– Reflections on happiness –
I once met a sea gypsy, a man who roamed the Sea of Cortez in an old beaten up sailboat. He lived on a very low budged, his boat was a container for recycled trash, and his life seemed a passionate attempt to bypass all the common rules of society. As he kept hinting that he actually had higher interests I finally asked him the stereotypic question what he was doing.
“I’m studying the ocean.” He said this with a hint of pathos. This statement struck me in its surprising bold grandness. Obviously, it was not exactly untrue. He did know a great deal about the ocean, even if it was mostly cheap anchorages and secret coves where to hide from immigration officials.
Moments after he had made his point he asked me in turn what I did, and I heard myself saying: “I study happiness.” I winced when it was out, but I couldn’t take it back. He must have impressed me so much with his courageous statement that it inspired me to deliver this platitude without thinking. Sometimes we say things that surprise ourselves the most.
He came back to it a couple of times, testing me, and I actually stuck to it, explaining my “mission” in full seriousness. If not grand, it sounded terrific.
“Happiness, doesn’t that just come with the territory, sometimes?” he looked at me from the side and smiled a little. “Well, yes,” I countered, “but doesn’t it take a certain skill to find it? I want to learn what happiness really is and how to find it, that’s what I live for.”
As much as I did not take him up too much on his ocean study, he didn’t insist on inquiring how I imagined to actually pursue my studies. Maybe we both looked through each other’s grandiose gestures but respected the courage to give our dreams an impressive name rather than hide them behind the usual small talk.
Sometimes I travel back in my mind to this unintended show down years and years ago, how, in a peculiar moment, I actually picked a label and stuck it to my life, tried it on like a hat, intrigued by its feel and look, and quickly put it down again like a hot potato.
Was there not a remarkable piece of truth in my presumptuous statement? To study happiness – it sounds pretty pompous, and I still cringe, trying to speak it out again, but isn’t that what I did and still do?
I cringe because what did I come up with in my studies? What do I know about happiness? Do I have any clue how to find it? I think there is still not much I could offer, so to see myself as a student of happiness seems pretty arrogant indeed.
But, when I look at it closely, I do seem to investigate this subject more than anything else. I searched for it incessantly with great hope and resolve. The funny thing is, I never found it.
But then, I still had happiness – more than enough. I don’t entirely know what it is, but boy, do I know when it’s there. Happiness – like most of us, I found the term is a mirage, it endlessly dissolves before our eyes when we reach out to grasp it. We cannot find it because nobody knows what it is. And yet, we dream of it day in day out until we die. We run after it, we chase it, we try to buy it, we force it – we want it, no matter what. We never get it. Well, sometimes we catch it – we think – for the ghost of a moment, but it’s gone in a heartbeat; and then we want it again and more of it, don’t we. Happiness – we know so clearly what it’s not. All our studies only enrich our knowledge of what it is not. And then, when we give up – sometimes – not in resignation, oh no, but in moments of super clear vision, we sense that it’s already there, has been all the time, we just looked for the wrong thing in the wrong places, all the effort was wasted. Sometimes, when we don’t look for it at all, it’s suddenly there, surprisingly undramatic, unspectacular, and it softly takes our breath away.
To study happiness is to not study but pay attention instead and perhaps be happy without doing anything. So I am a student, I do study, for all my life. And – to bring it into perspective – isn’t that what we all do?
© Klaus Kommoss May 28. 2006