Sunday, 24 March 2013

Happy little ray of sunshine. 24.03.13

‘tis a mystery to me how this works, but things in my internet universe tend to come in waves.  Thanks to my propensity for taking random sharp turns in life, I am a member of several completely unrelated social media communities.  I know that these people don’t know each other.  I know that I am the only person in the middle of this particular Venn diagram.  Yet, because of synchronicity, coincidence, some sort of cyberspace-y hyper-consciousness or sod’s law, posts on the same subject will suddenly come at me from all directions.  I swear on Darwin’s grave that I routinely spend hours blogging on a subject just for a handful of random friends to stick up memes, quotes and two-lines status updates that summarise and elevate what I’ve been trying to say, making my efforts seem verbose and rather pointless.  Yes, it’s really annoying.

This blog is the other way round, though.  It seems that everyone is suddenly going on about happiness.  My friends are by and large proactive people that seek the good stuff in life; hell, I would hardly like to be friends with moaning bitches who enjoy rolling in their own misery and do nothing to help themselves.  That would not make for fun parties.  However, the current trend is well out of the norm.  Suddenly everyone is studying, dissecting, searching for or trying to encapsulate happiness.  Many apple carts are being pushed over.  Many chunks of shit in varying sizes are hitting many fans.  Many glorious memes are being created.  It’s a fun time to be alive, if we can all survive it without too many casualties.  However, I’m getting pissy.  Even more pissy than usual, that is, which is saying something.

“Happiness is a habit.”  “If life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”  “Count your blessings.”  “Be happy for no reason, like a child.”  I kind of agree with them, but they also make me want to scream and hurl stuff.  I don’t think I’m a pessimist.  I don’t think I’m an optimist either.  I think, naturally, that my perception of the world is razor-sharp and perfectly balanced.  That is because I’m a human, hence a deluded ape who really should have never bothered climbing down that tree.  With opposable thumbs and the ability to use sticks to club each other to death, we seem to have developed a cast-iron sense of self-righteousness that takes a lot of self-awareness to identify and destroy.  Most of us never manage it.  Deep inside us all there is a belief that the way we look at the world is correct; the corollary is that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is deluded.  Come on, admit it.  It’s not just about religion and politics, it is a parasite seated far deeper in our psyche.  We believe that our viewpoint is right and that any clashing viewpoint is wrong.  We might be TOLERANT of those who don’t agree with us, but it is a tolerance which incorporates a feeling of slight superiority.  We’re all smart-asses, in our little universe behind the eyeballs.

Spider Robinson makes the issue come alive in his book “Very Bad Deaths”[1], in which one of the main characters is a telepath:
“We each think our viewpoint is truth.  The more certain of it we are, the stronger our personality is, the louder our ego broadcast becomes.  A telepath knows better.  He has sampled hundreds of viewpoints and knows perfectly well that they’re all full of shit, including his own.  In a sense it’s the one thing he does know for sure – and every single thing you think at him tries to tell him he’s wrong.  You in particular, I mean now.  You’ve got a viewpoint so rigid and defended and angle-braced and fail-safed, even at a thousand meters you must seem to obliterate his worldview with your own, to bludgeon him into seeing everything as you do: correctly.”

Now, if you are a human, chances are you will spend a variable amount of time fighting against this assessment.  Then you’ll either have to admit that it’s correct and eat some crow pie, or lie about it to yourself and bury the truth so deep inside you that it will fester.  But this is not what this blog is about – it’s about happiness myths, or theories, depending on your point of view.  So here’s a list of the three happiness one-liners that most make me want to join some sort of paramilitary organisation so’s I can get my hands on a gun.

“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”  In my head, I generally see this accompanied by a happy smiley face, which I want to punch.  The idea behind it is that whatever life throws at you, you should be able to turn it into something you can appreciate.  You should be able to make the best of whatcha got, kinda.  Well, hate to break this to you, but if you just squeeze a whole load of lemons what you get isn’t lemonade.  It is a sour, rather undrinkable mess.  If you want to make lemonade, you need to add something sweet, to taste.  So if life is only handing you lemons, you’re essentially fucked.  All you got, until you find some sweetness, is at best a load of lemons.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with lemons if you like them, but you’ll find that most people don’t.  You can try and make yourself get used to them, and then all you’ll have to deal with is probably a serious case of acid reflux.

