Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance (2016)
So what may we conclude from this book? What am I saying, really?
I believe that a good book (and I can only hope this is one of those) is supposed to open our minds to questions, not close and clutter our minds with answers. Often when I read books that offer answers, I feel a little cheated. I believe that each and every one of us must find our own path. Out of respect for my readers, I haven’t given you ‘Seven Tips for a Better Life’, or ‘Eight Basic Principles for a Happier Life’.
In the past, psychological studies have mostly focused on the attempt to turn the horrible misery of being a human into ‘tolerable suffering’, as some early psychologists put it. We must be living in a better time now. People no longer want tolerable suffering at all. They want to be happy and end their adventure on Earth feeling satisfied and complete. And so the best psychologists have rolled up their sleeves and set out to help us.
Today we know about many things that actually improve our quality of life: people with positive thinking live longer; married people are happier; money does wonders for the poor but adds nothing to those who have plenty; believers are happier; education is not a factor in people’s happiness; social associations and friendships, on the other hand, significantly add to it. Quite surprisingly, evidence shows that, with the exception of people in their 40s and 50s, most of us are happier as we grow older; it has also been shown that women are both happier and more miserable than men because they have more variance, whatever that means ...
Now, what are we to do with this multitude of information that’s mostly based on statistical analyses? Statistics, we all know, is a science that can tell us the probability of chance outcomes when we flip a coin 1,000 times, but is of no use to us when we get to flip it only once. Studies are valid for large groups, but there’s almost nothing we can deduce from them when considering a single person.
Remembering those insights and keeping them in the back of our minds is all well and good, but if we seek meaning and wisdom we shall have to make our own individual journey to find them. At best, these academic findings can serve as road signs along the way.
My Way (I Did It)
Instead of giving you tips – which is the smallest currency conceivable and thus, for the most part, useless – I’ll tell you about my journey to the valley of big questions. I was greatly influenced by King Solomon, the wisest of all men, and though he lived three millennia before me, some of his recommendations served to light my way and provide instructions for living life. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Do Not Give Up on Life’s Pleasures
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
The wise king suggests that we try our hand at everything we can. This idea came at least two millennia before Nietzsche suggested that it’s better to regret things we did than to be sorry for things we didn’t do, given that sorrow for the latter is infinite.
So, enjoy yourself. Love a man, woman or child. Go see the Dolomites. Kiss in the rain. Write your memoirs. Read a few philosophy books or, better still, revisit some children’s books. Swim with abandon. Insist. Fight. Forgive. Sing in the shower. Pause to observe the cherry blossom. Study maths. Learn a foreign language. Get upset. Get angry. Get sad. Be happy. Admire. Wonder. Pray. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
The light is sweet, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun.
I can actually envision King Solomon sitting on his huge throne, on a mountain of embroidered cushions, in the splendid garden of his enormous palace. It’s early in the morning and the sun, rising behind the Temple, lights up the tall palm trees and dances on the hair of dozens of beautiful women who sit next to him or play beneath his feet. The king looks around, picks up a scroll and a feather, and writes: ‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.’ All shall pass into nothing.
Solomon is thrilled by the beauty that fills his eyes. Life is great, light is sweet, and it’s good to see the sun and all the things it shines on. But why does it all have to end? The king loves life passionately and hates it at the same time.
To think in terms of either pessimism or optimism oversimplifies the truth. The problem is to see reality as it is.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Acquire a Friend
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labour. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.
Get Busy – Live a Life of Labour
The sleep of the working man is pleasant, whether he eats little or much; but the full stomach of the rich man does not allow him to sleep.
Through indolence the rafters sag, and through slackness the house leaks.
Try to Be Happy
Indeed, if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything that is to come will be futility.
Ecclesiastes (Solomon) knew that the ability to be happy is God-given. Today’s scientists call this ‘good genetic disposition’. The name doesn’t really matter. Even though the ability to rise on a dark and rainy morning with a smile on your face is actually genetic, it’s important that we remember: it is so only in part. A wise man can try to learn how to be happy and uproot anger from his heart.
