Sunday, March 28, 2010

drive and happiness

The problem might be: I associate my drive to change the world for the better with the poor condition of my own life. Not in all ways, of course--I would be fine with having a blockbuster academic career filled out with various sorts of social activism--as long as I wasn't happy.

I value my drive to change the world for the better. There's something terrible about the norm of acceptance; accept the genocides, the lies, the general unpardonable suffering of other human beings. Accept because they aren't here, and potential solutions are complicated. It's true that there's no social pressure to say these things are alright, but to be normal is to do nothing, or to do only what is comfortable--and, to condemn the norm is called unreasonable.

It doesn't seem like it would be possible to be happy without cutting yourself off from the incredible amount of pain that goes on in the world. It seems like you'd have to stop seeing all those people, who constantly hurt, as people. I'm afraid of being the norm; I feel that when I put resources into things that make me happy, they could be going to something better. I feel that when I'm happy I'm complacent. I feel that when I'm happy I'll start being part of the problem instead of part of the solution.


Carrie and Seth said...

These are some interesting thoughts, and some hard questions. I suppose it depends on your definition of happiness, but I don't think it necessarily has to come with complacency. The people I know who I think are making the most difference in the world seem to be happy people. We need to take care of ourselves emotionally before we can really be effective progressives. That doesn't mean being an over-indulgent pleasure-seeker. It does mean, in my opinion, having close friends/family, being as healthy as we can, liking ourselves, developing skills that give us satisfaction, learning a lot, appreciating art, and helping people.

Being happy and doing nothing to help the world is bad. So is being unhappy and doing nothing to help the world. If our unhappiness is due to personal emotional difficulties, then we are of little use to the world. If what we call "unhappiness" is dissatisfaction with the state of the world and represents a call to action which is subsequently carried out, then it is very useful. This can definitely happen even as we are in a state of happiness as I defined above; in fact, this kind of happiness actually fosters a desire to change the world and make a difference.

It is not selfish to be emotionally healthy, and to use some of your resources to get to that state. I believe that this will actually give you more resources to help out the world, because you will be less inclined to be bogged down with your own problems.

Day said...

Hmn. . . thank you for thinking this out and commenting. I think I (probably?) differ from your perspective in two places.

1) Who do you think is making the biggest difference?

2) When you say it's not selfish to be emotionally healthy, what do you mean by healthy? Currently, in the practice of psychology, a lot of things are defined as pathological only if they interfere with a person's normal functioning in society. Slave-owning, then, would have been completely healthy, considering the culture that surrounded it. Likewise, rebelling against chattel slavery, unhealthy. You can see where I'd have difficulty coming to definitions.

The best definition I've ever come to on this is that whatever is healthy is tending towards liberation--under a definition of liberation weighted towards meaningful human relationships (generally, NOT treating each other as objects in any way) and a rich emotional, sensory, and especially intellectual life.

Carrie and Seth said...

The people I had in mind when I responded to your blog were two friends of mine. One of them is in Africa with Unicef right now, and the other, who is in nursing, recently got back from Taiwan where she was doing volunteer work at hospitals (when you talked about "suffering" of course my cliche brain jumped to the cliche starving child in Africa, but also to much of the poverty I saw when I was in Taiwan, so these to came right to my mind). Both of these people seem to me to be "happy" and "emotionally healthy" in that they seem to enjoy their lives and are satisfied with their relationships. Since you mentioned liberation, I think that certainly does contribute to their happiness because they have been free to pursue the things which are most important to them.

From all your fascinating posts, (which I thoroughly enjoy reading and thinking about), I am fairly sure that we probably have different ideas about what really needs to be changed in the world and what "making a difference" means. I would love to hear in more detail what those things are for you. Here are some of my personal beliefs about this:

It has been true for me that a commitment to God and religion is a head start to making a difference in the world, and can help you love your fellow man. I do believe that small acts of service or emotional support can make an enormous difference to someone; even if it's not relieving the grand majority of the population from the greater suffering, it is still worth doing. Simply being a decent, respectful, sincere, and kind person makes a difference to the people who would be suffering if you had chosen to be abusive or manipulative. I also have focused my artisic efforts on developing my musicianship as much as I can. I am deeply concerned about a dying appreciation for classical music in the world and want to help remedy that by teaching and performing wherever I can in my life. I am very lucky because I do have the freedom to develop my skills as far as I can take them. And I do believe that this kind of thing, no matter who you are or what skill you are developing, will serve to make the world a better place.

Carrie and Seth said...

Sorry--part 2 (it wouldn't let me post all of what I said!)

I don't know precisely how you want to make a difference in the world (I would love to hear exactly what you think needs changing). I really liked your slavery example and I don't think by emotional health I mean just not having any pathological problems. Obviously most people would agree that freedom is an essential part of "happiness" even though the exact definition of "happiness" is a little fuzzy. So I guess I should have just said "happiness" instead of "emotional health."

Anyway, the fact that you and I and every other person has a different opinion about what really is going to make a difference in the world is not really related to my point, which is that in normal circumstances, you don't have to sacrifice your happiness as you have defined it (your liberation, your meaningful relationships, or your rich emotional, sensory, and intellectual life) in order to do whatever it is you think needs to be done to make a difference in the world. I can't see why having that yourself could ever stop you from helping someone else to have it, or being involved in some kind of cause that you think is going to help out a lot of people, or promoting intellectual thought among women, or anything you feel deeply about.

I suppose that there are exceptions to this though. Maybe there will be times when you do have to make real sacrifices for great causes that take away temporarily from this freedom and happiness. When there are great threats to this kind of freedom and happiness for yourself and others, you may have to give up some artistic/intellectual pursuits and even friendships in order to help the cause. Maybe you are facing something like that right now. I don't know :).

If, however, (and please correct me if I'm wrong) you want to make the kind of difference in the world that has been made by some of the people I think are your heroes, like Bell Hooks, then pursuing the things that make you happy are also essential to make you the kind of person who can make that kind of a difference--especially the pursuit of a rich intellectual life and meaningful relationships.