Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 3

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Emerson

Coming here to this cottage in the woods I assigned myself what I know now to be an impossible task and that was to learn how to be alone again and in so doing engage in the task of being happy. I needed to know that in this rural setting with no lovers, wives, little money, but dump truck loads of peace and quiet I could I acquire this illusory thing called happiness that everyone including me has been so desperately searching for most of our lives.

It turns out that once again the philosopher Kierkegaard would have a useful insight, “Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.” “But Herr K” I whined, “the United States’ Constitution says, as does the internet, formerly Madison Avenue everyman has the right to pursue happiness—it is a guaranteed if I get the right job, right education, right spouse, right kids, right house in the right neighborhood I should be happy right?”

So happiness is “If this—Then”. If I don’t get the “right” everything then I’m not going to be happy. This is the cracked foundation on which our “happiness” home is built. It may take years or even decades or a divorce or a death for us to realize this house of straw could be blown over by the big bad wolf of bad luck, bad timing, and bad choices.

Yet it is in this house that we try to “make” our wives, children, husbands or parents happy. What happens when happiness is not achieved or acquired, caught, trapped and claimed as one’s birthright? Most of us feel like we’ve done something wrong, missed the proverbial boat and maybe even fallen out of God’s graces.

Outer circumstances, objectionable people, wars, bankruptcy, poverty, alcoholism seem to be the unhappiness rain that falls on both the just and the unjust. Happiness is more like a mirage in the desert that looks like a place we can eventually get to, claim as our own and drink it’s eternal, flowing waters—our own personal, emotional, spiritual and financial oasis.

“Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out into the woods nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Let me be clear here I am no Thoreau. I have wifi, laptop, desktop, ipad, iphone, and a satellite tv with a million channels. However what I’ve found now that I’ve lived here a year is that when I’m calm enough to remember to take full deep breaths and stand on my studio’s deck and look at the gentle pastures, slopes and hills and I see the horses in the pasture across the road buck at the first sign of cool fall air I experience joy. When I’m quiet and not missing somebody or something and the geese fly right over my house every year about this time headed south I feel a deep and abiding sense of peace and joy. When these honking angels decide to light on the still, small pond beside my studio I think this joy could last ten thousand years in this one eternal moment.

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Joy is something, as alone, lonely, sad, as I am almost every day is experienced a dozen to a hundred times a day. While happiness seems like a permanent commodity I should have bought off the internet and that I’ve paid for emotionally, educationally and financially it always seems to be just beyond the grasp of these too short arms.

Happiness is pursued while joy is received. All these elegant trees on my property and the neighbors’ stand waiting for the joy of their beauty to reach my eyes and then my heart. Some times when the wind is strong enough they wave at me to get my divided attention. The pines especially today are insistent on saying hello. It seems like joy is enhanced in direction proportion to how I reduce my expectancy and search for happiness. Joy can be experienced only in the precious moment. It can give birth to ecstasy, enthusiasm, and even momentary enlightenment. For us to be happy something has to happen to make us so. While joy is quixotic, mercurial, temporary it is available anytime night or day.

Happiness then says something must change and you’ll have me. Joy says you can have me anytime you want; I’m at your beck and call. Anytime you want to see that hawk that just flew over your head, that look in your own eye when you see your children that comes from within, anytime you access that ability you have to stop wanting, wanting things to be different than they are, wanting yourself to be different than you are, wanting happiness, you can experience the joy that is in you, and around you twenty-four seven whether you’re in the woods or in a high rise.

Unbecoming: From Despair to Love-Part 2

“It may be when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have, begun our real work.”

Wendell Berry

Before I can tell you about my despair or really listen to anyone’s I have to be connected to the anxiety that I have numbed, avoided, suppressed and discounted and most of all confused with fear all the while being diagnosed and treated for depression. Doctor Freud tells us that anxiety “is a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a floodlight on our whole mental existence.”

Anxiety, unlike fear, has no external source, cause, or cure; unlike it’s kissing cousin fear. Fear has an object. If I’m afraid of flying, which I used to be, talk therapy and immersion therapy and then getting in a plane can make the fear disappear. If I’m afraid of the dark then I just keep the lights on. If I’m afraid of lions then I don’t go to the jungle or the park but the anxiety that comes from being bone lonely and confronting my mortality is amorphous, ephemeral but just as damn real as any lion. Kierkegaard says, “Learning to know anxiety is an adventure…He therefore who has learned rightly to be in anxiety has learned the most important thing.”

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Whereas fear sharpens the senses, unrecognized anxiety dulls the soul, spirit and creativity not to mention any connection to something divine. Once fear is identified I can fly, fight or freeze. Anxiety is a disorder of desire for something that we can’t put a name to and can’t see, taste, hear or smell but everyone knows it is there if we just get quiet enough. The dictionary says, “Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat.” The dictionary goes on to say anxiety, “is a feeling of worry, nervousness, a dis-ease about an uncertain outcome.”

The philosopher Karl Jaspers speaks of anxiety this way, “a feeling of restlessness…a feeling that one…has not finished something…or that one has to look for something.” I came to this quiet, windy mountain to look at my anxiety right in the eye because I have been anxious my whole life. The Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton wants me to know, “anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.” When the preacher that baptized me over on Sand Mountain when I was nine years old, laid his bony hand on my should and pronounced that I’d be a preacher I started asking myself, my mom, my god, preachers and priests what to do and not do. However, Merton goes on to say anxiety comes from“being afraid to ask the right questions because they might turn out to have no answer.”

So am I poised to start asking the right questions answer or no answer? Am I ready to follow Paul Tillich’s advice who says one of the cures for my despair and anxiety is to “believe you are accepted” and to accept myself questions, despair, bone loneliness and all in the words of the old spiritual, “Just as I am without one plea…”

The post-modern novelist Walk Percy says, “Anxiety summons us to an authentic experience,” and if I strip down to all that I have learned, felt, seen and heard then one way to move out of despair and anxiety is to stop the frantic and exhausting pursuit of happiness.