Monday, May 27, 2013

My Own Small Vision of Happiness: Introduction

Ever since I can remember, I have had what you might call a hunger for life (what German romantics or at least their interpreters would call Sehnsucht).  As a small child, I couldn't really describe it very well.  I remember standing in the playground outside my old elementary school (when I was about eight years old, before my family moved from Alabama to Georgia and began homeschooling), thinking to myself, "I must remember this moment.  There are trees over there, wind in my face, the sun overcast with a few clouds behind me, and a fence right there in front of me.  I must remember this moment, so that I can look back from the future and see what it was like to exist here and now."  I knew that there was something significant in that moment.  I knew that life was something important.  I knew I had many things ahead of me, many unknowns, and that what I was experiencing right then was somehow meaningful.  But I could not see how.  I did not know what life was.  I had the feeling I was going into something, but I couldn't see what (or what I was supposed to do about it).  As a result, I would repeatedly stop and try to "capture moments" like this one (which remains lodged more deeply in my memory than most of the later ones, though I sometimes think I remember some of them, too--memory being the tricky thing that it is).

As I grew older, my hunger became more concrete (more identified with definite things in my personal environment).  I learned to satisfy it with particular goods, goods that I encountered in my personal experience and cultivated as something unique to me.  These goods could be material things, but in my experience they were always more.  I loved books, not because of the paper or the particular information that they contained, but because there was something incredibly vital and satisfying about sitting down for several hours and reading, learning things about animals, people, places, and things I had never seen (or at least never recognized: books taught me that each thing in my ordinary experience contains a world of context to which I remain always more oblivious than not).  I loved books as an experience more than as things.  Significantly, the experiential value of books was always greater when I chose my own reading.  The books I have enjoyed most throughout my life (from the time I asked my dad to read me The Lord of the Rings out loud before bedtime as a five-year-old until now) have been the ones I picked myself.  I don't want the things people want me to have (books, diplomas, car, house, family, kids, jobs, career, cursus honorum).  I want the experiences I choose for myself (reading, working, friendship, love, victory and defeat, birth and death, virtus).  I didn't have words to say this as a little kid, but it was true then and remains true today.

As I grew up, I learned more about the hunger I carried inside.  I learned that it could be destructive as well as constructive.  The most powerful illustration of its awful power was provided by my interaction with institutions.  Naive and idealistic (like many before me and many since), I identified unreservedly with the groups of people around me, constructing my own virtus deliberately to reflect communal values in the social groups where I participated.  I aimed to be a perfect picture of Mormon virtue (as taught in my local LDS ward), martial virtue (as taught in my local martial arts dojo, which was run by a Southern Baptist preacher), and political virtue (as taught all over in my family, church, the dojo, and eventually the American universities where I studied).  Looking back, I think that this mistake is inevitable and even good, but that doesn't make it universally, unreservedly good (or safe: life is always dangerous, lethally so).  Sometimes, my eagerness to serve the collective paid off in good ways: I became a good student, a strong kid, and a hard worker.  Other times, not so much: I also became neurotic, pessimistic (depressive and obsessed with ways in which I fell short of perfection), and a glutton for others' approval (eager to confess sins and receive absolution, eager to be commanded in all things, slow to do things on my own initiative that might turn out "badly" for my standing with the group that I worshipped too much).  Also, I occasionally lost sight of my own ideals.  I was so concentrated on doing my part for the group that I forgot to take care of myself.  Serving visions of God and fellowman and country, I lost sight of myself.  I lost my own vision.  Committed to collective values, I didn't notice that my own values were becoming increasingly incoherent and even irrelevant (as I deliberately smothered my own idea of good to pursue somebody else's).

For years I did my best to ignore my own visions of good (which were scarcely coherent anyway, in part because I feared the threat their coherence might pose to the incoherence increasingly apparent in the collective values around me).  But it was all in vain.  The day finally came when I awoke--when I found myself sitting under my own bohdi tree, standing on my own mount of transfiguration, hearkening to the daimonion on my own shoulder. The issue of my awakening has been both positive and negative. On the positive side, I have become much more aware of what it is that I really value. This makes me easier to relate to as a person, and has made my friendships more authentic and enduring. On the negative side, people do not always like what I value, particularly when they know me only through my ideas (which occasionally sound much crueler and/or crazier than I like to think I really am). Expressing my personal virtus makes me obnoxious to people who wish that I would just sit quietly and like (or at least pretend to like) what they want me to. Inasmuch as I too feel dislike, I understand on some level the disgust that I inspire, and I think I have come up with some good ways of dealing with it—ways of relating to myself and others that allow us all to be authentic without compromising unnecessarily or impossibly our conflicting ideas of what constitutes happiness. In the posts that follow this one, I want to share some of my ideas about happiness—my own vision of what “the good life” looks like. While this vision necessarily includes the visions of others, I don't mean to dictate what people should like or do. My vision of happiness won't be yours, and that is as it should be. Like my vision or not as you please. My aim is always to make it as little obnoxious to you as possible, as little restrictive of your own moral autonomy as nature allows.

No comments:

Post a Comment