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. 

Connecting With Our Collective Past

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Today I went out and played with my two dogs- a Lab named Dakota and a Newfoundland mix named Max. 

That’s a picture of Max above- one in which I accidentally captured his elusive nature.  It’s pretty much a daily ritual at this point- I go out, wrestle them until they’re tired, and then they trot out to chew on their bones.

As I was wrestling them, I had a thought- someone five thousand years ago had probably done the same exact thing.  I was engaging in an activity that had occurred since humans first domesticated the wolf.

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There’s a supreme amount of meaning in doing something that is very much similar to the activities our ancestors did- it allows us to live as they did, if just for a moment.  Our thoughts naturally mirror theirs- as I was wrestling Dakota (pictured immediately above devouring a bone) all of my typical thoughts vanished and I was left with just a blur of fur and slobber and action.  I’m sure my counterpart five thousand years ago was thinking the same thing- playing with his dogs allowed him to take his mind off the worries of the hunt by focusing on the immediate situation.

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The Zen of Animals

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It appears to me that animals are much more emotionally balanced than humans.  They seem to lack the ability to either be too happy or too sad.  When they play, there is a fleeting yet seismic joy that quickly dissipates; when they are in pain, they quickly get over it once the pain goes away.  I’m convinced that my cat (pictured above) could care less what happened a week ago and is not concerned with what will happen a week from now.

 Humans are blessed and cursed with a far greater sense of vision and emotional range.  We discuss and study and blog endlessly about what has happened and what will happen.  No one blogs about the present much- partly because it’s so fleeting, and partly because as a society we don’t much care.  This is strange, because the present is the only thing we can actually control.  I don’t mean to say that we should never think about the past and future (that would be absurd) but we should give greater importance to the present than we do.  The past is, after all, nothing but former “presents” just as much as the future is nothing but upcoming “presents.”  Surely the present that is here, now, is more important than either one of those. 

I will probably live another 20,000 days, but if need be, I would trade you every single one of those for today, for they would meaningless without it.  Conversely, I cannot trade you the days I’ve lived in the past, for they are no longer mine.  So this is a new maxim- today is worth more to me than any other day.  This second is worth more to me than any other second.  It’s time to start living that way- as soon as I find out what “that way” is.

 Humans have a greater emotional capacity than animals- we can feel more depressed and more elated.  Our intellect gives us this ability.  Unfortunately, most humans are unable to find lasting happiness and then gravitate toward the sadder end of the spectrum.  Here’s another maxim- most humans on this planet right now are sadder than the cat pictured above.  The cat is tethered to a very short emotional leash.  We, on the other hand, are only limited by our capacity to be depressed.  When we don’t take the effort to be happy, we sink further into despair than an animal ever could.

This is fair because we could also choose to be happier than the cat, if we made the effort.  It’s as if the cat has in its possession a perfectly good apple, and we’re stuck with an apple tree that is crooked and only gives off bad fruit.  We could help the tree (or even use the apples it provides to make new apple trees) but instead we sit and suffer, surrounded by rotten fruit.

Why is the tree crooked so often?  Partly because we are so tethered to the past- but that’s a subject for a different post.