The Elusiveness of Happiness
(published on this website in 2015
Copyright 2015 (all rights reserved)
and written as a guest column/op-ed piece)
In A Pocket Mirror for Heroes, Baltasar Gracián wrote:
Nature was crafty, and perhaps even dishonest, when she brought us into this world. We come darkly, even blindly.
Were it not for nature’s ruse, no man or woman would want to enter a world so deceptive, and few would choose to go on living. For who would knowingly set foot in a false kingdom and true prison, only to suffer so many punishments—pain, scorn, dishonor, sadness, and despair?
Despite such gloominess, in bearing my soul in this essay, I mean my words to be uplifting.
When it comes to assessing my life, I believe I’ve had a successful one. I’m blessed with a life that continues to be challenging and satisfying. But I admit there have been times of sadness, disappointment, loss, and failure. I’ve suffered only a few personal tragedies. Yet, there are the tragedies of wars and natural disasters, as well as the atrocities that plague the world.
But on a personal level, life’s been good to me. I often find myself marveling at the beauty of nature and life’s splendor. I love and treasure life, even though it brings sadness to so many. Selfishly, I wish I could live long beyond my life expectancy, and it saddens me that I won’t experience my youngest grandchildren’s distant future.
Gracián also said, maybe facetiously, “Oh life, you should never have begun, but since you did, you should never end.” Being mindful of life’s travails that caused Gracián to write that powerful statement, I agree that life should never end, despite its drawbacks.
If I were asked whether I’m happy, I’d pause at such a complex question. Why complex? Because life itself is complex. True, there are happy moments in anyone’s life that may outnumber the tragedies life offers to someone, somewhere.
To me, the nature of life is such that total, permanent happiness doesn’t exist in this world. So why do we continually search for it? Life, after all, provides continuous stresses: raising children; worrying about a promotion at work or the loss of a job; surviving the loss of a loved one, maintaining good health; and making a decent living.
Even as children, we learn of life’s disappointments. Sooner or later, children will confront obstacles that life throws their way. With guidance, we’re hopeful they’ll develop the work ethic to reach their goals and even surpass them. But along the way, they’ll experience life’s drudgeries, such as rejection, depression, and failure.
We’ve all witnessed, if not personally experienced, probably more times than we care to remember, the misery caused by mental illness, often irreversible. In the criminal justice system, I’ve seen countless cases in which individuals throw their lives away, seemingly clueless of life’s priceless value.
In light of all this, is it any wonder that people find it hard to realize true happiness? Based on my own life experiences, I’ve concluded that happiness is not only elusive but unattainable.
It’s true, as Gracián notes, that life is filled with despair.
But rather than view the world so bleakly, I suggest that we view such obstacles as challenges to better ourselves and to grow spiritually. If we can accept the reality that happiness is unattainable, we’ll then view ourselves and the world around us in a way that’ll make life much more meaningful.
In his book, Living a Life That Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner addresses an issue that should haunt every one of us at one time or another: Do we matter to the world? Each of us, Kushner claims, needs to know that our lives mean something and that we can indeed make a difference.
Persons that Kushner helped in the last moments of their lives feared not so much death as that “they would die and leave no mark on the world.”
When we reach life’s end, our faith and spiritual self will make possible our having lived a life that mattered. It’s faith that’s helped me in my struggle to become a better person, to make a difference in someone’s life, and to possess an inner peace.
This is the mark Kushner speaks of and to which we should aspire. Those who achieve it will be free from the shackles of despair and an unwillingness to live life as it should be lived, spiritually.