“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”–Viktor E. Frankl
If you are familiar with my writing, you may have deduced that I have a significant appreciation for the Ritter Park Rose Garden. Throughout the year, I try to visit this local garden at least once per month, but more often if possible. There is certain pleasure I derive from observing the various transformations of these bushes through each season. I enjoy noticing the way their blossoms alter and progress through the seasons, and I even relish their stark, cut-back, bloomless appearance in winter. Throughout a large portion of the year, most bushes are not picture-perfect, but that fact does not take away from the positives each visit offers me.
It is not, per se, my attraction to roses that draws me to this garden, for I would happily regularly visit any formally planted botanical garden were there others within close proximity to my home. Rather, I have regard, not only for the miraculous seasonal changes provided by Mother Nature, but also an admiration and acknowledgement of its caregivers. I have often encountered these seemingly tireless keepers of the garden tending to the needs of the plants in all seasons of weather and range of temperatures. These garden custodians consistently employ their knowledge, skill, and attentiveness even though they most likely get paid a minimum income for implementing.
“It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important…You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”–Emily Esfahani Smith
I was reminded of the talented rose gardeners while listening to bits of a podcast, ironically enough, while jogging through Ritter Park after a quick walk through of the rose garden. The person interviewed held the basic belief that happiness is an elusive and ephemeral feeling that is not sustainable for long periods of time. In fact, this self-proclaimed expert maintained that much shame and feelings of “less than” are associated with not feeling happy all of the time. The same person further added that living a meaningful life was far more satisfying and sustainable than buying into the belief that one should be happy all of the time.
After about ten or so minutes of hearing this expert’s philosophical point of view, I turned off the podcast and let my mind search for greater understanding, or should I say meaning, as my feet continued their thump, thud, thump along the crushed gravel of the Ritter Park path. My mind turned, examined, and played with this intriguing thesis. I recalled that at one point there was a brief spike in marketing purpose-driven books and other media content, but when scrolling through current popular self-help authors, media influencers, and publications, many of these outlets pitch the if-only-you-do-this then you can lead a happy life. This philosophy often focuses heavily on receiving and acquiring for the purpose of gratifying personal needs/wants rather than giving to or focusing on the needs of others.
The podcast had a point: there are hard times in life. You, or a loved one, will get sick. There is a possibility that you might lose and/or have to change your job and/or life role. This may require learning to live in a new way, perhaps even in a new geographical location. Income may be lost, gained, and even lost again. Accidents will happen. Loved ones will die. I am told that even pandemics can occur! The point is, none of us can always be happy. In the words of the band R.E.M., “Everybody hurts, sometimes.”
Reflecting over the past few years, I realized the level of uncertainty, fear, and sadness many of us, myself included, have experienced due to COVID. However, as I mulled over the podcast interview, I realized that at some point this past year, something changed within me. In spite of experiencing some fairly significant discomfort due to changes and losses, I find myself once more satisfied with my work this year–even during this, my 35th career year in education. If you had asked me last year, or even the year before, if I was content with my work, I would have told you that I was ready to quit, ready to walk away from it all, and look for a new path.
“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”–Carl Jung
However, this year, in spite of facing numerous challenges, my continued role as a teacher once more seems fulfilling–in spite of not having near the financial rewards as many of my peers with 35 years of experience in their chosen vocations. What has been the difference? The podcast thesis hit the nail on the head: it’s the meaning I derive once more from my work–which had been greatly reduced throughout the virtual experience. This school year, I can once again witness firsthand the difference my job makes, especially those lightbulb moments, when a student’s face lights with the joy of new found knowledge or greater understanding. While not every day is filled with those illuminating moments, and I am certainly not happy in every moment; I know what I do benefits the students–that is the difference.
Nonetheless, not everyone can have a career from which they derive great meaning, but there are still multiple opportunities from which to acquire meaning. From parenting to volunteering, to various roles, responsibilities, and personal pursuits, there are many ways which any of us can create more meaningful ways of living–even if you aren’t “happy” every moment in which you are participating. Consider parenting, for example. Most parents, if they are honest, will confess to not always being happy. However, when asked if their role as a parent adds meaning to their life, most will say, “yes.” Otherwise, who would want to become a parent?
“As much as we might wish, none of us will be able to go through life without some kind of suffering. That’s why it’s crucial for us to learn to suffer well.”–Emily Esfahani Smith
Part of our unique human experience is undergoing a wide range of emotions, so why should we believe we are “less than” because we are not, per se, happy. Perhaps, as a human collective, especially in the first world, if we put greater emphasis on the development of fortitude, perseverance, and stamina–which are especially important skills during challenging times–we might not feel like a so-called “failure” when we are experiencing negative emotions, such as sadness, grief, loss and so forth.
Suffering is a built in part of life. While not all suffering is the same, and the aftermath varies from experience to experience, the fact that suffering temporarily robs one of happiness does not equate with a less meaningful life. Rather than constantly searching for sources of happiness, we might all better benefit from participating in more meaningful activities, especially those that focus on contributing to others. Then, when the trials come, and you know they will, you can reflect back to those meaningful moments and know that once you get through this tough time, you can live with purpose once more. We cannot always be happy, but we can have a life filled with moments that matter and make a difference.