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  • Jan Flynn

Happiness: A Radical Act

Living lightly in dark times

There’s no end of reasons to be unhappy

In this third spring of the pandemic, we are only just emerging, or so we hope, into some semblance of our old freedoms. As we begin to confront its staggering collateral damage — burned-out teachers, a mental health epidemic among school-aged kids, older adults in assisted living facilities who may never recover the cognitive ground lost during the long stretches of isolation — a new crowd of miseries pounds at the doors of our awareness.

We watch in horror as the atrocities mount against Ukrainian civilians, as mothers and children trying to flee to safety are gunned down or shelled into oblivion. The mass grave in Bucha, the tortured and executed bodies strewn in the streets, the nightmare of the previous war in Europe recurring with sickening intensity 77 years later — confront us with an existential crisis that is both personal and global.

How do we countenance such wholesale, determined cruelty? What are we to make of our membership in the human race when our brethren are capable of wanton, reasonless barbarity? Who is it who designs weapons that are so clearly directed at innocents, like the time-released land mines found near Kharkiv?

Why can’t humanity, with all of our access to history, knowledge, and technological wizardry, recognize and then shed the worst of our nature, once and for all?

Things aren’t so great closer to home

Inflation, soaring gas prices, a looming mid-term election that promises to further stretch the yawning chasm between Americans. No end in sight to the gun violence that just last week killed six people and injured a dozen others in Sacramento.

The appalling spectacle of a crowd of powerful white men savaging a courteous, dignified, and highly qualified Black woman during her hearings for her Supreme Court nomination, leveling absurd accusations at her as she maintained her composure in the face of their base-baiting vitriol.

The chronic dismay is exhausting.

Can we still be happy? Should we?

My sense of us as a species that, while flawed, over time tends toward a better, more enlightened version of itself has taken a series of body blows. The past six years in particular — certainly when the White House took on a sickening shade of orange in 2016 — have challenged my assumption of human progress.

Maybe we’ve always been a collection of easily fractionated tribes, a basically territorial, hierarchical bunch of higher primates who sometimes are capable of accumulating a veneer of civilization when conditions are just right, but who will devolve to our baser nature the moment those conditions change.

In any generation of us, there are some hopeful standouts. There are always a few leaders who operate from a moral, ethical, and courageous center. But they always have an uphill struggle, trying to lift the rest of us to heights to which we claim to aspire, while their counterparts — the strongmen, the hoarders of power and wealth at any cost — are determined to drag us back down to a level where we are of more use to them.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are just trying to get by, in conditions over which we may have very little direct control. Given the high stakes — our survival, our well-being, our desperate hope that our children will have a chance at a decent life — is it any wonder that we’re vulnerable to regression when we’re good and scared?

Maybe the only difference between people now and people in, say, the 14th Century (another plague-ridden, existentially fraught era) amounts to smartphones and air conditioning.

Or maybe our view is too short

Look at any of those cool graphics that portray the Earth’s entire history on a timeline: modern humans have only been around for the dot of ink at the very end. We’re a busy bunch, but we haven’t been in the business of conscious awareness for very long.

My point is, it’s not for me to know if we’re getting anywhere as a species or not. I’m a thread in the tapestry of life; I’m not the weaver. So maybe I should stop wasting my time and energy trying to figure out a pattern I’m not equipped to see.

Maybe I’m better off letting go and trusting that there is a pattern. Or, there’s not. Either way, I’ve got one thread to contribute and I might as well make it shine while I can.

Back to the 14th Century. Europe had barely recovered from one natural disaster, the Great Famine, when the Black Plague, or Great Pestilence, killed from 30% to 50% of its entire population within a period of six years. At the same time, the Hundred Year’s War over the succession to the French throne was just getting going.

Tough times. But surely there were those who not only survived in those harrowing years but who managed to thrive. In every dark period of human history, there have still been bright spots. Most of our tenure on the planet, at least since we organized into cities and states, has been marked by injustice, brutality, and plenty of trouble.

Recorded history has a strong negative bias; it tends to record the wars and disasters rather than the successful harvests and harmonious communities. But if history is what we have to go on, then it seems our happiness has more often existed in spite of our conditions than because of them.

What constitutes happiness, anyway?

By happiness, I mean something more substantial than the fleeting rush of an upcoming occasion, or a fun trip, or a new car. I’m referring to a mindset: a general, appreciative zest for life that isn’t wholly dependent on its changing conditions.

Naturally, nobody is happy all of the time — anyone who is doesn’t have all their oars in the water. But I’m sure you know someone whose resilient, sunny outlook operates as their baseline, even as they weather life’s storms, even if their current situation involves physical or emotional suffering.

They don’t deny the bad stuff; they go ahead and feel the pain. But they don’t make the mistake of identifying with it. They’re willing to move on. And they’re the folks whose presence, in good times or bad, is life-affirming, the people whom it feels good to be around.

I used to think such people were just lucky, born optimists. My personality tended toward the ruminative, the melancholic, and I figured that was just me and there wasn’t much I could do about it.

Over the years, amidst many stumbles and setbacks, I’ve come to believe that our personalities are something we’re responsible for. Nature and nurture gift us with certain tendendencies, but how we cultivate them is largely up to us.

Now — especially now, when things are so dire for so many people, when the future feels so uncertain — I believe that happiness is not only a choice, it’s a skill. And it’s important.

It isn’t about hiding from reality

Living in denial of the hard, scary, grievous parts of life may allow us to keep up a cheery front, but it’s a fragile mask. Doing so only contributes to the sense of helplessness, victimization, and chronic anger that bedevil so many of us these days.

None of us are off the hook: we’re called on to do what we can to set things right. Of course, it won’t be enough. Very few of us have the power to effect sweeping change.

That’s okay: it has to be, because that’s the way it is. We don’t make the world any better by endlessly wringing our hands. We sure don’t improve it by bringing other people down. Our single thread in life’s tapestry might, when it shines, be the light that gives somebody else hope.

Who knows? It’s worth a try.

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