*warning – longwinded philosophical contemplatings ahead*
So in the massive stack of books that I got from a local friend, there happened to be included Eat Pray Love. Now, the hipster in me has seriously avoided it (ew, mainstream), and I’ve had mixed feelings about Elizabeth Gilbert (probably stemmed from a really negative class discussion in Marianopolis after watching her TedTalk wherein one classmate ripped her a new asshole). That said, and although I was hesitant about taking the book off my friends’ hands (or rather their bookshelf), I grabbed it anyway. Its orange spine peeked at me ever since amid the more appealing titles of Midnight’s Children, Trainspotting, and The Silmarillion. I also had every intention of reading Dune, as I’ve been promising Andrea for months now, but as is often the case with the intuitive pull of certain books, I picked it up and read the back, the front, the first page.
I very ignorantly hadn’t realized (forgot?) that the book took place not only in Italy (a place which I’ve never had much interest in visiting), but also in India and Indonesia. I’ve been having mad India cravings for the past year now (I blame my Hinduism class last autumn), and now that Indonesia’s so close, I’ve been very curious about booking a visit. Aside from that, I’ve been wanting to try some travel writing/memoir writing (pretentious, I know, but isn’t that what blogging is anyway?), so I figured, what the hell. I’ll give her a go.
I’m glad I did. I’m not far yet, but even 70 pages in, it’s exactly what I was looking for. Granted I only agree with 60-80% of what she says, depending on the subject matter, but I do admire her style of writing. I could go on, but I don’t want this to be a book review: instead, I want to talk about some of the ideas she brings up, mainly on the subject of happiness since that’s what the book’s quest is about. Happiness something I’ve been…well, not struggling with, but rather hung up about for as long as I can remember.
Like her, I tend to question if I’ve indeed earned the happiness. Conscious or unconscious, this question is the shadow of guilt that always hangs over each moment of idle pleasure, the stick from offstage cueing me to hurry up and get on with my next line – as if I’d forgotten. Maybe, as Liz suggests (if I can use her nickname candidly), it really is something American – and North American by extension, if I may be so bold as to assume America’s influence on Canada. “Do I really deserve this pleasure?” she writes. “This is very American … the insecurity about whether we have earned our happiness” (page 62 for those of you with the movie-cover paperback).
Do we have the right to buy strawberries if we feel like it and eat them with tea while reading in bed? Have we earned that evening spent with coworkers spooning chicken soup, drinking Earl Grey Lattes, and googling shirtless pictures of men on our smartphones? Can we really justify curling in a beanbag chair to shoot our way to Mexico for the sole purpose of obtaining a particular poncho outfit?
I perhaps digress with a few too many specific examples, but if you suspend disbelief for but a moment, it’s important that I say these are all recent moments of mine wherein I’ve felt guilty. Or rather: like I’ve been wasting time. Wasting time?! Even writing that makes me snort with silliness. And yet that sentiment is there all the same, an animated wet rag following me around like a Halloween ghost costume with hound dog eyes.
So, I take this time (and yours), to contemplate what gives with this whole happiness complex.
Recently my sister’s friend fraped her facebook account (leaving several statuses of “I like bums. I reeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaallllllly like bums. Like we’re talking a strong desire for bums.“). As we were giggling immaturely about it after, she mentioned that her friend also happened to stalk my profile photos and say something along the lines of, “Damn your sister has an awesome life!!”. To which I say, with absolutely no ego or arrogance, yes, I really fucking do.
I was also talking to BB about choosing a life path, the anxiety that comes from commitment, and the fear of failure of said commitment. Above all came the anxiety of happiness. Which sounds ridiculous, but the human brain is more talented at forcing you to analyze your happiness than I am at overdressing.
Are you happy? interrogates the brain. Why are you happy? Should you be happy?
…and on and on, that henpecking wife in white frills nagging her husband while he reads the paper in his favourite armchair. To which I’m increasingly of the opinion, give it a rest.
To triangulate the thoughts of Liz, my sister’s fraping friend, and my chat with BB, I’ve been wondering if happiness when traveling should always amount to productivity, ambition, and a go-get-em attitude. And, since traveling is but a metaphor for life itself (we’re all on a one-way trip, right?), I venture to extend this question to the macrocosmic scale of the big L-I-F-E.
For Liz, she learns that there is little as satisfying as the Italian saying il bel far niente, or the beauty of doing nothing. Pleasure lies in those moments that act as a proof of living, discovering that “happiness inhabited [her] every molecule” (page 64) from something as simple as sitting on her wooden floor with a newspaper and savouring the art of constructing a simple meal. Ambitious? Certainly not. Productive? Not in the classical sense. Go-get-em? More like do-you-have-wine-with-that?
But that’s where happiness lies for her.
Not saying that’s the golden ticket into Happyland for any and all, but why should it be denied by the brain as an acceptable way to pass the time? Is it evolutionary, idleness abhorred by genetics and made paranoid by millennia of predator/prey instincts? Strong possibility. Is it a social construct set by governments to keep society working like a well-oiled machine? More than likely. Is it the deep rooted need – and perhaps curse – of human intellect to feel the desire to employ our intelligence lest we leave behind an unaccomplished life? Yeah, I’d buy that.
