless- that the search itself destroys what we seek. 

I once read somewhere that humor is a lot like that- when we attempt to analyze a joke we understand why it is funny but the process causes the joke to lose much of its humor.  The same thing happens when I create a mental image- I can often see it in incredible detail with my mind’s eye unless I focus and try too hard, if that makes any sense.  Then the image quickly falls away.

There’s another scene that comes to mind from The Simpsons.  On one occasion, Marge asks Bart if he wants to ride a tandem bicycle with her.  He responds that he would, but he’s busy playing his video game.  The screen cuts to a video game where he’s riding a bicycle outside, and pressing a button fervently to pedal uphill.  As he does so he narrates, “Alright, I’m at the top of the hill.  Time to enjoy the view.  Enjoy!  Enjoy!  Enjoy!  Enjoy!” as he continues to push the button in an effort to fill up his enjoyment meter on the screen.  I would like to think that Mr. Camus would definitely disapprove of that.

However, I think Camus would also disapprove of someone who never stopped to take stock of their emotional inventory or to question whether or not they were making worthwhile decisions.  He worries about people who wonder what happiness “consists of,” to use his language.  I agree that happiness, like humor, is best left unexplored on such a fundamental level.  Some things should never be dissected, explicated or laid out on a cold and bare table- the symbolic human heart is one such thing.  That said, I think he would agree that doing things that tend to create happiness is a valid and healthy exercise, as long as we don’t question too deeply why or how such things work.

The following quote states this perfectly:

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

– William Wordsworth 

As I read this I look back on the football game I played yesterday.  During the game my five senses went into overdrive and any attempt at tranquility was shot.  There was simply no time to recollect anything while I was experiencing the moment.  Even now, many moments in the game are being lost to the gradual withdrawal of time.  A few moments burned into my memory so deeply, however, that I feel they’ll be with me for the rest of my life.

The ball hanging high in the air- only sense sight and the wet earth beneath my feet- not knowing who’s around me or behind me or what’s in front- don’t think- keep moving- caught.

When you’re enjoying life, you can’t stop and do that- it would ruin the moment.  However, after you’ve wrenched every last drop of fun out of an event, look back on it with a calm outlook in a few days later and “replay” the moments in your mind.  Recollection offers the individual a chance to take further enjoyment from a pleasurable event.

Hear No Sadness, See No Sadness

Today I did our bimonthly grocery shopping while my wife stayed home and straightened up the house.  Since we have three dogs and five cats, the grocery shopping is pretty intensive.

 I was probably in WalMart about 90 minutes- the last 30 minutes or s0 began to really get to me.  There’s just so many people and lines and things to think about (constantly checking the list, where in the store to go) that it can get overwhelming.  It’s simply not a pleasant experience.

I stood in the aisle for a few minutes and took a few deep breaths.  I knew that if I let it that this experience could make the rest of my day that much worse.  I knew that this would be a bad thing, if only because it wasn’t that big of a deal.  It’s hard to think that, however, when you’re in the middle of the situation.  Worse yet, I was slightly worn out from the long week and in no condition to deal with the teeming masses that is a Walmart Saturday afternoon. 

I dealt with it by basically surrendering.  I shut my brain down and simply went through the routine so I could get out of the store with my happiness intact. 

I looked at it this way.  Say you’re a king, and your primary goal is to protect your castle.  You only have so many boulders to load into your catapult, and it takes time to make more.  That means it’s best to save them for a serious situation. 

In my example, the Walmart situation was basically a lone, deformed zombie that repeatedly banged against the stone walls.  There was no point lobbing my boulders at it, because it was obvious it would die soon anyway.  So I simply ignored it, knowing that soon it would go away.  Had I treated the situation as being more serious, I would have expended serious energy and effort into vanquishing an enemy that really didn’t matter in the first place.  This necessarily leaves me vulnerable when the real enemy decides to attack with arrows and slings of misfortune.

So today I learned a valuable tool for preserving my happiness when annoying things occur- I simply ignore them until they go away.  Of course, such a thing won’t work (and is patently unhealthy) when something serious or relationship-based occurs, but it does the trick when life throws you the occasional pothole that can’t be avoided- particularly when you lack the energy to deal with it in a more effective way.

Relevant Article on Happiness #3

At NPR.org, there’s an article about Eric G. Wilson, the author of a new book entitled Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

Here’s a quote from his book:

At the behest of well-meaning friends, I have purchased books on how to be happy. I have tried to turn my chronic scowl into a bright smile. I have attempted to become more active, to get away from my dark house and away from my somber books and participate in the world of meaningful action. … I have contemplated getting a dog. I have started eating salads. I have tried to discipline myself in nodding knowingly. … I have undertaken yoga. I have stopped yoga and gone into tai chi. I have thought of going to psychiatrists and getting some drugs. I have quit all of this and then started again and then once more quit. Now I plan to stay quit. The road to hell is paved with happy plans.

As I understand it, his argument that mild to moderate depression is actually a good thing is twofold: that melancholy actually creates and causes human creativity, and that moderate depression is not a disease that needs to be treated with piles and piles of pretty pills.

 While provocative, I’m not sure I agree with his entire thesis.  First and foremost, it is not necessary to be depressed in order to be creative.  Sure, at times its influential, but there have been brilliant works of art that have not come from gloomy and self-loathing artists.  It is a disservice to our minds to think that our emotions control and rein in our intellect to such a substantial degree.  Personally, I do not think better when I’m depressed- depression tends to focus the thoughts into such a narrow spectrum that my output pales compared to when I view the entire world as a possible palette of ideas.

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