“It’s your duty to be happy,” I coaxed my best friend after she shared that she’d tried to commit suicide, the last resort and cry for attention in a doomed marriage. (Thankfully, the thought of her baby kept her from going all the way.)
That’s been a refrain for me in the past many years: “We owe it to ourselves, to our world and to our God to be happy. Only when we’re happy can we make others happy.”
But as I typed out this message yet another time on Whatsapp to her, my own life flashed before my eyes. It hit me that, yes, happiness is our duty, but, oh, how difficult it is to be happy, how limited it is, and how little it lasts.
We think we’ll be happy when we have lots of money. But once we have lots of money we realise rich people are people too, with their own sets of unhappinesses, insecurities and existential holes.
We think we’ll be happy when we win adulation and approval. But that is just a shadow we’re perpetually chasing, further away, forever out of reach, following us only when we turn away in indifference.
We think we’ll be happy when we are beautiful, when we can look at ourselves with pride. But beauty is a mirage that changes shape – what is pretty one day is ugly the next – so we’re constantly running, in the malls, on the treadmill, seeking to pin down a cloud that cannot be pinned. It is in its nature to change.
We think we’ll be happy when we get married, but marriage is a dance with a mirror; we only receive the expression we make, we only swirl in the direction we move ourselves, we only reap what we sow into our own souls, whether it is disdain, disappointment, disrespect or devotion.
We think we’ll be happy when we have children; when our children hit all the right benchmarks; when they outdo us in achievements; when their children bring us name and fame. But we soon learn that in dreaming for them, we belittle their own destinies; in our expectations of them, we stifle them; and in pushing them to accomplish social benchmarks, we erase all the divinity they bring into our lives. So who are the parents – them or us?
We think we’ll be happy when we give to others, when we share pieces of ourselves with those with less. But each act of altruism only reminds us of our own selfishness in giving, in our addiction to the sense of worth that giving gives us.
We think we’ll be happy when we land on the shores of success; when we get that plum assignment or that perfect job. But when it happens we realise we’re still hollow, there’s still something we crave, and no matter how far we’ll go in our careers, we’ll always be a dazzling step away from the Bill Gateses of our dreams. Because our dreams only show us what is written in black and white in the newspaper, not what is written in the subtlest letters on our hearts.
We think we’ll be happy when we have perfect relationships, when our families are smiling, when our friends are peachy, when our colleagues are kind, and when the neighbours don’t mind our dogs any more. But, in a flash, words spark a flame and there’s a fire in your chest, and you see the foolhardiness of having your peace dependent on such a volatile, unreliable optical illusion. Can you tie a bow on a rainbow?
Then we think we can maybe change our very definition of happiness, and learn to revel in all that we reviled before. So when we fight with our teen, we rejoice we have a child in the first place. When our nail paint chips off, we marvel we have fingers in the first place. When our computer mouse goes missing at work, we give thanks we have an office to come to, we have a fancy computer to work on, we have resources to produce new mouses (mice?) when we need it.
And yet, those gratitudes too are short-lived. The more you study happiness, the more you recognise that it vanishes the moment the next thing comes along and so we have to ‘practice’ happiness over and over again.
But all that cannot be said on Whatsapp to a woman wrecked on the rocky shores of a crumbling marriage.
Yes, it’s our duty to be happy. And yes, the definition of happiness changes every day. And yes, you’ll always be chasing an elusive, fleeting and fickle lover. It’s great to have but it’s difficult to hold. So perhaps we have to just let happiness go where it must and turn our attention to something else worth doing, receiving and living.
The other day, I was stepping into my car, smiling at a stray dog that went by, and it struck me: “Love is the most authentic glimpse we have of God.” Those big or brief moments of pure, straightforward love and sense of oneness with the other or the universe are hints to what heaven must feel like. Love gives meaning and beauty to existence; it outlives us. As Aristotle wrote, “Remember that time slurs over everything, lets all deeds fade, blurs all writings and kills all memories. Exempt are only those which dig into the hearts of men by love.”
So, from today, I shall change my preacher’s refrain, “It’s our duty to be happy,” and turn it into: “How much have we loved?” Because, my jaan, happiness comes and goes. But love? Of all the things precious to man and God, it is love that goes on.