On My Mind

by Rachael on July 12, 2010

First, be warned: I’m going to geek out on you in this post. Second, I’ll admit that I have not read the recent New York magazine cover story about how very unhappy parenting is making us all. Frankly, I’m not sure that I can stomach it, based on one quotation from the article, in which Stumbling on Happiness author Daniel Gilbert says that prospective parents “have to think about which kind of happiness you’ll be consuming most often.” Seriously? Happiness is something that people consume? Like cornflakes?

What if happiness is not an object—in either sense of the word: neither a thing, nor a goal?

Stephen Batchelor, in Alone With Others:

At the very roots of our language we find two verbs: ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ … [and] they denote two of the most fundamental dimensions of our existence: those of having and being. These two dimensions reveal two distinct attitudes towards life. In terms of having, life is experienced as a horizontal expanse precipitating towards ever receding horizons; in terms of being, life is felt in its vertical depths as awesome, foreboding and silently mysterious.

Having always presupposes a sharply defined dualism between subject and object. The subject thus seeks his or her well-being, as well as his or her sense of meaning and purpose, in the preservation and acquisition of objects from which he or she is necessarily isolated. The maxim becomes: “I am what I have” (Fromm). As a result, any sense of fulfillment will necessarily be illusory, because there is nothing one can have that one cannot fear to lose. Absorption in the horizontal dimension of having is the origin of all states of ontological insecurity. Anxiety, alienation, loneliness, emptiness, and meaninglessness are the fruits of living as an isolated subject amidst a multitude of lifeless objects.

And Jonathan Lear, in Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life (yes, once upon a time I really did read this stuff), goes back to an older English sense of the word happiness, similar to happenstance, meaning “the experience of chance things’ working out well rather than badly”:

Happiness, on this interpretation, is not the ultimate goal of our teleologically organized strivings, but the ultimate ateleological [“not teleological“] moment: a chance event going well for us—quite literally, a lucky break.

As I’ve written before: the yellow light is in fact shining all around us. This (cheese-and-mustard sandwich, this life) is what we have been waiting for. Mysterious, surprising, Eden is right here.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Genevra July 12, 2010 at 11:13 AM

I will have to send you something I wrote for a performance around Mother's Day. Very similar theme… I had heard a story on NPR about parenting and happiness and how everyone who has kids is less happy than those who don't.

The nice thing, however, is the woman doing the story suggested at the end perhaps there is more to parenting than "happiness," which led me to ponder the nature of happiness, our attachment to the word, the form, the meanings we hang upon it… and the insignificance of something so mutable and subjective in the presence of Ari and her presence in our life.

All my way of saying I love this post – it resonates very strongly with me and I love what you are saying in it. xoxoxo

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raerae July 12, 2010 at 11:36 AM

Thanks! And I'd love to read what you wrote! xox

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6512 and growing July 17, 2010 at 10:11 AM

My MIL just sent me that article about unhappy parents. I thought about it all afternoon yesterday when I took my kids to the river to cleanse ourselves of this 100 degree heat.

Although there were *moments* – running with my 3 year old under my arm to the bathroom because she had to poop NOW; siblings squabbles over the frozen juice; sand in every crack; suddenly starving with no snacks for Mama. And there are *moments* every day, every hour, but I feel so grateful to raise these two children, to learn from and with them, to be given this opportunity to love unconditionally, to recognize that I don't sit at the center of this universe.
And yes, my life looks SO different from my friends without children. It looks harder and full of compromise and sacrifice, but perhaps what it does contain can't be measured. Perhaps "happiness" is unquantifiable and maybe there is something deeper out there.
Thanks for writing about this, and enjoy the city!

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