Friday, June 12, 2009

ON HAPPINESS


ON HAPPINESS

About a chuckle and a half ago in the earth’s geologic history– say, five or six million years– one of our ancestors climbed down out of the trees and began to run across the savannah. Well, maybe he fell out of his tree, but he got down somehow. And as he ran, he probably looked back with longing at the arboreal realm he was departing– leaving the relatively safe environs of home has never been easy for most of us.

The fact that nearly everyone and everything he met was going to try to eat him might have sped him on his way and pushed the nostalgia button for him a couple of times.

I say this only because I am trying to point out that man’s unhappiness, coupled with a futile sense of longing for what we have lost, is probably genetic. It is as old as the trees from which we have fallen.

Now, we must not be so conceited as to think that man is the only creature who can be unhappy. Other animals grieve when one of their number deceases: the great apes, for instance-- when a female loses a young one, she will often run though the forest screaming and crying all night long. Dogs can become depressed and they too often grieve when a beloved person close to them is no more or goes away on a long vacation to the Bahamas. Cats– well, cats are a mystery that only Mother Nature understands– playful, yes, sentimental, no. We shall leave the feline out of it. Elephants when they encounter the long dead and bleached bones of one of their own will sometimes stand and ruminate over the remains as if they were contemplating their own mortality. Monkeys, especially, are moody creatures and become morose if robbed of their fruit or auto-erotic play– then, again, they are our cousins.

But it is not only death that can make us morose– in fact, mankind, so far as the present writer knows, is the only creature who will deliberately seek out his own brand of misery-- and if we don’t have it we will go looking. We human beings indulge in ourselves the capacity for finding unhappiness anywhere and anytime.

And gloom and doom, the feeling that we are being chased by the minions of Hell, is not bounded by race, creed, profession or social and economic status. The stale stories of unhappy millionaires, while they are likely intended to soothe the feelings of us have-nots, are, perhaps, not so fantastic as they might seem-- having rubbed up against some of the rich folks myself, I can testify to the crankiness and downright meanness of some of them. That is to say, your average millionaire– an oxymoron and he well knows it– is not going to be a boon fellow who will slap you on the back and invite you to join him for the weekend at his home in the Italian Alps, no, he’s more likely to tell you to keep your distance and set his Irish Wolfhounds on you.

I say this not to demean the rich, they can do that for themselves, but to emphasize that people with the resources and abilities to find their own joy are likely to be less than satisfied with their status quo. In their background maybe lurks a remembrance of how they got to be wealthy– Balzac somewhere says flatly, "Behind every great fortune lurks some enormous crime." However, this is no excuse for bad manners and depression.

The poor have better reason to be unhappy– after all, they are poor. They often lack fundamentals such as food,. medicine and education– the resources that might point to a better life. But what is one to make of the middle-class tendency for misery? A member of the middle-class often has the ability to improve their lot if they do not like it; they are neither dragged down by the huge weight of their fortunes nor doomed to a life of have-not. Yet stories of the unhappiness of the middle-class are legendary– drug addiction, bridge clubs and alcoholism are rampant in the suburbs– the middle class father is more apt, for instance, to come home one afternoon and murder his whole family and climb out of the window than the rich man or the abject poor. It has happened.

We shan’t speak of the unhappiness of clowns and comedians. A person who sets out to make other people laugh in this world has enough reason to agonize over his own sanity and choice of profession.

But these are all statistical matters really and they beggar the question, "Why do we make ourselves unhappy?" Is it genetic? Do we all really long for those days when we sat in the trees and ate insects and leaves and bayed at the moon?

Then again, given the condition of the world and the sights we see in it, maybe we have a reason for sometimes wanting to drink to forget and blot out the view.

There may be a more valid psychological reason.

Consider that human beings are sentient creatures of limited mental agility, we do not learn from our successes– we learn only from our failures and mistakes. Perhaps we are constantly pushing towards those ends, trying in some vain unconscious way to improve ourselves as individuals– by revisiting our shortcomings, our failures and miseries.

If this seems like perversity, it probably is. And maybe that’s– finally-- why we’re unhappy.

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Written by: Jack Peachum

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