Monday, July 10, 2006

The Pursuit of Happiness On Thunder Road

Over the July 4th weekend, I heard a rebroadcast of a This American Life show called "The Pursuit of Happiness." As with all TAL shows, it's great, and you can listen to the whole thing here. But I'm going to talk specifically about some things that came up in the introduction to the hour.

In the introduction, the host talks to a historian who's written a book about the Declaration of Independence. They talk about the phrase "the pursuit of happiness." They comment on how extraordinary it is that one of a country's founding documents seems to "care about how we feel about things in some way."

The show's host suggests this promise of an "unalienable right" to pursue our own happiness is almost "like the promise you hear contained in a rock 'n' roll song." I get this. For some reason, early Bruce Springsteen songs came to mind immediately when he said that. Basically, it's the political equivalent of declaring, "Someday, girl/I don't know when/We're gonna get to that place (life)/Where we really want to go (liberty)/And we'll walk in the sun (happiness)."

It really is quite extraordinary in its way. That one small, unusual statement somehow implies that we have the right to optimism, despite the odds. It's like the Declaration itself is asserting it believes in us--that it believes we have a good chance to actually become happy, if we pursue it, and there's no shame in our actively believing that, either, or in involving ourselves in that pursuit.

And yet...

The historian also explains how, of all the many things stated in the Declaration, and of the many things she has written about it in her book, these four words are the only ones most people ever remember or want to discuss. They actively puzzle over its meaning. After all, as she says, being told you have the right to a trial by jury is pretty clear cut--you know exactly what you're getting there, what you should be "allowed." But the right to pursue happiness? What that "allows" you to do or have is simply not concrete.

The historian said she believed that Jefferson "left it to people to decide what gave them happiness." She says happiness is a very private and personal thing, and Jefferson probably felt every person had to define it for him or herself.

But if you look at the sentiments in the two paragraphs above, you notice something funny's going on. In an incredible display of respect for the right to individual freedom, Jefferson left it open and limitless for us--we can define our happiness and the pursuit of it as anything we want. And yet this isn't what people want to hear. Instead, the historian says that people want to know what this phrase, this right, means exactly.

It's interesting, this need we have to understand the boundaries of what we're "allowed" to pursue in terms of our own happiness. (I'm including myself in that "we" in a big way.)

We're not comfortable hearing, "It means anything YOU want it to." We're afraid of hearing, "You can have it all (whatever "it" decide)." We don't want such vast openness--such opportunity for diving into the chasm of the unknown with just our own inner compass for a guide. So instead of "it means anything you want it to," we beg to hear "I'm telling you what it will mean for you." And instead of "you can have it all," we demand to be told "here's exactly how much you can have, and no more."

Why? Why? We are told, we can pursue our happiness with absolutely no limits put on it. And we assume there must be limits. In fact, we demand them. We insist we haven't the right to limitless opportunity for optimism, for trying again, for believing in our vision of personal happiness and peace. We want Jefferson to come back and draw our little line in the define the limits of our hopes and dreams. And when he won't, we use the nearest substitute--teacher, parent, sibling, friend, lover, husband, wife, etc.--anyone who will tell us we can't go beyond a certain point and see our vision grow to fruition. Anyone who will stunt our growth, who will save us from our own pursuit before we do damage to ourselves.

Because as we know, to stand up and say, "I believe I can have it all," is the ultimate act of hubris. We're challenging the universe to knock us down.

Aren't we?

Or has someone (teacher, parent,...) sold us a bill of goods? Or even worse, have we sold it to ourselves--voluntarily stepped into cages built by our own fear of the unknown, and drawn in the appropriate people to serve as our jailers?

We let the voices in; and with them, the doubt and shame. As the host astutely points out toward the introduction's end, "...for a lot of us, the notion that we're just going to pursue seems frivolous; it lacks dignity; it lacks moral seriousness."

That's definitely what we've been told. It certainly accounts for the shame and embarrassment I feel when I contemplate telling someone I belive in happiness.

But is it true? Where is the factual evidence?

I grew up in an environment where I was told there were definite limits on what defined happiness. And I was taught it was more or less indecent to go after what made you happy if it pushed the boundaries of those limits.

I wasn't told I couldn't have dreams. Instead, I was told you could pursue your happiness to a point. You could have the dream and find some path that sort of approximated that dream. Say you wanted to be an artist, for example--a painter. Well, you could paint houses. You could become a graphic designer. You could become an art therapist.

So, you could have your dream...sort of. But not really.

And that was life, and you accepted it. You took your dreams with limits, and you were happy. (Sort of. But not really.)

I'm so fucking done with that.

I'm ready to stand up, shoulders back, chin up, and look straight in your face, and say, "I can have it all."

Yeah, I'm nervous as hell about doing it. I'm scared shitless.

I realize when I stand up and say that confidently; when I assert my right to say it and believe it, some of you are going to say (or at least think) I'm arrogant, or stupid, or selfish, or misguided. And that will hurt me.

I realize some of you, who have a vested interest in not having to question your own limits, will try very hard to hold me back, shut me down, or shut me up. I realize some of you will make fun of me either to my face or behind my back, and will try to make me feel or look foolish and ashamed. And I realize, whether consciously or un-, some of you will be angry at me and hope I fail. And all that will hurt me, too.

And I realize if I accept that "the right to pursue happiness" means anything I, and I alone, want it to, then it means I have to make all my own choices, without regard to others' input. (For the record, this DOES NOT mean I won't consider others, just that they don't get to tell me how to consider them.) And that is very chancy, because if I ask others to help set my limits, when (NOT IF) I fail to reach my dreams, I will be able to blame it on someone else. But if I make all my own choices, and pursue my definition of happiness, and I fail, I have no one else to blame for the failure except myself. And that, my friends, will hurt most of, most of, most. of. all.

But if I do this. If I say, "I can have it all," and instead of all of the above, I turn out to be right?

What then? (Think of the it all opens all that stuff you're agonizing over now becomes miniscule, ant-like, just a distant speck in the rear view as you're speeding away, and the night's bustin' open and those two lanes'll take you eh...nee...where...)

Please ask yourself the same thing, too. Is not taking the chance worth it? Can you afford NOT to stand up and declare your right to pursue your happiness?

Because as Jefferson said:
"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal enmity against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Or, in the words of his as his rock 'n' roll interpreter:
"Together we could break this trap
We'll run till we drop, baby we'll never go back
Will you walk with me out on the wire
'Cause baby, I'm just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta find out how it feels
I want to know if love is wild, girl, I want to know if love is real"

Whaddya say? Are you with me?

(Hey, I know it's late, but we can make it if we run.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

7/11/2006 4:15 PM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Thanks, Anon.

7/11/2006 10:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

YW, I have much to say on this subject, let me condense it to happiness requires risk; most are not comfortable with risk.

I have also always pictured reality as a blacksmith's shop. You are either the blacksmith forging a future from actions, or you lay upon the anvil to allow reality to shape you. I am uncomfortable with the latter scenario.

Again, I really enjoyed your words today.

7/11/2006 10:38 PM  
Blogger Solprinsessan Anna said...

To fail when you follow your way "" to pursue happiness" can not be a failure. Failing are what the people who have the possibility to do it and don't are doing. (Ehh... crazy sentence there).

As Anais Nin says it: "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom".


7/12/2006 4:43 AM  
Blogger Darkneuro said...

Hey, Syl? You can have it all. 'Cause if I can feel like I can have it all? So can you.

7/12/2006 9:46 AM  

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