Happiness is a work in process
“Once upon a time,” the tale tells, “an angel appeared to a seeker hard at work in the field of life and said, ‘I have been instructed by the gods to inform you that you will have 10,000 more lives.' ”
The wanderer who had been pursuing the dream of eternal life for years, slumped to the ground in despair. “Oh, no,” the seeker cried. “Ten thousand more years; ten thousand more years!” and the seeker wailed and rolled in the dust.
Then the angel moved on to another seeker bent over in the heat of the day and repeated the same message. “I have been told to tell you,” the angel said, “that you will have 10,000 more lives.”
“Really?” the seeker exclaimed. “Ten thousand more lives?” Then the seeker straightened up, arms flung toward heaven, head up, face beaming and began to dance and prance and shout with joy. “Only 10,000 more lives!” the seeker cried ecstatically. “Only 10,000 more lives.”
There is, I’ve come to understand as the years go by, a bit of both these seekers in all of us. Certainly in me.
One part of me, like the Sufi promised 10,000 more lives, goes in and out of phases at the very thought of it, moaning with the Hebrew psalmist as I go, “O woe is me that my journey is prolonged.” With the poet, I “all alone beweep my outcaste state” when life takes one of its erratic swings and turns on me, deprives me, I think, rejects me, or, most of all, denies me what I want. I mourn the lack of something, someone, some time, somewhere, that I’m certain will certainly make me happy again.
On the other hand, I have loved life. Like the second seeker, I have loved every moment of it, however deep the difficulty of living in a family that was never really a family. I lusted after every breath of it. I always thought of it as getting better, getting fuller even while I lived a life that by nature limited the things others used to mark their security or their success or their lifetime records of happiness. I got older aAs I look back on a life that has, it seems, had its share of what the world could call unhappiness: early deaths that changed the course of my life but which I could not claim destroyed it; debilitating illnesses that never really managed to debilitate me; sharp shifts in the hopes and plans of a lifetime that leave me a bit wistful yet but not at all defeated; and the continuing struggles to be fully human in a man’s world and fully adult in a clericalized church that is more comfortable with martinets and minions that it is with thinking women. But real as those things are, they are the stuff of challenge, not of unhappiness. Unless, of course, I fail to make the distinction between what it is to be challenged by life and what it is to be fulfilled by it.d loved it even more. There wasn’t much left of it in my drawers and cupboards but I found a great deal of what it meant to me inside. Whatever the struggles of it—the deaths, the life changes, the polio, the wrenching attempts to make better the parts of it crushed under the weight of inertia—I would take more of it if I could. And I am convinced that I am not alone.
Happiness, I have learned, is a work in process.