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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

happiness and unhappiness

What would a "happy" life look like for me?

I'm not sure but I'm probably living it.

All of life is a tension of opposites, is it not? Happiness exists only in contradistinction to its opposite, unhappiness (or misery or sorrow or suffering). Only when the opposites are in fairly close proximity do we feel the intensity of one or the other. If you've had a biopsy for a suspected cancer, you may be waiting for the result with feelings of anxiety, even dread. When it comes back negative, you feel a rush of relief and joy. For a while, life seems rich and wonderful--a gift. But the intensity of contrast wears off as a function of time, and you return to your previous state of tension along the happiness-unhappiness axis.

Writers, like other people, tend to measure success in terms of social rewards such as prestige and earnings. But if an intelligent, objective person looks at those rewards carefully, there is not much to them. I think about, say, Conrad Black, the once-Canadian tycoon now languishing in hoosegow in Florida. Wealthy, prominent, and successful by just about any social yardstick except his own, he sought, Gatsby-like, to attain to some limit or singularity of social success and glamor, to "suck on the pap of wonder" (I think those were Fitzgerald's words) by becoming a British lord and joining the "real" nobility.

It was not to be. Or rather, it was--but then ended, spectacularly and suddenly, generating a contrast-experience in the downward direction.

The psychologist Victor Frankl says that life does not provide the answers; life asks the questions, and we provide the answers. Our lives, our living situations, are, basically, our answer--so far--to the questions put to us by life. Each problem or dilemma in life is another question, and our response is our answer to that question.

Whatever my feelings about toiling in obscurity, this toil and this obscurity are the result of choices I have made--my answers to the questions set by my life. If I don't like that, then I have a new question to answer. But my Buddhist training tells me to have caution. The restless search for a better deal in life is the hallmark of the human realm, and is itself a manifestation of suffering--of living in samsara.

The best definition of samsara that I've come across is "wanting things to be other than they are". Here's something to try: if you find yourself wishing things were other than they are, take a deliberate break from that way of thinking. For a few moments, just accept the way things are and pay attention to your surroundings. Notice then how your mind feels. To the extent that you can do this, you have had a taste of nirvana.

For me, to be in a state of tension between happiness and unhappiness is the way things are. Well, why not?


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