The Pragmatism of Happiness, Colliding with Bubbles and The Five of Wands

The pragmatism of choosing to be happy.

Maybe we’re just meant to be happy.

That may sound a bit simplistic and silly on the face of it.  “Duh . . . who doesn’t want to be happy?”  Still, when we consider all of the hoops we jump through in order to NOT be happy, it’s kind of amazing.  Happiness, for many of us, always seems to be a future event rather than something we enjoy in the present moment.

  • I’ll be happy when I finally get out of high school.
  • I’ll be happy when I finally get laid.
  • I’ll be happy when I get a good job.
  • I’ll be happy when I get that new computer.
  • I’ll be happy when I get a new car.
  • I’ll be happy when I fall in love.
  • I’ll be happy when I get married.
  • I’ll be happy when I get divorced.
  • I’ll be happy when the kids are grown up and I have some time for myself.

And on and on and on.  That approach is valid, to a certain extent.  We do get some measure of happiness from all of these things and events, but it never seems to last.  It never seems like real happiness.  It’s like we’re microdosing instead of getting the whole pill.

One of the problems is that we always look at happiness as something that happens to us, rather than something we generate on our own.  We see this reflected in the way that we talk about the process.  “You make me happy.”  Or, “this made me sad.”  Or, “I couldn’t believe how happy that made me feel.”  

The way we verbalize it sounds like there are these bubbles floating around the universe that we occasionally have collisions with and it changes the way that we feel.  “Uh, oh, I just ran into a sad bubble, so I’m sad now.”  Or, “Oh, man, that happy bubble felt good.  Yay!”

Since we don’t control those sources of happiness, since they’re things that happen to us rather than by us, we never feel as if we control our own happiness.  Yes, we can try to maximize our lives so that we run into more happy bubbles than sad bubbles.  We can get rid of the negative people in our lives.  We can find jobs that don’t totally suck.  We can intentionally pick out books or videos that are uplifting, rather than depressing.  But that’s still giving that power of happiness away to exterior sources.  We’re still just trying to control the exterior sources rather than realize our own ability to be happy just because we want to be.

So a good first step in being happy is to just claim our own emotional states.  That means realizing that our happiness, sadness, joy, depression, anger, love, etc. are all things that we are generating ourselves.  They don’t come from outside of us – we’re making them up as we go along.  

Put another way, it’s not a simple stimulus/response interaction.  We don’t have to automatically respond to our life’s events in certain pre-programmed ways.  We can – and do – interpret them.  We just usually interpret them in a very unconscious way.  We’ve been taught that some events are supposed to make us sad and some events are supposed to make us happy and we never stop to question why.

For instance, marriage = happiness and divorce = sadness.  We accept that equation instantly, despite the fact that about half the marriages in our country are miserable experiences and divorce often feels like being let out of a prison.  As the bumper sticker says, “It is better to have loved and lost than to go on living with a psychopath.” 

Now, once we’ve gotten there, when we’re willing to accept that WE are making our own emotions happen rather than colliding with random happy or sad bubbles, then the next step is to actually ask ourselves why we’re choosing those emotions.  A good yardstick to use in that process is evaluating whether they’re actually doing anything for us.  Are they making our lives better?  Are they moving things forward?  Are they improving the quality of our lives?

By way of an example, I used to love, love, LOVE my self-righteous anger.  If I really, genuinely felt that I was right and someone else was wrong, I was willing to argue all night and fight to the death to defend my position and change the other person’s opinion.  I was angry because I had every right to be angry.  

In my defense, I don’t think I’m exactly alone in that process.  Social media groups often feel like the Five of Wands, where everyone is madly swinging their opinions at everyone else, all of us sure that we’ve got the real skinny on what’s true and what’s not.  Our current politics are even worse.

