I was standing on the back decking of the house, drinking my coffee in the frigid morning air. The sun had just come up about 30 minutes before, but the sky was so grey and cloudy that the sun could have taken a day off and nobody would have noticed. I was dog-tired: I'd just spent the last two days in a massive videogame binge, not sleeping at all, until I beat the game and earned the cocktail of feel-good chemicals associated with completion.
I was in a pensive mood as I felt guilty about the whole affair. I mean, I didn't really have anything more important to be doing during those two days, but maybe I should have found, made up, invented something more important to do. Like most Americans today I'm addicted to feeling busy. I had enjoyed playing the videogame, so as long as I didn't do it too frequently, why should I feel guilty about it? The next question came to me in the peculiar way that the stream of consciousness does- coming and never going- Was I happy while I was playing that videogame?
Of course that question couldn't just pass on through politely but brought a whole caravan of others with it, like, When was the last time I was happy?
The thought struck me that morning that I wasn't really sure when the last time was that I'd been happy.
Okay, hold the Xanex. I don't mean that in a I'm depressed and unhappy, woe-is-me kind of way. Today is one of my good days.
What I mean is that I'm not sure happiness is a real emotion, despite our obsession with it.
Take the videogame I was playing. I did it in my spare time, for amusement and recreation. I obviously wanted to play it and enjoyed playing it, otherwise I wouldn't have done so for two days straight. But thinking back to how I felt when I played it, I wasn't happy. I was any number of things, but not happy.
I was distraught when my armies were defeated or set back by a new foe, and excited when I saw a way to one-up my computer-controlled enemies' armies. I was content when I was ahead, joyful when a long-shot gambit miraculously worked and sullen when it didn't. At times I was even impatient and bored when the action died down. Happiness wasn't anywhere in there.
It was a roller-coaster of emotions, but what is clear in looking back is that the entire time I played the game I was engrossed, absorbed, focused; much too so to be happy. I was so absorbed with the game that even after tearing myself away from it to get ready to start a day of work I was still mentally commanding little armies of ancient Macedonians. I recreated in my dreams ancient battlefields halfway around the world.
I'm not really sure when I've last been happy because, looking back at most of my good memories and experiences, there is always another emotion other than happy that seems to describe the moment more aptly and perfectly.
Take my surprise 22nd birthday party that an ex-girlfriend organized for me a couple years back. I felt surprise, obviously, that quickly transformed to wonder and excitement and gratitude. By the end of the night these had faded to a warm sense of contentment.
Perhaps I could say that all of these pleasant emotions are part of being happy. If I'm feeling these things in the context of some good event, like a surprise party, then that must mean I was happy.
But that just convinces me even more that happiness is a fiction.
When we feel emotions like joy, rage, apathy, surprise, and gratitude we know we're feeling them. They clearly happen in the present moment and are accompanied by distinct physiological changes. Quite simply, they exist.
About that surprise party, for instance, I might say, "That was a happy moment" (though even that sounds too treacly). I never actually felt the supposed happiness in the moment. The goodness I'm feeling is from all the other emotions- wonder, excitement, (good) surprise. At the party I might have said to my friends, "I'm really happy!" But even that feels more like I should be saying, "I'm really grateful that you all went through the trouble to craft this excellent surprise party." By expressing my "happiness" in that instance, I'm really just expressing my appreciation and enjoyment of the given moment and tacitly acknowledging the people, things, and events that made it possible. When I say I'm happy in the moment, it smells more of gratitude than of anything else.
Enjoyment might be the feeling closest to a traditional idea of happiness, but they differ in important ways. We can enjoy a challenge even if we're not necessarily happy about it. And that enjoyment usually comes from a sense of mindfulness and engrossment similar to what I experienced while playing the videogame. In contrast we only "feel" happiness in retrospect. We look back at the memories of emotions and we say they were happy moments, almost as a convenience or shorthand for everything else that was there. Dwell too long on those past happy memories and you'll be called nostalgic.
But nostalgia is unrealistic precisely because the happy memories it evokes lack depth and substance, like the happy but unrealistic memories of childhood we're left with long after we're grown up, the long-lost Garden of Eden we long to return to. Paradise seems appealing till you've been there for a couple weeks and are bored out of your skull. Was the Fall really a punishment, or was it an escape? Frankly, perpetual happiness, with no ups and downs, untempered by any of the sharper emotions, would be boring as hell. It means nothing is ever changing. Guess what happens to still water with no through flow? It stagnates and spoils. Imagine what the stagnation of perpetual happiness would do to our minds and our souls. And maybe that is the definition of hell. Any idea (like the happiness of paradise) taken to its extreme usually ends up resembling its opposite.
