On Happiness (And Joy)

This week’s Friday Five comes to us courtesy of that wondrous Green Booger, Laura:

For the past few years I’ve been compromising my hopes for a career and job I enjoy in preference to work a job that can relocate me to different countries and cultures. The exchange hasn’t really paid off as I’ve spent a lot of time feeling miserable about the job.

However, I’m about to play a gamble, which, if it pays off, wouldn’t only get me to work into an exotic culture (namely Asia) and in a job which I actually want to do. If it fails, I will be jobless, homeless and penniless. But the point is, I believe the possible benefits are worth the risk.

So in a true oriental spirit, my question is this: Name five ways to bring happiness to your life. Explain how you would go about to achieve them; what would you be willing to risk – and will you?

Now that’s a question. Risk and happiness: I think that there actually is always a degree of risk that we take when we pursue happiness. That’s part of the deal. If we live comfortably, we never grow or develop and tjhe fact is that for a certain segment of humanity it’s not comfort but growth, learning, and developing ourselves that makes us happy.

I think that’s why there’s a saying that exhorts us as follows: “Do something that scares you every day.” Confucius said that a man who finds work he loves never works a day in his life, but it’s not true. A person who finds work that he or she loves works like a dog (nearly) every day and feels replenished by the exertion. That person finds joy, and it’s boundless.

Wait a minute, I’ve switched from “happiness” to “joy”. Did you notice that? Suddenly I’m writing about joy. That’s a rather different proposition, isn’t it? Yes, but I think it’s what this question is really about. For me happiness is drab, suffused by things and circumstances, where joy is something more like a process, a way of relating, and a way of understanding life. That’s what I go for, and it involves a big risk.

Why? Because it means changing course, for most of us. I remember a professor of mine explaining that Chinese life was traditionally a bell curve slope, where on the way up one internalized the rules and boundaries of Confucian society, and then, after reaching middle-age or so, declining down the curve, one learned to break free of all of that and internalize the intuition and naturalness of Lao Tzu’s teachings. (It occurs to me that, as far as I know, Lao Tzu is not so popular in Korea. May explain a few things.)

Anyway, that leap from following the rules, listening to your inner self once it’s so tempered by society that you’re still not apt to run wild, is a difficult thing for some of us. Yet it seems to me it’s crucial. It’s perhaps the central step in this life for many of us.

  • Keeping at this saxophone thing. When I quit playing saxophone, I went through something akin to a grieving process. It was that big a part of my life that I’d lost, and I had no idea really why I’d been so insistent that to quit at all, I had to quit all the way. Maybe that was necessary for me, to keep me from the obsessive kind of practice that I’d had to do when studying music. But anyway, when I came back to the saxophone, it felt like some hidden Lazarus in some forgotten tomb inside me had risen from the dead and come out of the ground singing. I think one of the things that will keep me joyful in this life is playing music, this inexplicable pursuit of mine which I cannot justify logically, cannot explain in words, but which I love to do.
  • Writing. I know that the people who care about me believe I can succeed as a writer, but you know, I’m not really so sure. The competiton out there is enormous, and the uniqueness of my vision is not half what I’d like it to be. I read the writers I admire and ask myself why I can’t even imagine things as cool as they write about regarding the far future. I wonder if my skill with words will matter much in the SF genre, given how tons of people are just as happy reading rot-crafted Asimov novels. I wonder if I should try to move into mainstream writing, where craft is actually prized and valued; I wonder if I should focusn my efforts toward being an essayist, or maye start writing columns instead; or maybe say to hell with it all and focus on poetry. It’s a risk because it means a lot to me to succeed at writing, and if I fail it will possibly affect me deeply. But note that nowhere do I mention the idea of quitting. The act of writing makes me feel joy so incredibly deep that’s not even a possibility for me.
  • Putting new words in my head. Like with music and writing, communication of something, often of things I could not communicate previously, seems to me the core of what I’m on this planet for. Part of that for me is learning languages, finding new configurations of thinking or phrasing thoughts. The risks are small, really: I’ll cack up sentences along the way. So what? But of course, Korean is spoken by only a small fraction of the world. If I learned Chinese, or Russian, or Spanish, it’d be immensely useful in travel. The thing is: Korea is where I am now. Korean is also immensely hard, and I guess the challenge appeals to me. So I’m taking this opportunity to kick myself in the butt. I’m gonna see if I can find myself a teacher once my hand is better and I can write legibly… and till then, I can still start studying again in earnest.
  • Walking about in life open, instead of closed. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do, when you have scars from the past. I don’t know what happened in India, but somewhere along the way, maybe during all those strange days alone in the house in the woods, those afternoons sitting in the sun playing flute, the nights staring into the endless reaches of space… I don’t know where it happened, but something inside me that had been closed a long time before opened up. Things started happening from that time onward; people began to simply walk into my life, wonderful people. Things started to move toward me, and I began to find my path so very absolutely clear before me. And I realized a great deal of it was simply not being closed to things and people, and most of all not being closed to myself. I learned to give my instincts some priority, and to act upon them. It’s scary, and risky as well, because sometimes your instincts are mistaken. But the good that you stumble upon by following them can outweigh the bad… and there is so much good to be stumbled upon.
  • Opening myself to someone. You know, after a series of mishaps and experiences with flakes as long as mine, it can seem a little scary to open myself to someone again. I don’t mean getting involved with someone. You can date someone and not really open yourself to her, in the deep and honest way. There’s a safety in hiding part of yourself from sight, especially the parts of yourself you’re not proud of. And yet there’s a risk to it, because two people who hide from one another never truly get to know each other. The risk of opening yourself up, honestly, is rejection… but then, that would come anyway, eventually, if you never open yourself up. The risk is worth it because when you meet that someone who sees past the foibles and weaknesses and imperfections to the shining being within you, the wonderful creature that you really are, then a whole new joy can begin to sprout up from between the two of you. The other person sees you as you are, and invites you to what you can become, without expecting or demanding more than you are right here and now. And in a larger sense, this is true of friendships as well… though for me, right now, it’s Lime who is continually reminding me of this, in ways too myriad for me to explain here and now.

Risk, and benefit. I think the funny thing about risk is that it’s always something we imagine, and that we often enough mistakenly estimate risks. The real risks in life are different from what we anticipate. The real risk of love is not rejection, but of a long happy life together, and then the pain of losing the person you love. The risk of starting a business is not failure, but too much success for you to handle. The risk of moving somewhere is not getting lost, but losing yourself in that place. And sometimes, even, the thing we thought was a risk, turns out to be the best benefit. A marriage’s failure, the crashing of a business, the turning away from a long-held dream, can sometimes be an immense blessing, the thing that turns you straight onto your path. Sometimes it’s the thing we fear worst that we must endure, and sometimes it’s the very thing that launches us in exactly the direction we need to go.

As for me, I am determined now to keep joy in my heart. Having tasted it, finally, it feels like flying; it’s the lightness in the heart of a traveler, and the nervousness of an awkward lover taking his beloved into his arms for the first time. It feels like sitting on the side of the mountain at night, flute in hand, playing for nobody in mind, and staring into the glittering heavens of stars. It’s also the fit of a quartet of drummers locking their beats together perfectly. It’s really the most important thing, joy is.

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