After my last post on “happy endings” for our novels or ourselves, I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly constitutes happiness and where it is to be found. Is it a goal worth striving for? Or should our life journey have a more practical, or grander, purpose?
Is it to become fulfilled, to live up to our potential? Or simply to be “good,” to live what most would agree to be “the good life”?
Maybe it’s to “do no harm,” or to leave this Earth better than we found it, or to alleviate suffering wherever we find it?
Perhaps our journey is to find God, to become enlightened, to fathom the mysteries of the universe?
Or simply be present, bearing witness to all we encounter, the good, the bad, the ugly, the pain and suffering, the laughter and joy?
Maybe it’s just to gaze up at the stars in awe, and wonder what it’s all about.
But where does happiness fit into all this? Can it be found at all?
In my novel I have a chapter called “The Secret of Happiness.” Two characters, a young wife and her husband, are arguing about it. She’s come to believe that the secret of happiness is simply to stop thinking. To give the mind a rest from all its encircling doubts and fears and uncertainties.
He has another idea. “There is no secret to happiness,” he tells her. “It’s all out in the open. You just have to grab it on the fly.”
I like his answer, as well I might, being the author of it. And I know where it came from.
There’s an old Zen story about a frustrated student who accuses his master of keeping the secret of enlightenment from him. The master claims that’s not true at all. “Do you not pour my tea for me? Do I not drink it?”
Still the student thinks the master is being deliberately obtuse. Then one day when they are walking through the mountains steeped with the sweet scent of trailing arbutus underfoot, the master turns eagerly to the student and asks, “Do you smell it?”
When the student says he does, the master replies, “You see, I haven’t been hiding anything at all.” It was always right there, ready to be crushed underfoot.
So could it be that happiness, like enlightenment, isn’t hidden at all, but must be grabbed on the fly? Not because it’s elusive or evasive or enigmatic. But because in our headlong rush toward whatever hopeful ending we imagine for ourselves, which is always in the future, just out of reach, we overlook the abundant pleasure of life lying at our feet. Sometimes these pleasures seem too lowly, too humble, too ordinary to even note, let alone grab onto. Yet the self-so-ness of this unobtrusive good would fill our lives with such sweet moments of happiness, of warmth and well-being, if only we would have the presence of mind to note it.
It comes even in the midst of all our troubles, our worries and resentments, pains and hungers. Not “in spite of,” as I put it in my last post. But right there in the midst of it, that unconditional goodness permeates life and is woven into the fabric of reality.
A happy ending for my novel, or my life, is beside the point. Allowing our lives and our life’s work to be to infused with these sweet, rare essences is enough.
Photo of trailing arbutus by Justin Russell, public domain.