Sunday, October 30, 2005

Happiness and Unhappiness

I recently wrote on the subject "We Want to Be Happy, but Do We Also NOT Want to Be?" This paper, which I presented with my colleagues Michael Palmer and Dale Laurin in a recent seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Seminar, will be posted here in several installments. Here's the first.

by Leila Rosen

I once thought real happiness was just not in the cards for me. How could it be when everyone around me was a fake, my family was annoying and ordinary, no one treated me with the honor and deference I felt were my due—and anyway, I reasoned at the advanced age of 19, the chances of anyone feeling happy in this world for more than brief moment were a zillion to one.

How I saw happiness changed when I began to study Aesthetic Realism. First, I learned that whether or not I was happy didn’t depend on circumstances—on what I had or didn’t have, or on how other people treated me—but rather on how I saw the world. Happiness, explained Eli Siegel, is “going to come by a person’s being able to say: ‘I’ve honestly looked at the world in relation to myself, and I like the relation.’”

And I was amazed to read this, in Mr. Siegel’s “Questions for Everyone”: “Does something in me want to be unhappy?” Why would anyone want to feel unhappy?—but somehow, I felt this described me. With the next question, I began to learn why: “Do I feel more important when I’m unhappy?” The answer was “YES!”

With this began the most important, liberating, joy-giving education of my life! “Happiness,” said Mr. Siegel, “can be defined as the state of being able to say truly you like the world.” We like the world, I learned, when we feel reality’s opposites are together well. I felt this, for instance, as I stood on the shore at Coney Island—looking out at the vast expanse of ocean, as the waves rose and fell, were powerful and yet sent forth a delicate spray. In high school, I was excited to see, through the lens of a microscope, tiny beings in a drop of ordinary pond water, and to learn how the soprano part I sang blended and contrasted with the lower parts, making for the rich, haunting harmony in a 16th century madrigal. In these instances, I experi¬enced the central thing in happiness, because I felt—though I couldn’t put it clearly—at one with the world outside of me.

Meanwhile, the other feeling I described, that I’d never be happy, was with me a lot of the time, and I had no idea why. Mr. Siegel explained:

"While the self wants to be happy—that is, be at one with the world—it also has a certain satisfaction in not being at one with the world, because [that might mean] you give up some of yourself for the world to take. Since we often are in a mood to have all of ourselves to ourselves, and we don’t want to give up any of it and so lose our ‘independence,’ this also means we don’t want to be happy."

This explains why, as I said in my first Aesthetic Realism consulta¬tion, I had trouble giving sustained attention to things: my studies, other people, books, even a sweater I was knitting. I learned that being able to say about one thing after another “It’s not that important”—had with it the triumph of feeling I was superior to the mundane world, and I had myself, undiluted.

One form this superiority took was feeling I should be treated with kid gloves, because I was more sensitive than other people, more easily hurt. I often felt left out. When I overheard members of my girl scout troop talking about a rehearsal for our show, I grew suspicious: Why wasn’t I invited? I sulked, finally forcing my mother to take me. As it turned out, only a few people were needed for the rehearsal. I was mortified; then I milked even this for another reason to be unhappy.

Seeing this tendency in me, my consultants once asked, “What is the great insult to you that you get from everyone?” I said, “I think it's that they see me as a little kid.” They disagreed, saying “It’s that they're not you. That's the way we're insulted by every other human being. They're not us, and they seem to think they're important anyway.” This was true! I took it as an affront that I wasn’t the first thing on other people’s minds. Yet when people did show interest in or concern about me, I felt they were butting in and wouldn’t leave me alone. No matter how you sliced it, I was going to be unhappy. Class Chairman Ellen Reiss once asked me if I’d felt I was “Picked-out-for-disaster Rosen.” Yes—and that I’m no longer driven by this feeling is a cause of tremendous gratitude for what I’ve learned!