You might as well say, “if life hands you lemons, find yourself some salt and tequila and stay blind drunk until things get better.”  No, I’m not advocating that, don’t be daft; that would be adding a major problem to all your existing ones.  What I’m trying to point out is that the lemonade statement, whilst sounding logical enough, is bullshit.  The truth of the matter is that to make a palatable drink out of lemons, you need a sweetening agent.  To make a palatable life, you need to find something among the flame and debris and horrors and loss and betrayals and disasters and soul-wrenching PAIN to give you joy.  Otherwise you’re just sucking lemons.  Yes, your level of required sweetness may be different from mine, and it pays to get used to having very little indeed, life being as it is.  But just lemons?  No, thank you.

“Happiness is a habit.”  Try saying that to a starving child in Africa who’s just seen his mother bludgeoned to death, or worse, on her way to fetch water.  Yes, I know, that is an extreme case that does not apply to most of us, but it’s my knee-jerk reaction to the statement.  Yes, it is true that we often need to school ourselves against negative modes of thinking.  Yes, it is true that un-happiness may become a habit otherwise.  Like most broad-sweeping statements, however, it is only true up to a point.  A positive attitude may be a habit that we can cultivate, but happiness is also, almost inevitably, the result of real-life events.

There are many personal qualities that can help us be happy.  I was brought up not being exposed to any of them, as my immediate family is messed up beyond measure, so I am learning about them as I go along.  You’ll have to excuse me if I get things wrong here.  The two main ones I’ve been working on lately are acceptance and resilience.  I struggle mightily with both.  I have a toddler’s tendency to scream and shout and get all worked up about things not being “as they should”.  Things, naturally, couldn’t care less about my opinion, so they just go on their course.  I waste a lot of energy throwing internal tantrums that would be much better spent getting myself out of the shit.  I might as well stand in the sea, feet firmly planted on the sea bed, with waves washing over me, screaming at them because I’m struggling to breathe.  It would be rather more helpful to accept that I gotta choose between swimming or drowning.  Oh hum.

As for resilience, hell, it’s a miracle I can even spell the word.  I only learnt about the basics of it last year when my back was firmly against the ropes.  I could deal with stuff or I could crumble.  Crumbling was rather a terminal option, as nobody was going to come and fix my life for me.  I had no choice, so I had to grow a pair[2].  I had to stop all the conversations in my head that made me feel weak or panicky.  I had to learn to focus on solving the problems right in my face, rather than dwell over them.  I had to get the hell on with it.  I learnt a lot, the hard way.  It was massively formative, although I am still not sure whether if the same circumstances arose again I will be better suited to deal with them or just opt to blow my brains off instead.  One can but hope, but all the same I’d rather not find out.

Cultivating qualities that help us being happy, that’s a habit.  Happiness per se, I don’t think so.  Unhappiness, on the other hand, just requires a bad attitude.  I know people that are able to take any situation and sap every bit of joy out of it with their attitude.  Plenty of people are just waiting to point out what might go wrong, what isn’t quite right, what is missing altogether.  They just can’t wait to rain on your parade.  I’d suggest bringing along an umbrella and using it to beat them out of your way.  Real happiness, however, for all of us who’re not fully Zen, requires some real-life stuff to back it up.

“Count your blessings.”  I tend to associate this with the whole “there’s plenty of starving children in Ethiopia who would be happy to eat your spinach.[3]”  Yes, I am sure that there are.  It doesn’t make me like spinach any more, though.  As exercises in futility go, this is pretty near the top.  In fact, it can be damn counterproductive.  Now, I can’t see anything wrong with looking at what’s right in your life.  It sure beats wallowing in what’s wrong – which is not to say that you don’t need to think about that, too.  If you can’t assess what’s wrong you don’t have a hope in hell of putting it right.  There are two main problems with blessing-counting, though.  Firstly, it tends to be delusional.  Secondly, it is often used as a competitive activity.

Take my position, for example.  I am relatively young-ish and mortgage- (if not debt-) free.  I run my own successful business.  I have an only moderately damaged body, relatively good health and most of my own teeth.  These are, allegedly, blessings I should be counting.  I get told that a lot.  I am so LUCKY.  So many people are WORSE OFF than me.  I should COUNT MY <insert Anna sticking an axe in someone’s forehead here>.

The problem is not with what I have, but with what it means to me.  I never wanted to own a house.  I hate houses.  As far as I’m concerned, if it doesn’t have wheels than it’s a prison.  To add insult to injury, this is a house at least 4 times bigger than I need it to be and which constantly sucks money and time out of me, being old and somewhat broken.  I have to keep feeding it or it will fall down around my ears.  As for the business, I never, NEVER wanted to be self-employed.  I hate the responsibility.  I’d rather be a wage-slave any day of the week.  Give me mind-numbing labour that I can forget about it as soon as the bell rings!  I took this whole thing on, like a moron, to try and fix things for the people in my life, who bailed out on me so fast I could not see them for dust.  I got screwed over and left with stuff with might be wonderful for you, but sucks the big one for me.  Meanwhile, my ex-stepchild’s mother lives in a tiny rented flat and flips burgers for a living, but she’s there with my ex-stepchild.  Would I swap with her?  Are you kidding me?  So, how about instead of telling me how glad I should be for stuff you don’t have, which I hate and makes my life a misery, you try and see my point of view, practice some EMPATHY?