A peculiar thing happened to me, though, where I reached a point of realization that anger just didn’t work very well.  It was this sudden revelation that every single time I got angry, it made things worse instead of better.  Every single time.  Without fail, if I lost my temper I ended up with shit on my shoes and feeling like hell.  Far from changing anyone’s mind about the issue we were arguing over, it just convinced them that I was an angry asshole and there was no reason to listen to me.

And so I just gave it up.  Sure, I get irritated or impatient, just like any other human being, but I haven’t been angry in several years.  Not because I’m some kind of Mahatma Gandhi, but simply because it doesn’t work.  It’s like trying to use the wrong key to start your car.  If you know it’s not going to work, why would you do it?

In the same sense, sadness and depression are emotions that just don’t work very well for human beings.  They make life a lot harder, instead of a lot easier.  They freeze us in place and keep us from attaining our goals and feeling connections with life and joy.  

They are basically an unnatural act, in the true sense of that term.  When we look at young critters, what’s their primary activity?  Play.  Puppies, kittens, young humans, young apes, any young being gets up in the morning and plays until they’re so exhausted that they fall over.  And then they get up and do it again.  We’re born happy and we have to learn how to be unhappy.

Now, it’s true that into every life a little shit must fall.  We aren’t going to feel happy and positive when someone we love has just died or we’ve just gotten run over by a truck.  About 90% of the time, though, NOTHING IS WRONG.  That means that in about 90% of our lives, we can make that simple choice of how we’re going to feel:  happy or sad?  Can you imagine having a life that was 90% happy?  Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t have to be some bold, existential statement, either.  It doesn’t have to be some phony Pollyanna stance that everything in life is sweetness and light.  It can be a simple act of pragmatism.  Happiness makes us feel connected with life and our fellow beings.  We move forward toward our goals and opportunities for growth seem to appear out of nowhere.  Depression makes us miserable and we feel that we have no choices and no growth in life.

In a nutshell, depression doesn’t work very well.  Sadness doesn’t work very well.  We can give them up, just like a bad habit, because ultimately that’s all they are.  

The Five of Cups and the Dark and Magical Path to Happiness.

Happiness as a choice, rather than just a state of being.

The Five of Cups shows a person who is in deep grief.  He’s lost something vital in his life and he’s mourning it on the deepest, most profound  level.  In the system of the Tarot, Cups represent emotions and he sees three of his cups lying on the ground, tipped over, and spilling out their emotions.  He’s literally hypnotized and immobilized by his sadness.

A sub-theme of this card is that he is also NOT focusing on the two remaining cups, which are upright and full.  He is so concentrated on what he’s lost that he’s not perceiving that he still has something left to be grateful for.

Happiness is one of those things in life that we seldom contemplate until we lose it.  Most humans are born happy.  Sure, there are the inevitable times when babies get, “fussy,” or decide to stay awake screaming their little heads off all night, but most young critters are happy, playful and content.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about human babies, puppies, kittens, or deer, the young are pretty much happy, pretty much most of the time.

So in many ways, happiness is a birthright of most living beings.  It’s also frequently a matter of inertia – objects in motion tend to stay in motion and happy people tend to stay happy.  We don’t even think about it until it disappears – we’re just pretty much happy, pretty much most of the time.  In the words of the old blues song, “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.”

We’re told that into each life a little shit must fall, and, sure enough, we all suffer a certain amount of loss and grief.  We all have loved ones who die or become very ill, we get fired from jobs, we go through separations and divorces, and we occasionally get into car wrecks or fall down and break something that we’d rather not have broken. 

Thankfully, for most of us, those losses come in fairly measured doses and we have enough support built into our lives to recover and return to our natural state of happiness.  But there are also those of us who get absolutely hammered by loss and grief.  Who don’t just experience the death of loved ones, but the tragic death of loved ones.  Who don’t just go through a divorce but go through a devastating divorce, lose their homes, lose their jobs, and find themselves out on the street with nothing but the lint in the pockets of their overcoats.  Who not only lose their happiness, but lose it for a LONG time.  

