Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I picked up Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments because I just couldn’t handle Hollow Kingdom at midnight. Not because it’s scary, but because I didn’t feel like raising my blood pressure.
If you click through some of my older posts, you’ll see I’ve talked a lot about happiness. One post entitled Happiness I wrote when I was taking pain pills for my injured back. I noticed the stark difference between my baseline happiness and this new, inorganic happiness. I struggled with accepting that our brain runs on limitations: we get a finite amount of dopamine, endorphins, and other stimulating neurotransmitters, unless we bring in an outside source. In this case, my outside source was Percocet. It pained me to think the contentment I felt was initiated and could never be natural.
So when I came across the essay The Dangers of Happiness by Carl Cedarstrom, I was inclined to absorb every word.
He talks first about Aristole. If you recall from your undergraduate philosophy days, Aristotle insisted happiness came from being a “good person” and that meant living an ethical life, guided by reason and cultivated virtues. The Stoics, Cedarstrom says, decided no matter how daunting life became, no matter the circumstances, people could be happy. Christians took that and 360’d it: pain was more desirable, as it lead to a “divine union in the afterlife.” Happiness, after all, couldn’t ever be met on Earth, only in the Crystal City with God.
Today in the west, where capitalism rules, we are more inclined to pursue that unobtainable happiness within ourselves. Cedarstrom says “to be happy in a time when we price authenticity and narcissism, we need to express our true inner self, get in touch with our deeper feelings, and follow the path set by ourselves. . . we are assumed to find happiness through work and by being productive. We are required to curate our market value, manage ourselves as corporations, and live according to an entrepreneurial ethos.”
This means if you’re unemployed, you’re worthless.
Okay, not worthless. It means you can’t truly be happy. You must never rely on other people for help, you must “struggle for self-improvement” and your fate is in your own hands. ONLY in your hands.
This is why people beat up homeless people.
This is why money, particularly in my county, is shoveled away from community organizations that are set up to help lessen the circumstances that can cause homelessness. This increases drug use and relapses in mental illness which in turn increases homelessness. Do you see the problem, yet?
Cedarstorm says, “If we may all be equally happy, irrespective of our circumstances, then that would equip politicians like Mr. Bush with convenient excuse[s] to stop looking at structural issues like class, social and economic inequality, or poverty.”
What Cedarstorm is getting at is quite disturbing: we’re using this message of the American Dream, of this deluded individualism, to distract ourselves from the actual problems we face in society. This is why people go hungry, it’s why crime rates soar and people think “thoughts and prayers” on twitter means something. We’ve created an illusion of happiness.
That’s not to say we can’t be happy, something Cedarstorm doesn’t get into. It’s true we use our self-righteousness as a way to shun those we think aren’t “trying hard enough”, but there is truth to the message that if we want to get somewhere in this society, we have to push ourselves–not because that’s the formula for happiness, but because that’s the formula society has created. It’s an unfortunate creation; rather than help each other, we trample over each other and call it helping.
When I took Percocet, the happiness was distracting. I didn’t worry, I didn’t think, and I nodded out in class. My notes look like someone with Parkinson’s wrote them. But I was happy.
We’ve basically drugged ourselves.
I’m not bashing people who work hard, and I’m not bashing people who don’t work at all. I’m encouraging us to look at things from a different perspective. I’m personally someone who strives for progression in the self and beyond myself; I don’t consider it progress if I’m not lifting others up while I do it. I’ve been lucky enough to have groups of encouraging people surround me. Were it not for them, I wouldn’t have continued to progress.
My stubbornness helps.
But the point is, this idea that we have to do everything by ourselves is complete and utter bullshit. That thought process is designed to keep those who are already down further down; when we see them as lazy, as not working hard enough, we don’t feel the need to expend our precious energy on helping them. But in reality, who has helped you get to where you are today?
My parents have helped me, even through all the pain we’ve suffered together.
My former coworkers have given me more emotional support than I’ve ever received, and they are the sole reason I’m continuing my education.
Professors who ran after me in the rain and pleaded with me to never stop writing, never stop learning. Professors who walked me through a calculus problem step by step because I learn differently. Professors who just inspire.
Random strangers who have smiled at me on the street, who have engaged in conversation not knowing I was feeling terrified, scared, sad.
The nurse at the last hospital I was in who told me my so-called illness is actually a gift.
The doctors who have been patient with me through all my worries.
And so many more. Without them, I wouldn’t be me, and the same goes for you. You haven’t done anything by yourself.
It’s an illusion.
Until next time.
Don’t forget to hit that follow button and catch me on instagram @alilivesagain or twitter @thephilopsychotic.