But does that mean we have to chase the carrot our whole lives and leave happiness as a blur on the wayside?
Back to my sister’s friend thinking I have an awesome life, well, though I confirmed that above, I can’t say it’s as glamourous as what my facebook profile pics make it out to be. (Okay, I did meet William Shatner while in a velour Trekkie costume…). Yes I went to Australia for five months, but I had to save for four years to go. Yes, I’m teaching English in Korea – but it’s a 9-5 job like any back home where I have to dress a certain way, deskwarm, and curb my travel impulses to a mere 18 days a year. And yes, I have a lot of great memories with friends from around the world, but having friends from around the world means having to say goodbye on an equally frequent basis as hello. But what makes me happy about my life is that alongside my many ambitious carrot-chasing goals – and here’s my super-deep-pov-about-the-world – I try and make myself happy.
Sure, I try and exercise the productive/ambitious/go-get-em lifestyle as much as the next person, and sure I chase the carrot at times, but I do it because of what I want to experience. Makes for an especially inefficient road trip, with pit stops every half hour instead of three, but as I’ve noticed from my brief life’s experiences, happiness becomes a lot less blurred this way, and a lot more tangible.
I try to do what makes me happy – and I realize that it’s easy for me to say that because I’m young and unattached by various burdensome responsibilities, but it doesn’t take much to try and live like this, and it definitely doesn’t have to be fancy; it’s all about putting in the hard work when and where it’s needed, follow-through, and the imagination to come up with awesome life goals, as small or big as they might be. And, as my sister added, trekkie cosplays (tru fax, where would I be without you!).
To be honest, I’ve found that seeking to attain happiness from the big, grand, generalized plans is usually when I have a hard time finding any at all. Far too much stock is placed on them to act as an instahappy pill, but those big plans are only good for setting up the occasion for awesome things to happen within them, just like a club or a party offers the opportunity for a good night but doesn’t guarantee one. You have to meet the universe halfway, in my humble opinion.
And wandering, open and aimless, within those constructed opportunities are where I’ve found the greatest happiness. Insignificant trip to the market in Cheongju and buying too many bananas and dumplings? Check. Wearing ugly sweaters with my brain twin and playing video games by ourselves because our ugly sweater party failed to congeal? Check. Making a spontaneous snow C3P0 and R2D2 with my bestie SSG and dressing up as Luke and Leia because there’s sticky snow? Fuck ya, bud.
So while there’s value in chasing the carrot, and it’s good to carpe diem, I also have to remind myself that once it’s seized, enjoy it while it’s there. It’s as important to recognize happiness as it is to look for it. To bring it back to productivity, ambition, and go-get-ems…well, they’re important, but if I were to live an ideal life, I’d use them as a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s easy to burn out when always fighting to get somewhere, not to mention dull when looking back to find only a speeding path carved efficiently through the mountain. Wouldn’t one rather hike up and around said mountain, take a breath and a soak up that majestic view, and then head for the next mountain?
Looking at travel, I’ve found I far prefer easing into life in a foreign place rather than how many temples I’ve seen, destinations I’ve tramped dirt on, and, generally speaking, expensive outings that promise to be “the time of your life”. Talking to C, he wisely said that my time in Australia was excellent because of the people I met, and he’s not wrong. Though I hardly went on any trips in my time there, it’s not a coincidence it was the happiest period of my life to date. The curiosity of getting to know a new friend, the sampling of unlabelled food, learning the difference between when the sun is warm and comforting against your face and when it’s slyly frying your skin crimson: these are things you don’t get when you’ve booked a tour to see three museums, one palace, and two shows in a day. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of touring. Sure it can be exciting, but it’s also difficult to find time for a breather let alone to process what you’ve experienced. Nomadic Matt wrote an excellent article on this very subject, taking your time with a place and with its people instead of being on a relay race across the globe. After all, do you know a novel from its summary, history from one book, a person from one encounter? Each, like travel, requires more involvement than a one-off, and I’d bet my money that happiness (at least in my case) also needs a tortoise pace.
Well, maybe I do have a far too relaxed outlook on life, and maybe it’s unrealistic to want to write my life like it’s a book, but another part of me never wants to stop feeling the glee of adventure, of having that awesome life I can look back on and think: yeah, I’m happy with this track I’ve tread. Alternatively, maybe my need to deprecate a relaxed lifestyle is my anxiety about committing to one. Maybe seeking to complicate it is like my discussion with BB: the anxiety of having happiness itself. Who knows?
Perhaps I’ll contemplate it while lighting up some incense and meditating on my bright pink yoga mat. Or while doing the tim-tam-slam with a hot malt Milo. Or while having a marathon of Band of Brothers this week with some new friends.
All I know is that there’s only so much productivity, ambition, and go-get-em-ness that I can handle before Happiness rolls its eyes at me, sits me down, cracks open some beers, puts on Lord of the Rings and force feeds me fried chicken. You have to find your own happiness, and I suppose all I can do is surrender to mine.
Feel free to leave any thoughts on happiness you have, things you dis/agree with that I brought up. I’m curious how your happiness boats navigate the waters of life!