Borges: “Medicine cannot cure what happiness cannot.”
Recently I heard Russ Baker give a lively talk about the copious book he’s published after over a decade of intense investigative reporting on some of the worst government corruptions, scams, assassinations, and consequential lies in US history. The analysis went back to the Kennedy assassination and beyond. The general tenor of the talk was that any reason we think we have to trust the major media or the government probably needs to be reexamined. And that things are worse than we thought. One of the most remarkable moments in the Q&A that followed, though was when, asked how he managed not to become overwhelmingly cynical and depressed, Baker said, convincingly, “I’m a cheerful guy. And I love doing this stuff. Truth is exhilarating.”
It was a good reminder that happiness isn’t dependent on good news, or positive thinking, or the sort of ignorance often mistaken for bliss. Some of the happiest people I know have complicated lives, precarious finances, or chronic pain. Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, Brightsided, offers a characteristically edgy critique of the culture (or cult) of positive thinking that encourages members of the public to avoid “being negative,” to enjoy life, to make a project out of happiness. The result of such efforts to “be positive,” she points out, is dangerous neglect of critical questions that need to be asked, critical thinking about public issues or consumer decisions, and even a kind of atrophy of the emotional musculature it takes to sustain a deeper sense of well being than the superficial cheerleading that often passes for happiness.
My mother had that. My dad—a large-hearted but difficult, eccentric, high-maintenance spouse—asked her on occasion, “So—do you love me in spite of it all, or because of it all?” As I recall, she evaded the question deftly, and they both moved on, with a little ritual laughter. From this distance, it seems to me the obvious answer was “Both.” It’s probably the true answer for most relationships. And it’s probably true that the deepest happiness any of us achieves comes both in spite of and because of circumstances. “Be joyful,” Wendell Berry admonishes, “though you have considered all the facts.” In order to do that, we have to learn something about joy that isn’t obvious, and isn’t circumstantial, and certainly isn’t marketable. Happiness like that has something to do with discipline, maturity, simplicity, contentment, hope and, I think, what Frankl would have called a search for meaning.