DIY Happiness

 

 

way-427984_960_720

Three thousand years and hard-won lessons of the past century continue to steer us in the right direction. Fewer people live in poverty. Women win more rights and leadership roles. Through science and political compromise, we continue to make headway into a better world.

However, while our technologies and practices change, we ask many of the same age-old questions:

What does it mean to be an upstanding citizen?

How can we achieve optimum health?

What is the secret to happiness?

The famous writer Johan Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “He who cannot draw from three thousand years is living hand to mouth.” I don’t want to live hand to mouth. I want to know what our forebears can tell us about happiness. Thucydides, born in 460 BC, said, “The secret to happiness is freedom. The secret to freedom is courage.”

This isn’t how I usually think of happiness – linked to freedom and courage. Instead, I like to think happiness is securing a good job and pursuing meaningful hobbies and having fun with friends. This is the stuff of happiness. But perhaps in my privileged place in history, clad in this privileged white American skin, helped along so frequently by my privileged gender, armored with a privileged boarding school and university education – perhaps I need to step back. I need to step back and consider Thucydides’ words divorced from my rich inheritance.

Is the secret to happiness freedom? To find out, I could ask a person forced to convert to a foreign religion, one imprisoned or enslaved, anyone made to conform. I could ask someone whose power, individuality, or self-determination have been hijacked. I think they would speak on the merits of freedom. They have. Their names are Alexander Hamilton. Susan B. Anthony. Ghandi. Frederick Douglass. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Harvey Milk. Aung San Suu Kyi. Malala Yousafzai.

2016_malala_event_image_665x374-6bfaf4b59c

I should also consider the opposite: can one be happy without the power to act, think, or speak as one wishes? No, I think Thucydides was on to something. If one cannot be happy without freedom, freedom is indeed a necessary ingredient.

Yet is the secret to freedom courage? So often we win freedom through battles of the body. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Emancipation Proclamation – these were founded on courage, and they pave the way for freedom to flourish. But beyond the political realm, there is another type of freedom. It’s more subtle and better suited to a discussion of happiness inside our civilized society. It too requires bold commitment and bravery.

I speak of a freedom of mind, a freedom of sexual identity, a freedom to be confident and comfortable in one’s skin, with one’s quirks, perhaps against the grain of social norms (but within the bounds of decency). Embracing one’s individuality demands courage because stepping from the crowd singles us out. There we are, alone and vulnerable to the judgments of others who can be cruel and dangerous.

Once I stand alone, though, two things become obvious. First, every person is equally unique. We’re milling in a crowd of vast similarities and crucial differences. As I discover and accept my idiosyncrasies, the veil drops. If I’m not like my brother or like my father or like my neighbor in substantial ways, they too are different from one another.

Second, the judgments of narrow minds will not destroy me. Inevitably, someone will criticize me for not being more outgoing or being too serious or valuing evidence over sentiment; but if I’m true to myself, if I remember Thucydides and am courageous, these blows will remind me of the path on which I stand.

img_6260

Happiness does come with freedom, and freedom can often be won with courage – courage of the body or of the mind. Our physical and political rights are meant to be protected by a just state. We guard it with our votes and our courts and perhaps with our lives. The mind – that is to be protected and cultivated through recognition of an individual’s worth.

I am not meant to be like you. I am meant to be me.

And you are meant to be the beautiful, precious you.

In that truth, I see a road to happiness. I will no longer grasp at excuses for myself. I will appreciate my introversion and my inexplicable love of the movie Pride and Prejudice and my need to write and speak, even into an abyss if I must.

As for you: I promise to value your mind, your strengths, and your interests that in their best expressions only add to the wealth of our species. 2,500 year ago Thucydides suggested happiness blooms from freedom and freedom blooms from courage. It’s an insight ahead of its time: self-actualization is a feat of bravery. Here’s to courage – mine, yours, ours.

 

(Originally published in the Moab Sun News.)

Advertisements

The Dominican Republic: Where Tarzan Is Real

7A while back my friend Simon organized a spring break trip to do community service at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, a country on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. He planned it for months. Ten people signed up. They were trained at orientation meetings, bought airline tickets, contacted an agency to run logistics with the orphanage. All was set.

Until one of their participants fell seriously ill the week before.

With a vacancy and short notice, Simon asked, “Do you want to go?”

I shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

I soon learned we were going to teach English, math, and reading. We would tutor children because the orphanage didn’t have enough funding for teachers.

I spoke very little Spanish. I hadn’t been to their meetings. Yet suddenly I was in a van with a bunch of college students I didn’t know on our way to New York City to catch a plane.

When we arrived on the island, Orphanage Outreach bussed us an hour outside Santo Domingo. We unpacked our sleeping bags and got a tour of the compound. Curious little faces peeped around the bushes. They followed us to the door of the cafeteria, not saying anything but watching closely.

That first night our conversation began not with words or gestures, not with books or lessons. It began with baseball.

39530_lgWe gathered in the sandlot before dark and split into teams, Dominican children showing us the batting order, pointing us to our positions, clapping when we hit the ball, grinning when we cheered them on. Everybody exchanged tattered baseball gloves between innings. When somebody hit a home run, a little boy scampered over the wall to fetch their baseball from a neighbor’s field.

We became a part of their tradition for the week. Baseball after lunch. Baseball after dinner. They love it. From a tiny nation of 10.2 million, this year they sent 137 people to the major leagues – more than Japan, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Nicaragua combined!

I didn’t play well compared to the Domincan teens. They hit and pitched and ran like champions, many hopeful that someday they’d be discovered, they’d be snatched up by a team and make it to the big time.

They had dreams.

IMG_0004-1I tutored two kids: Jesus and Oscar – eleven year olds. They were gentle, kind, sweet kids, thirsty for attention and unmotivated by our lessons. Still, they would try. And they would laugh when I tried to speak Spanish. More affectionate than I had expected, they put arms around my neck, asked for piggyback rides, stood close by to remind me they were my students for the week.

After baseball Wednesday night, all the kids were agitated and giddy and running to get chairs. As darkness fell, one of the orphanage staff people rolled a rickety television stand into the courtyard. Children clambered to get good spots sitting cross-legged, staring up at the blank screen with limitless patience as the tape was found, rewound, queued up.

“What movie is it?” I asked the orphanage director.

“It’s Tarzan night,” he said. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”

Tarzan_2004_cover

I watched Disney animation tell the story of a family shipwrecked near a jungle. A little boy’s parents are killed. He’s left alone, but a gorilla saves him, raises him as part of the troop. After he’s matured into a man, English explorers arrive. Tarzan falls in love with Jane. Following much danger and drama, Jane and her father choose to stay with Tarzan in the jungle as his new family.

I stood there at the back of the courtyard, reading the English subtitles, looking over a sea of children bathed in that bluish light of movie fairy dust. I looked over a yard full of Tarzans, each one of them dreaming of a family that would love him and want to be with him forever.

Tarzan 2It was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I saw dozens of children wanting what I had so blithely taken for granted. I got an inkling how lucky I was to have a family. I saw every one of those kids inserting himself into the film, into the life of a boy finally found. My heart broke open with hope for them too, the sad kind of hope that knows the odds.

Ten years later, I wonder: where are these children?

I don’t know. But I like to believe that they’ve found someone to whom they can belong, forever.

WHY RISK?

Gallery

This gallery contains 9 photos.

Horseback riding. Ski jumping. Motorcycles. These are the avocations of my immediate family members. My mom began riding horses as soon as she could walk, and at sixty-five, she still loves to gallop through pastures and over rough logging roads. She … Continue reading