You know what they say, that happiness is not to be found in how much money you have or in the things you own or can buy, nor even in how many friends surround you or how many people love you. The poem about Richard Cory, upon which Simon and Garfunkel (remember them?) based a once well-known song, just about says it all:
By Edwin Arlington Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good Morning!” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine — we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.
We all know it’s true, both the cautionary tale of Richard Cory, and that money doesn’t buy happiness. At least we know it with the left sides of our brains. Alas, this is still the side that does the intellectual calculations of how many friends or about the nice car we’ll need to have before we will finally be happy. And if we didn’t know it before, all we have to do is listen to the news because nearly every week it seems there is yet another story about a celebrity who seemed to have it all – money, beauty, acclaim, adoring fans – who ended up destroying himself on drugs and alcohol or who committed suicide (“no one had any idea she was so depressed…”) at the height of her career.
But if money and things and friends who love you don’t offer a path to happiness, what does? Is there a map, a guide, an instruction manual, a recipe? One look at the number of books on the market purporting to teach you how to be happy tells me there are lots of people making lots of money trying to tell you they have the secret. And given the number of books they sell, an awful lot of people out there are desperate enough to spring for them. If you have bought any of these books and found their secrets to be The Secret, or even to be one effective secret that worked for you, I would love to hear about it. Truly, I am not being sarcastic. I am a writer, and I believe that writers are for the most part sincere. Not all of them, mind you, but most of them. And so when a writer writes a book promising happiness, I believe that he or she probably believes it. I just don’t happen to think most of it ends up being effective.
But maybe it’s me, I dunno.
Let me explain. I have had many, many struggles with self-acceptance and self-regard over my lifetime (I am 58 years old at this writing, so you can see that I am far from young) and I assure you that I am far from winning the battle. My self-esteem is very low. So low in fact that I hesitate to say more… But at any rate, when I say my self, I mean my inner self, my soul, my – well, whatever it is that one might want to distinguish from the “self-that-produces,” the working self. What I mean is, I know that I write well, and I am learning to become a better artist as the days go on. But those skills have not fundamentally affected my self-esteem, only my level of confidence. And there’s a big difference between the two. I have a lot more confidence in my abilities than I did years ago, partly due to greater skill and long experience – though only in my writing — and partly due to caring less what others think, because there is less at stake at my age. My self-esteem on the other hand remains utterly unconnected to this, and largely unaffected by it. Whether or not I love or utterly despise myself has little or no bearing at all on whether or not I am able to write or paint or draw well. All it might do is affect what I write well or paint or draw about.
And I can be proud of my poem or essay or my drawing, proud of what I produced, without that having the least effect on how much I fundamentally love or hate myself.
But, and here is the thing: I do not believe that hating or loving yourself matters in the search for happiness. Or at any rate, it is not the sine qua non, the primary requirement before you can be happy. In fact, I think in the happiness department, self-regard is over-rated. It is not that I want other people to feel badly about themselves so much as that oddly enough I think it has little to do with whether or not one can find happiness.
Maybe I should amend the word happiness to contentment. I do not like the first word all that much, as it smacks of little yellow smilie faces and balloons and other inanities. Happiness is decidedly not inane, but our emphasis on the importance of it has made it seem so. Contentment as a word and concept has been all but forgotten in the rush towards the seemingly bigger motherlode of happiness.
So let’s switch gears and say that we are on the search for contentment, which also is not found in money or friends or in being loved by others. So where do I think you can find contentment? (Clearly I write this with my own agenda in mind…why else write it at all?)
I think contentment – indeed, even happiness – does come from within, and it starts with forgiveness.
Forgiveness? Why that of all things, you ask? It seems like so many other emotions and “emotional acts” should be more important – like loving yourself and others and being compassionate etc. But I assure you that without forgiveness, you can have and be and do none of those.