And breathe.

We all have different values and aspirations.  The blessing-counters often seem to forget that.  What’s a blessing to you may be a curse to me, and vice versa.  My happiness is, unfortunately, linked to what I’ve got that I actually want, not what you want.  Now, I KNOW that there are people out there who are managing to be a lot happier than me on a lot less.  I salute them.  I respect them.  I am possibly a bit envious of them, if I care to admit it, yet at the same time I ponder at times whether they might be slightly brain-damaged, rather than more Zen than me.  Dunno.  One way or the other, the point is that they’re not me.  Also, they might be happy without what I have, because they have something I haven’t got.  Comparing the differing attitudes of different people living different lives is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, cubed.  Bit pointless, like.

So, am I, in essence, a miserable bastard?  What’s my personal position on happiness?  I think it’s essential and grossly overlooked.  I think if people thought deeply and consistently about what makes them truly happy the world would be a better place.  I’m not talking about superficial, this-moment happiness here, I’m talking about the real deal, the state of being that makes you wake up in the morning utterly glad to be alive.  I honestly believe that if people thought about the far-reaching, long-term consequences of their actions on their own happiness they would exercise a lot more self-restraint in the here and now.  People would be kinder towards those around them.  There would be less non-essential debt and a lot fewer affairs.  Ranch dressing and fried Mars bars would be a thing of the past.

I think we should all bust our collective arses for happiness.  However, I think it should be a reality-based happiness, not one of specious memes and one-liners.  And one of the key elements of real, in-the-bones happiness is the realisation that life sometimes sucks; that it might not matter if the glass is half full or half empty, because you are not going to get your grubby hands on it, or if you do it’s full of weewee.  I think that in happiness, as in life, we can’t just be thinkers or jingle-repeaters – we have to be behaviourists.  Focusing solely on changing your attitude when your life, to you, sucks arse, is akin to thinking about physiotherapy instead of getting down and working at the stuff.  If it works for you, hey, respect.  In the meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to walk down the Zen path, but I’ll also try not to step in dog poo as I go along and I’ll make sure my shoes don’t give me blisters.

I would like to leave you, oh faithful readers, with a poem a friend sent me during The Dark Days of 2012.  It is as good a statement on happiness as the original, and rather more helpful, I think.  We might not be fully happy, but at least we are not in Milwaukee[4].

"Deteriorata" - National Lampoon

You are a fluke of the universe. You have no right to be here.
Deteriorata. Deteriorata.

Go placidly amid the noise and waste,
And remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.
Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep.
Rotate your tires.
Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself,
And heed well their advice, even though they be turkeys.
Know what to kiss, and when.
Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do.
Wherever possible, put people on hold.
Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment,
and despite the changing fortunes of time,
There is always a big future in computer maintenance.

Remember The Pueblo.
Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate.
Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI.
Exercise caution in your daily affairs,
Especially with those persons closest to you -
That lemon on your left, for instance.
Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls
Would scarcely get your feet wet.
Fall not in love therefore. It will stick to your face.
Gracefully surrender the things of youth: birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan.
And let not the sands of time get in your lunch.
Hire people with hooks.
For a good time, call 606-4311. Ask for Ken.
Take heart in the bedeepening gloom
That your dog is finally getting enough cheese.
And reflect that whatever fortune may be your lot,
It could only be worse in Milwaukee.

You are a fluke of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
And whether you can hear it or not,
The universe is laughing behind your back.

Therefore, make peace with your god,
Whatever you perceive him to be - hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.
With all its hopes, dreams, promises, and urban renewal,
The world continues to deteriorate.
Give up!

[1] If you haven’t read it, do.  Read all his books and don’t come back until you’ve done so.  He’s one of the best writers in the world, goddamn, and he GETS people.
[2] Metaphorically, you’ll be relieved to hear.
[3] If you are planning to use this line of thought with any child in your care, beware.  My response, circa age 8, was to start collecting unwanted foodstuff into a cloth bag, to send it to them.  It is a miracle I wasn’t put up for adoption, it really is.
[4] If you are in Milwaukee, please don’t take it personally.  I’ve never been there.  They might not have been there, either.  Don’t worry, be happy?

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