On this last day of 2017, I awoke too early and could not fall back asleep because of a pesky thought that I could not shake: I really don’t care very much about your happiness – or about mine.
I don’t want to be miserable, nor do I want anyone to experience misery. I am not a fan of depression, relentless anxiety, or raging fear. But I am nagged by what seems to be our relentless search for happiness, that feeling that seems to have become wholly associated with comfort, distraction from woes, and a sort of sugary numbness.
In the mid-18th century when seeds of nation-building were taking hold in the Americas and Europe, happiness meant prosperity, thriving, and wellbeing. Further, prosperity at the time of the writing of The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution still held some of its biblical and Sanskrit meaning of wholeness, sufficiency, and completeness. The Calvinist associations of prosperity with wealth and salvation (Yes, they hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are the will of God for them. Those without these things reflect a broken contract with God. This is a useful backdrop when considering Wall Street) did not figure into the meaning of happiness in the Constitution.
In 2017, I got to meet many people. Some were notable for their seeming relentless pursuit of property. Their cars, houses, jewelry, status schools, monthly “once-in-a-lifetime” trips looked amazing to me. I have met neighbors who have found my welcoming visits to be intrusive and unwanted. We all have been bystanders as the current president devoted one third of his time in office to vacation. Twenty years ago, we heard that the greatest transfer of wealth from one generation to another was about to take place as baby-boomers passed on their savings to their children and grandchildren. More recently we have come to understand that this transfer has mostly been limited to the top 10% of the economic system in the US. We are just now learning how much our pursuit of happiness has been associated with the pursuit of wealth in the 2017 tax bill that provides tax incentives for private jet ownership.
Ray, Robert, and Jayvon were also among those I met in 2017. Ray tells thousands of people a day to “Have a nice day, guys” as he shakes a cup with some loose change at the entrance to Union Station in Chicago. Robert embraces a score of commuters as they pass him, usually whispering “God bless you.” Jayvon looks up in real delight when I use his name in greeting. Kandyse, Lisa, and Nadia are all new to me as well. Each is laser-focused in her work to house and support people like Ray, Robert, and Jayvon. Ellen, Shirani, Sumith, Jane, Jeff, Catie, Greg, Sue, Liz, Judy, Jamaal, Mary, Jim, Westin, Gatlin, Gerald, Jesse, Ira, Colleen, Hannah, Brady, Lilliana, Megan, Alex — all new to me this year as well, each so different from the other, but each seeking human connection and a sense of completeness.
This year has also been made more whole for me by Frank, Kurt, Jason, Patrick, Josh, Jna, Harriet, Martha, Marian, Rudy, Gwen, Sheila, Paula, Sandra, Jose, Leslie, Jim, Bill, Mary, Dvora, Jayne, Yuko, Valerie, Steve, Jan, Ann, Mary Ellen, Erich, Ray, Adrienne, Mischelle, Veronica, Nouha, Emily, Melissa, David, Michael, Jay, Charlie, Libby, Patrick, Cathy, Jan, Leonard, Dave, Wilhelmina, Anne, Gregg, Julie, Kathy, Rhena, Joshua, James, Mia, Todd, Missy, Nicole, Christopher, Jazzy, and so many more people. It would be hard to imagine my life this past year without them. Each of these people has made me acutely aware that my late spouse, Paul, has been dead for three years. They have done this, not by dwelling on my loss, but by being so alive. They have also allowed me to keep my blinders off about homelessness, poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-gay discrimination.
Three years of grief, however, has not made me unhappy. I remain whole, complete, and thriving. I have often been struck by a sense of wonder about my own life. In a year when I did a house remodeling project, bought a new car, replaced an entire wardrobe, and lost 40 pounds, I am aware that none of these things has brought me additional happiness. Instead, it has been running with Dexter, daily calls with friends, meeting with my colleagues, planning for the future and monitoring accomplishments today, preparing healthy meals, gardening, coaching, and listening that have brought me joy.
So, I confess that I don’t really care about your happiness. But I am invested in your joy. Find more of it in the New Year.