Oddly, those are the people who probably appreciate happiness the most, because they’re the people who were forced to live without it.  They’re the people who had to fight to regain it, often alone, frightened, and hopeless.  To my mind, they’re some of the real heroes in life, the spiritual warriors who made it back from the dark side, from the brink of madness and suicide.

If you’ve ever gone through that kind of a loss, you’ll know what I mean.  If you’ve suffered a major nervous breakdown, or battled with alcoholism and addiction, or lived with crippling depression, you know what it’s like to be so down that you can’t even see up anymore.  Life becomes a meaningless, seemingly endless, series of days and nights filled with darkness, sadness, and extreme anxiety.  You don’t really know why you go on living, but you do, putting one foot in front of the other and slogging along toward nothing.

Now, some of us don’t make it back from that journey into darkness.  Some of us get swept over the precipice into oblivion.  Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States.  In 2020 there were 1.2 million suicide attempts in the country and nearly 46,000 successful suicides.  Those are, of course, only the suicides we know about because many of them are concealed.

For those of us who do make it back, happiness becomes a desperate quest and a practice.  We realize at some point that if we’re going to stay alive we somehow have to find a way to recapture happiness and build it back into our lives.  For some of us, that means finding a really good therapist to help us unravel all of the emotional knots and heal the psychic wounds.  For others, the gateway to happiness is the doorway to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting hall.  Perhaps happiness arrives in the form of a prescription for Prozac or a spiritual reawakening or even a psilocybin mushroom. 

Happiness doesn’t arrive all at once, neatly bound in wrapping paper and ribbons.  It’s something that we carefully build back into our lives, one trembling step at a time.  We may need to learn how to control our thoughts that obsessively lead us back to melancholy view points.  We may need to learn how to control our emotions and just do some deep belly breathing and meditation when we feel overwhelmed with sadness.  We may need to sit down with a therapist and do some serious exploration of why our paths crumbled under our feet.

Happiness at that point is transformed from a natural occurrence into a set of skills that we practice in our daily lives.

For me, one of the major breakthroughs was my therapist teaching me that we can be happy whenever we want to be.  We can sit down, meditate on something that makes us happy, and we will feel happy, even if just for a few moments.  If we string together enough of those meditations, we have a happy day.  If we string together enough of those days, we have a happy life.  It’s a skill.  It’s a practice.

The other day I was listening to this delightful video from author Mary Pipher about her book, “Women Rowing North.”  

The book is primarily about women and about aging, but it also has a lot of good information on happiness.  One of the things she said that really jumped out at me is that happiness is an existential choice.

There’s a deeply profound lesson in there because happiness can’t be a choice until we’ve lost it and then we’ve finally learned how to regain it.

When happiness is just our natural state of being, we’re on spiritual cruise control.  When we’re pretty much happy, pretty much most of the time, like puppies and kittens and babies,  we’re not choosing happiness – we just ARE happy.  And happiness is frequently perceived as something that’s outside of us, that happens to us, rather than something we create.  We meet the right partner, we stumble into a good job, we have a nice summer, we get laid, we see a funny movie.  It’s all a sort of a pleasant parade of sweet events that we have absolutely no control over.

When we lose our happiness – really and truly lose it for an extended period of time – and we learn how to recreate it in our lives, then it becomes something that we can control.  It becomes a product of practicing certain skill sets like meditating, staying in positive thinking, avoiding negative situations and people, and performing all of the little mental and emotional hygiene tasks that are required to stay in a state of happiness.  We’re trying to stay in a state of happiness because we KNOW that we’ll die if we don’t.

There’s a step beyond that, though, which is what Mary Pipher is talking about.  When we practice happiness long enough, there comes a wonderful day when we realize that we CHOOSE to be happy.  At that point, happiness isn’t just a survival mechanism, it isn’t just a way to avoid the darkness.  It’s an active, conscious embrace of the Light.  Happiness isn’t just a way to get along, it becomes our primary value and our choice and we know that we’ll never live without it again.