The issue, I suppose, is when we mistake happiness for a real, honest-to-God in-the-moment emotion that is the height of the human state, then we spend too much time worrying about, chasing it, and clawing for it. In doing so, we push it further away. We think we can find it if only we have just a little more that will take care of all the evil temptations, wants, needs, and sufferings we've shouldered since we left the womb. More money, girls, sex, possessions, prestige, fame, whatever, and we'll reach that blissful innocence, that shining impregnable castle perched high on the cliff, far removed from the vicissitudes of life.But if we convince ourselves that happiness is something we desperately need to feel, all the time, then we lose ourselves in the search for it. Everything around us becomes a tool, and ineffective ones at that, to make us happy. We become so focused on happiness that we stop enjoying the process. We succumb to what Viktor Frankl called hyperintention, where we want something so desperately that we push it away. The best way to defeat hyperintention? Intend the opposite, ironically. Or just shift focus. Instead of being a consumer of happiness, become a maker of memories, or of meaning, or of other nice m-words. If we all did that, we'd be too alive and in-the-moment to give two flips about whether or not we were happy.
If we get too nostalgic for happiness we spend all our time in our minds, searching for that something we can never quite find. We can't find it because it was always just an illusion, a trick of the mind we invented to stay warm on cold, lonely nights. Once we stop stumbling around for it we can focus on kindling real fires that can light up our darkness, flames we can share with those around us.
Happy doesn't capture the absorption, depth, or diversity of feeling of the surprise party or of the two-day video game binge. Happy can't explain the focus and drive of a hungry entrepreneur, artist, thinker, maker, or doer. If we'd have been happy, we'd have stayed in the trees, flinging poop at one another. Happy doesn't discern; it deadens and dulls.
I'd rather be anything but happy.
Nobody likes feeling anxious. Me least of all. Yet here I was, sitting in a bar, nervously sipping a diet coke (I wanted to be sober) as my trembling hand automatically brought the glass to my lips every three seconds. The source of my anxiety? That I had made it my mission to go up to a beautiful girl and tell her she was pretty. It was something I'd never done before and it scared the bejeebus out of me. And it was symptomatic of a deeper problem: I felt, and still feel, fear and anxiety at the idea of flirting with a pretty girl, period.
Sure, I'd gotten better. In fact, I was barely able to have a conversation with a girl until I was 17 or 18 or so. Back in 9th grade I heard that one cute girl liked me. It should have been the easiest thing in the world- "Hey, I like you too. Want to hang out in the cafeteria at lunch?" Or whatever 13 year old kids do on dates. I have no idea, I wasn't going on dates back then, so don't expect me to know. Anyway, what did I do instead? I avoided her for the rest of the year. I was a real charmer back then, let me tell you. I no longer avoid girls that like me, hence my assertion at the beginning of the paragraph that I have, in fact, improved. But I also just seem to stumble into my relationships, without any intentionality on my part. If I see someone I like, I can sometimes talk to them but not in a way that lets them know that I like them. I'm often friend-zoned by girls I liked, or worse, flat-out ignored because I never actually engage or connect with them, and when I do, I'm too nervous and uptight to be myself. Each time I move somewhere new, I struggle to meet new people and make new friends. Which is a huge problem by itself because I love travelling and exploring new places.
Back to me at the bar, though. As I sipped my soda, I knew which girl I wanted to talk to: a bewitching redhead sitting on the couch behind me. I just had to get up and go talk to her. Easy. Just stand up and talk a step towards her and the hardest part is over.
An hour and two diet cokes later, I was still frozen at the bar, unable to move. I might as well have been chiseled out of stone.
Talking to her shouldn't cause so much anxiety, fear, and distress. After all, what harm could possibly occur to me as a result of chatting up a pretty girl? But obviously my body was trying to keep some part of me safe from some danger, even psychologically. Ah yes, the ego.
We have a certain way of seeing ourselves and our relationship to the world. Our ego, our identity. It gives a sense of narrative to our lives. It is how we define ourselves. And in a crazy, unpredictable world, that definition can be a bedrock of stability. But that also means that we don't want to touch that bedrock, even to build something magnificent in its place, to build a palace or a cathedral. We don't want to see that bedrock cracked or damaged in the least. The ambiguity and uncertainty of having our fundamental beliefs about ourselves challenged is often too much. Our mind wants to protect itself. Our ego wants to protect itself- even if it means forsaking what we most desire and dream about. As a result we feel anxiety, one of the ego's chief self defense mechanisms.
Rollo May wrote an entire book about anxiety and our relationship to it (among other things) called Man's Search for Himself. Anxiety as May defines it is a particular and acute form of fear towards something that threatens our very existence "or to some value we hold essential to our existence". Which sounds great, since danger can hurt us. But anxiety makes no distinction between physical danger and psychological danger, where we merely risk a bruised ego and a hit to our status. But where did that ego come from in the first place? Do the values it so dearly protects allow us to fulfill our unique potential? Or, more likely, is it psychological baggage we've inherited and have never questioned? The ego writes the scripts we play out on a daily basis and the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are. These narratives seem useful because they let us connect with others and categorize the world. But we end up falling for our own fiction and believing it. And it is, ultimately, fiction. Can the absurd, happenstance world we live really be so easily understood as we would believe in listening to our own stories? To believe in a God means to accept that full understanding always eludes us and is for the Divinity alone, while an atheist must just as readily admit that the narratives we tell are a man-structure bolted on to a series of cosmic coincidences. Yet still we're attached to our fictions. Anxiety and its various manifestations- despair, loneliness, and the like- threaten to overwhelm us should we ever question our fundamental narrative. We've retold them so many times (even if only to ourselves) that they have ossified, weighing us down like rocks in the sea.
