I know that I had it, perhaps not even really that long ago. Ultimately elusive, yet its power is unmistakable. On its promise the world turns; we chase it like the holy grail. It’s a lifelong search; we look in our personal relationships and our professional endeavors, in our higher callings and primordial impulses. Why does it inspire such adoration? Why does it inspire a relentless pursuit? It’s simple; it offers everything. With it we gain clarity, strength, possibility seems to transcendently stretch out with infinite expansiveness.
When I was younger I didn’t really search; at that time simple pleasures were what mattered. Watching Aladdin, playing the original Playstation (which we got years and years after its initial debut), and not getting picked on at school were enough. Life, at least in hindsight, seemed simple; I kept the puzzle in its box.
When did the pursuit first become a conscious thought? When was it that it developed into a full-blown obsession? Emerging from high school nearly seven years ago I found the world open to me. Not every avenue was unbarred of course; my ACT scores, skin pigment, and family background were never going to help throw open the wrought-iron gates of the ivy league, or grease the palms of those doling out full rides. Still, for the most part I felt the world expand; different career paths in different geographical locations seeming to materialize, and each college acceptance letter felt like a ticket to a new life.
Still despite all the excitement, the nervous euphoria attached to the sights and sounds of each college toured, the hypnotic nature of becoming acclimated to what became my new home in Chicago, a truth emerged: the paralysis of choice. Coming of age in an epoch devoid of many limitations, free from the stigmas so pervasive in earlier eras, my attitude was shaped by a chronic inability to commit, the predilection to slowly wade and test the water instead of just once jumping in. A neurosis of the decadent surely, cultivated through the benefit of familial comfort and support, but one whose effects have been anything but negligible.
In the years that followed high-school I mowed through colleges (three in all), with my time in any apartment basically on a nine-month lifespan. Romantic relationships fell by the wayside. Experiences that once hung over my life, defining me on what felt like even a molecular level were eventually reduced to little more than subjective memory. Their remains resemble fossils, they are preserved in anecdotal forms, tucked away in some shadowy closet. My thinking has been defined by the idea that the potentiality of something will always outshine its actuality. Life events would become pre-set mentally before actually transpiring in reality, with a running inner-commentary attempting to place purely subjective experience under an objective microscope. “Am I happy?” “Am I happy enough?” “What will make me more happy?” Questions of this idiotic variety have accompanied my experience with remarkable consistency, their inner-vocalization intertwining with my perception like a bland, repetitive filmmaker’s commentary.
This preoccupation with the amorphous and ephemeral phenomena known as happiness is something synonymous with the millennial generation, blanketing us with not only a non-committal attitude, but a debilitating anxiety regarding how to obtain more of it. Obviously this is a preoccupation that has been shared, in some form, by all that has proceeded us, from Generation X’ers, cloaked in flannel, smoking a doobie, and lamenting the death of Kurt Cobain, to those existing during the Middle Age, attempting to survive the latest famine or avoiding getting broken on the wheel, but perhaps never before has it been such an obvious and twisted obsession, with its blatancy articulated through the petulance of Facebook, the self-absorption of Twitter, or the grandiloquent pontificating found in this author’s WordPress blog.
Life has revolved around the search for the next high, with huge sections being reduced to simple filler, an intermission between the acts of a play. So many experiences have equated to little more than a countdown, with the ticking hand moving inevitably towards the euphoric release found in the next natural vista, the next beer, the next meal, coffee, chocolate, film, book, or social interaction. In the past not moving perpetually between summits like this has been the source of much petulance, provoking feelings of hopelessness and self-reflection on an almost Shakespearian level. I can remember being at odds with a now ex-girlfriend, having her inquisitive voice buzz in my ear like an obstinate gnat, while the inner-monologue thundered in my head, screaming over and over, “RUN! RUN! RUN!” The experience of encountering the actuality of something instantly deflated me, provoking the overpowering impulse to remove myself from a commitment.
The gradual manner in which the mind builds up the potentiality of something is truly insidious – with external forces manipulating my consciousness, helping to formulate my expectations and then exacerbating my turmoil when my actual experience fails to meet them. The event of an experience failing to rise and meet my expectations has often produced a crippling effect, with my inner-voice rising shrilly to signify that I am, in fact, missing out on all the alleged and ethereal pleasure I am supposed to be deriving. This process of discontentment is particularly noticeable during the larger, more grandiose experiences of life. Two years ago I was sitting in a railcar, which was winding its way through the atmospheric, gloomy landscapes of Romania with agonizingly slow speed. This was, at least it was supposed to be, the capstone of my trip to Europe, with the accomplishment of exploring the much less touristy countries of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey designed to function as a sort of intrepid badge. The problem was of course that I was simply not really enjoying myself; the achievement of actually getting out into Romania was paltry and emotionally intangible, brutally muscled to the side by my hyper-awareness of the moment not adding up to what I had envisioned it feeling like.
This has been the pattern, a series of experiences where I have at worst been left hollow and at best been distracted by my inner-voice, shrieking like a banshee, and critically analyzing each experience even before it had concluded. With it persevering throughout much of my adult life I would eventually be given a reprieve from this pattern through an unexpected source, a simple statement expressed by a woman being interviewed on NPR about a tumultuous, on-again-off-again relationship with a man (who would eventually become her husband). “My problems are not that interesting.” the woman said, restating an observation she eventually had to tell herself to finally move out of the emotional hole that she had become entrenched in.
This simple statement was powerfully transformative, throwing back the veil on what is ultimately the horrible and simultaneously wonderful nature of life and our conscious perception of it. While initially appearing to be dismissive or denigrating, this commentary on the general triviality of our trials and tribulations provided me with a cathartic release. “Our problems not being interesting” is a statement that partially negates individuality, but in that negation we find connection. Anything we can experience has already occurred in some form; our despondent malaise is woven together, defined by a stunning universality.
The point here is that the unhappiness, loneliness, disappointment, and random, chaotic stupidity of life are not just experiences that occasionally we must confront, they are what constitutes life itself. Trying to hide, or avoid, the uglier, more upsetting aspects of life, or even the fallacy of thinking certain life events that (on paper) are supposed to be 100% sublime won’t possess dispiriting aspects, is setting oneself up for failure. It’s the equivalent to thinking one could turn water into wine or punch out God. Instead we must recognize that these are important parts of the hilariously finite amount of time we get here in this world, in this reality, and derive comfort in our times of trauma through an understanding that living in a perpetual state of want is a major part of what being a human being is.
While I’m sure that for many readers this is a ridiculously obvious observation, it took me an embarrassingly long time in my adult life to come to this conclusion. Yet, once I finally did the benefits were enormous. By accepting the idea about unhappiness being inescapable, about it being one of our species’ strongest defining attributes, my perception of what I experienced changed. I was able to quiet my mind, surrender, and simply let events transpire. I accepted my role in this mind-bending, confusing, unpredictable, profoundly sad yet shockingly beautiful journey that we are all a part of, and became less inclined to indulge the impulse to bolt at the first sign of trouble. And in that acceptance is perhaps where the happiness always was. Less pronounced than the giddy euphoria of a delicious meal perhaps, surely less commanding than the intoxicating buzz of a beer, but more sustainable, more transformative, and infinitely more important.