It’s a huge gift in life.  We only find it at the end of some very dark paths, but when we reach that point we realize that the journey has been a magical quest that led us to our own inner light.

Loneliness, the Five of Pentacles, and Robin Williams

Some mornings I wake up feeling six kinds of crazy and twenty kinds of lonely.

There’s an old song that Don Mclean wrote about Vincent Van Gogh that has the verse:

“Now, I understand, what you tried to say to me,

How you suffered for your sanity . . .”

And the truth is that there are a lot of us out here who, “suffer for our sanity.”  We live through dark times, alone times, times when we’re so depressed, so far down emotionally and spiritually and energetically, that the pistol to the head, the bottle of pills, the fifth of whiskey calls out to us like the sweet voices of the Sirens.  “Come here, baby;  let me wrap my gentle arms around you and we’ll just be so peaceful and sweet and the pain will stop.”

For the most part, most of us survive.  We don’t take that path that Vincent walked down, we cling to our lives and our dreams, and we keep trying, even though we feel six kinds of crazy and twenty kinds of lonely.  We don’t embrace the Siren’s gentle arms and drift off into forever.

Many of us become highly adept at hiding our pain in plain sight.  We’re the funny ones, the comedians, the people who are always laughing, many times at ourselves and the sense that our lives are ridiculous.  Remember when Robin Williams killed himself and so many people were shocked?  “What?  Robin Williams?  How can that be?  He was always kidding, always joking.  Why would he kill himself?”

Six kinds of lonely and twenty kinds of crazy.  That’s why he killed himself.  To those of us who live out here on the fringe, it was no surprise at all because we recognized him as one of us.  In his senior album at Redwood High School he was voted both, “the funniest,” graduate and the graduate, “who is most likely NOT to succeed.”  

That speaks volumes to those who can hear.  Yes, we like him, but, man, he is NOT one of us.

The Five of Pentacles has always struck that same chord for me.  The two beggars are, above all else, outsiders.  They struggle along in the snow storm, crippled, wrapped in rags, while behind them a joyous light shines through a church window.  One imagines the parishioners inside: fat, happy, warm, singing songs of praise to Jesus, not even aware of the people outside their window who are, “suffering for their sanity.”

They are NOT one of us.  They don’t belong.  They are Out Siders.  Literally.

If you’re six kinds of lonely and twenty kinds of crazy, that’s probably a big part of your reality.  You don’t belong.  You’re not part of the group.  You don’t fit, “in.”  That’s certainly been my experience.  I’m in my late sixties and I still feel as profoundly isolated as I did when I was a kid.

So how do we deal with that?  If we are really and truly the odd ducks, the square pegs that don’t fit in the round holes, the crazy outsiders who don’t have a place in the herd, how do we NOT stumble into the same endings as Robin and Vincent?

I think that a good beginning is to just HONOR our weirdness.  And I really mean, “honor,” it.  Robin Williams and VIncent Van Gogh were worth a million – no, two million – bank executives and lawyers and accountants and other very, very successful people.

Why?  Precisely because they WERE outsiders.  They saw the world differently and they held up a mirror or a canvas and they said, “Look!  Can you see it?  Can you see the way it looks to me? Can you see the starry night?  Can you see how funny and amazing all of this is?”

Being alone is HARD, man.  Many people have been touched by that, perhaps for the first time in their lives, during this pandemic.  Being physically alone, not being touched, not being hugged, and loved and cherished – it’s all hard.  But being alone for all of your life, feeling like you’re always on the outside of that church window looking in . . . that’s the hardest.  That’s twenty kinds of lonely, if you let it be.  That’s six kinds of crazy, if you let it be.

The Hermit is very much alone.  He stands aside from the rest of society but he also holds up a shining lamp in the darkness.  He honors who he is, and he realizes that his wisdom is a gift to the world.  Make no mistake about it, though:  he’s been lonely and he’s been crazy and he’s suffered for his sanity, but he won through in the end.  It’s just a path that some of us have to walk.

Shine on!