The Bread Will Be Baked, Part I – What Good Is Happiness?

I have this friend – just call him “Gary” – he’s a good guy. Young, smart (green side of 25, Ivy League, working on his PhD at a top-ten school). He has a slightly unusual perspective that I hope he’ll some day acknowledge as stemming from a youthful will to shock – I used to claim to be a “communist” in the 10th grade – but he is sufficiently bright and articulate to make it sound intriguing. See, my young friend is given to dissing “happiness” and extolling the virtues of suffering.

Yeah, you heard right.

Let’s deal with happiness first. I am reminded of something Toni Morrison once said in a Washington Post interview (I couldn’t find the exact quote so I’m paraphrasing): “I don’t understand our American preoccupation with happiness. Why do we think life is supposed to make us happy? Work is what we are supposed to pursue. If that makes us happy, good. If not, at least the bread will be baked, the garden will be tilled, the book will be written.”

Sage.

But. . . .

That happiness is perhaps not the natural human state, nor perhaps even a generally attainable goal, doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile goal. Maybe the point we take from Morrison (and life) is that while there are many worthy pursuits, not all of them are equally likely to yield some specific brand of “happiness” (of course there are many: exhilaration, comfort, complacence, amusement, joy, to name a few). The “happiness” we require of our lives should not be too precisely predetermined because life is unpredictable and inflexibility about what happiness means will necessarily disappoint. Most importantly, whatever “happiness” you do find will never be unblemished.

To use a clichéd but fitting example: I always expected law school graduation to be one of the happiest days of my life. I expected my sister Dola’s wedding to be one of the happiest of hers. But we lost our father right after her engagement and a year before my graduation. We still did those things, of course. Dola got married after a one-year postponement. I graduated on time. She was in love and I was satisfied with my achievement. But nothing was going to be the “happiest” anything, ever again. As my friend Shawna put it (speaking of life after her brother’s death) “no matter how good it gets in every way, it will never be better than before. We will achieve great things and experience great loves and maybe make a difference in people’s lives, but somehow, it will never be “better.”

So, yeah, one of life’s great paradoxes is that the ability to be happy requires a certain acceptance of the limits of happiness. But recognition of the limits of “happiness” (understood as an all-encompassing mental state of satisfaction with the totality of one’s life) differs fundamentally from the claim that “suffering” as a positive quantity is a good thing.

Let’s deal with that tomorrow.

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