Yet anxiety must be confronted and reconciled if positive change is to occur and we are to grow as men, women, and humans. One of the May's phrases that has stuck with me is that "anxiety, like fever, is a sign that an inner struggle is in progress... anxiety is evidence that a psychological or spiritual battle is going on." Anxiety only occurs when we are physically or psychologically threatened. Since real physical danger is so rare today, anxiety for a Westerner in the 21st century almost certainly signals psychological danger to our existing conception of ourself. That "danger" arises from dissonance between two different choices: one that validates the existing narrative, and another that challenges it. We want to be healthy but also want that cake. We want to meet women and be charming and likeable but don't want to be rejected (and be put in a situation where we clearly weren't liked). We want to be honest and just, but could use the money and no one is looking anyway.
Like a fever, no one wants to feel anxiety. To fight it or avoid it, however, is to ignore the signs our own body is sending us. Anxiety is a warning flag that we wave to ourselves whenever a choice we're about to make is fundamentally a choice about who we are and what we value. It exhorts us to choose carefully and mindfully. Anxiety is the cognitive dissonance between who we are and who we want to be, the clarion that calls us to plant our flag on one side of that dividing line or another. That pretty girl makes me nervous and anxious because feeling rejected by her would challenge my view of myself as a charming, likable guy. Or I'll feel stupid when I don't know what to say and I'll have to reconsider how witty and intelligent I really am. Or on a meta-level, I like the certainty of these beliefs about myself. Putting myself in a situation where they can be challenged means being in ambiguous, uncharted terrain, and that is scary to someone (like myself) who has those beliefs. All this validates my current ego-identity construct. Chatting the pretty redhead up puts a tiny hairline fissure in these beliefs, because I've acted in spite of them.
How do I reconcile my incongruous actions with my old beliefs? The easy thing for the mind to do is to find new beliefs that fit the actions. Not all at once, of course. But sustained action over time means the fissure grows larger and more unstable, until it is impossible for our mind to ignore- it loves a nice, clean narrative too much. So it invents a new one in line with our recent behaviors. Motivation follows action, in spite of early anxiety, not the other way around (and in the absence of anxiety). Aristotle was right when he said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Perhaps we can come to accept a healthy level of anxiety as a badge that we are working on the tasks truly important to our actualized selves.
I'm not saying confronting anxiety is always the right choice to make- only each of us as individuals can make that decision based on our individual circumstances, despite the many voices we have to filter through who would tell us how to live our lives- parents, friends, peers, governments. But we do have to recognize that by bowing to anxiety or working past it we are affirming a certain conception of ourselves and a certain set of values.
To take this idea even further, anxiety can be seen as a primal plea from our depths to live up to our ideal selves and the values we would hold dear. Anxiety isn't something to be avoided at all costs but is rather a reminder to live up to our highest conception of ourselves, and to take the action that affirms our higher self in spite of our attachment to our current identity. It is an opportunity to step into a new identity, to transform ourselves and be reborn; just as the seeds of the Italian Renaissance (literally rebirth) grew out of the anxiety and uncertainty of one of the most rapine epochs of European history (just look up the infamous Cesare Borgia, a man known for his cruelty in an era known for its cruelty, to see what I mean).
Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning tells us that we're being questioned by life every day, and that each one of us must answer for our own lives, responsibly and freely. Emotions like anxiety and fear may be the most pressing questions of all to answer. These answers must be lived, because the questions are asking us who we are and what we value. Our lives are an answer and an affirmation, one way or another, whether we choose them consciously and courageously or let circumstances select them for us. If change is truly what we desire, then we must be willing to follow Rumi's advice:
Destroy the house to find the treasure chest
Then, when the treasure's found, you may invest
In building there a palace even more
Sumptuous than the one there was before.
I'm thinking of all this (I'm not really sure what I think until I put pen to paper or words to screen) because I am in the process of wrestling with it. I'm not writing about what I think of anxiety and fear but rather what I'd like to think of anxiety and fear, and all the potentialities that perspective permits. That redhead I wanted to talk to? After an hour I finally found the courage to talk to her. I breathed deeply and counted to three, turned around, and took a step towards her couch...
Which was empty. My indecision, like a howling wind, had snuffed out the tiny flame I'd lit, the hope that maybe, maybe this time I would be different.
...sees much and knows much