Kindness and generosity were always supreme values to me, even when I was a child. It hurt me inside to see anyone going without something that I had it in my power to give them. But it was many years before I understood that forgiveness was also a crucial value, that it not only partakes of both compassion and generosity but presupposes both. Not only is forgiveness an act of kindness but it is freely given and therefore an act of extreme generosity. You cannot force forgiveness any more than you can force a “sincere apology” despite what our parents might have thought when they made us “say you are sorry and you better sound like you mean it.”
Okay, so forgiveness is critical for contentment, maybe, but forgive what or whom? And why? First of all, everyone is scarred by their pasts, everyone has baggage from childhood. In fact, while some people had more than less happy childhoods, everyone has bad memories that they cannot shake, that have stayed with them and in effect traumatized them. Second, scars are simply an unavoidable fact of life. You can’t get through life without them, and childhood I’m afraid is a rough and tumble place where you pick up the bulk of them. Three, who “caused” our childhoods, for most of us? Answer: our parents, or whoever took the place of our parents. That is why our first job is to forgive them. I’m serious, and while we are at it, we have to forgive childhood itself, all of it. It doesn’t matter what happened, or how terrible, it really doesn’t. If you do not forgive it, if you do not forgive everything that happened to you, you cannot let your childhood go and get on with the present, which is where happiness, where contentment lies. Contentment is not in the past, that much we know, and no one knows a single thing about the future. But if you cannot forgive the past, and especially the childhood where you got all those scars you carry around now, you will never move beyond it to experience an undefiled present.
Look, I believe that forgiveness comes from inside the brain, but heals a place in the brain we like to call the heart. And I believe that forgiveness is more healing for the person who forgives than the forgiven. So I wish you could forgive all those people who harmed you too. All the people, relatives, friends, lovers, rapists, molesters, thiefs, betrayers and more…because I truly believe it would be good for you and for your heart. But I think it is essential at a minimum if you want to be happy to forgive your childhood, the entire experience of it, not the individuals or the single events, just the fact that you were a child and had to go through it. Once you can forgive it, you see, you can let it go just as it has and be gone.
After you have forgiven your parents or parent-stand-ins, and your childhood, you are well on your way. Many people would say that this is a step towards self-acceptance here, and that is how you reach happiness, but whether it is or not, is not important to me. In some ways, self-acceptance is not what I am after so much as acceptance of the world, both of the past and of the present. And when I say “acceptance” I mean such utter acceptance of it that you can forgive it. Because only when you can forgive, so I believe, can you really accept the world. And when you can accept and forgive the world both past and present, then you can be happy.
( I realize that I have put my poem below on this blog before, but clearly it belongs here, though it is for a second time. And dang, I do not understand why this program will not allow me to get it single spaced!)
TO FORGIVE IS…
and there is so much to forgive:
for one, your parents, one and two,
out of whose dim haphazard coupling
you sprang forth roaring, indignantly alive.
For this, whatever else followed,
innocent and guilty, forgive them.
If it is day, forgive the sun
its white radiance blinding the eye;
forgive also the moon for dragging the tides,
for her secrets, her half heart of darkness;
whatever the season, forgive it its various
assaults — floods, gales, storms
of ice — and forgive its changing;
for its vanishing act, stealing what you love
and what you hate, indifferent,
forgive time; and likewise forgive
its fickle consort, memory, which fades
the photographs of all you can’t remember;
forgive forgetting, which is chaste
and kinder than you know;
forgive your age and the age you were
when happiness was afire in your blood
and joy sang hymns in the trees;
forgive, too, those trees, which have died;
and forgive death for taking them,
inexorable as God; then forgive God
His terrible grandeur, His unspeakable
Name; forgive, too, the poor devil
for a celestial fall no worse than your own.
When you have forgiven whatever is of earth,
of sky, of water, whatever is named,
whatever remains nameless,
forgive, finally, your own sorry self,
clothed in temporary flesh,
the breath and blood of you
Dying, forgiven, now you begin.