HAPPINESS

"How are you?"
"Can't complain."
It's much the same in Italian:
"Come stai?"
"Mi tiro avanti." (I drag myself along.)
   
    Why are people so often reticent about feeling good? It is because they know that it is very boring to talk about happiness. They say very few people read to the end of Dante's Paradiso; that the Inferno and Purgatorio are far more popular! There's nothing much to be said about happiness. But misery is inexhaustibly long-winded.
    How is it then that people band together when they are happy, but tend to go into isolation when they are miserable?
    I think this may be the answer: when happy people band together it is to be happy together, not to talk about being happy; but misery is the favourite topic of conversation for people who feel miserable (when they succeed in isolating someone who will listen).
    The search for happiness is full of paradoxes. It is well understood that if you strive to feel happy, you are almost certain to miss it: you will over-shoot it to the very measure of your striving. It has to come spontaneously, like a gesture of friendship or like the song of a bird. You could organise these, it is true: you could constrain certain individuals to show you signs of affection, and you could tape-record the birdsong. But these would be experiences of emptiness and failure. You cannot harness the feeling of happiness. Besides, when you think about it, what a low ideal it is: to feel happy. It is small and self-regarding.    "Strive to be happy," it said in the poem Desiderata, in a tone that seemed highly religious. It made this striving seem like a religious duty. Chekhov said somewhere that if we are happy we have a right to say we are doing God's will. To me it looks back to front. He did not say that if we are doing God's will we are happy, but just the reverse: if we are happy we are doing God's will. In the context, he meant feeling happy. This must be a God who makes no demands at all. That could be nice for a while, especially if we were brought up with a God who made too many demands for our comfort; but then it surely palls. It's like breakfast in bed and sleeping all day when you are not sick. God does not see us as softies but as beings who are capable of the infinite, as the mediaevals put it ("capaces infiniti"). We are led and taught by God, not simply indulged. Jesus was regularly called "Teacher"; he was on fire with something to teach. Perhaps you had a teacher in school who was easy-going and didn't care at all about teaching you anything. You respected them very little at the time, and less and less as the years passed. There is something objective missing in all this talk about feeling happy.
    The mediaevals (to mention them again) wrote quite a lot about happiness. Major questions were: What is happiness? In what does it consist? When is one happy? The interesting thing is that they spoke of objective happiness, not the mere feeling of happiness. Today we have so completely identified happiness with the feeling of happiness that 'objective happiness' looks almost like a contradiction in terms. But surely it is the only solid foundation. It means: to be objectively in a right relationship with God, others, the world and oneself. You may feel little or nothing yet, because your taste is deadened, but you are on the right road. Whether the road is the right one is the main question, and not how nice it feels to travel along it. In other words, questions about happiness cannot be separated from questions about truth.    Mi tiro avanti, I drag myself along. Perhaps there is a rugged truth in these off-hand phrases that goes deeper than all the analyses of feelings.
    (See Sat. Oct. 7 of the Gospel Commentary)

Donagh O'Shea

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