Don’t Long for the Past
Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.
King Solomon suggests that we avoid nostalgia. Longing for bygone years is neither wise nor beneficial. It’s stupid to think that things were better once. My personal experience has taught me that, quite often, I miss the past because I’m not too happy with my present state. People usually remember an idyllic past that’s actually far removed from what really happened.
And here’s one of my favourite recommendations:
Don’t Be Righteous (or Right) All the Time
Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.
Don’t you be so (self-)righteous now! Everyone knows that everyone’s a sinner.
I could never stand the hypocrites who pretended to be angels that have just descended from Heaven. I’ve never believed people who say they always do good and nothing but good. The worst versions of this type of person are the ‘preachers’ – those who lecture you about being moral toward others, stressing that they are, of course, spotless in that regard.
Good and bad struggle with each other in everyone’s heart. All of us have thoughts we’re ashamed of. All of us have done some things we’re not too proud of. The key word is moderation. There really is no black and white, only shades of grey.
Ever since I turned 40, I’ve made a point of re-reading chapters and passages of The Little Prince. I find it a poetic and philosophical book that gently whispers great truths. On days when sadness fills my heart and I start thinking that perhaps nothing we do under the sun has meaning, that it’s all vanity of vanities, I can hear Antoine de Saint-Exupéry explaining: if there’s any meaning to the things we do, it’s found in the simple yet most important things, the things that matter: the ability to remain a child a little while longer; the ability to be someone’s friend; and, above all, the ability to love a single flower.
The Natural Way and the Path of Grace
I have spent hours reading and contemplating two philosophers whom I love very much, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the French philosopher Simone Weil. I owe them and the American film director Terrence Malick for the thoughts that follow.
There are two roads to take on the path of life. One is the natural way, in which we follow our natural inclinations, and this is not the desirable way to go. People who go that way are always busy comparing themselves with others, and their hearts are filled with envy. They tend to get mad easily – either at other people or at their own sad realities. They seek respect and fame and fortune, and are attracted to dark passions. The natural way is the way of a rock rolling downhill. It requires no effort.
The path of grace is different. People who choose it accept (or at least try to accept) everyone and everything as they are, with great love and compassion. Every aspect of Creation thrills them. They feel and express endless gratitude for their very existence. They neither judge nor patronize anyone. They neither envy others nor seek honour for themselves. Choosing the path of grace is hard, and walking it is even harder. In fact, it’s nearly impossible. Sometimes, just knowing that the path of grace exists fills my heart with great joy, even though I am not yet on that path.
That great thinker Søren Kierkegaard maintained that once a person finds the path of grace in his heart and fully enters the realm of love, the world – however imperfect it may be – becomes rich and beautiful, consisting entirely of opportunities for love. Eternity, he believed, will ask me (and you, and you) only one question: have you lived your life in despair or in love? Despair is a sign of a life lived wrongly. Despair is vanity turned upside down. Love is the way.
Taking the path of grace is like trying to roll a particularly heavy rock up a hill. If you stop paying attention, if you get distracted, even for a split second, the rock will immediately start rolling back down. The natural inclination to take the natural path lurks at every corner at all times. Simone Weil believed that though we rarely do evil things, we often have evil thoughts – and they are the kind of thoughts that take a person where he or she does not want to go.
Anyone who takes the path of grace acquires a real truth for themselves. It’s an authentic truth, one they may be willing to die for, but certainly want to live with. Truth must be personal. Or, as Kierkegaard put it: ‘The crucial thing is to find a truth that is true for me.’
Between the natural way and the path of grace there’s a deep abyss. It’s in that gap that we live our lives as a giant struggle between good and evil, Satan and God, despair and love. Whenever despair wins, it’s the natural way. Whenever love wins, it is a moment of grace. When love is victorious and defeats despair completely, you’ve reached the path of grace.
So, two roads diverge in life. The choice is ours, and the things that matter to us will light our way.