Thursday, March 29, 2007

What Makes You Happy?

What makes you happy? It is an ordinary enough question, but the setting in which it was asked of me was anything but. I was walking in the Murfreesboro cemetery as I often do early in the morning, chanting and talking with God. Usually I am alone with the dead, but this morning there was an elderly man who’d come to place plastic flowers at the grave of his wife.

I nodded as I walked by, and that’s when the question was posed, “What makes you happy?” He smiled as he said it, and that was all he said before returning his attention to the grave and the memories he had of the woman he’d married.

I stopped and turned toward him thinking he wanted to talk, but he waved me on without lifting his head and said, “Just think about it.” So I did.

As I meandered among the graves, some dating from before the Civil War, or as we call it here, the War Between the States, I asked myself the question, “What makes me happy?” I didn’t agonize over an answer; I just walked and repeated the question until the answer simply appeared to me.

Six things make me happy: freedom, solitude, companionship, service, learning, and a space to call my own.

Freedom means freedom from the rigors of an 80-hour work week, and freedom to pursue my own bliss. Solitude means hours alone each day to think, meditate, and write without having to talk or smile or pretend I am interested in things that bore me. Companionship means being able to share ideas and intimate moments (physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual) with someone I trust implicitly. Service means doing something that benefits others, either one person or many persons, either through an act of kindness or through an act of brilliance. Learning means having access to great books and ideas, creative people and their passions. And a space to call my own means having a place that I can organize to suit my needs and decorate to reflect my interests.

Writing this down now I realize I could add a few more things like money, food, clothing and the other items on the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but these are necessities; not having them would make life difficult, but having them doesn’t make me happy. I used to have lots of money, I have and eat more than enough food, and I have all the clothes I want, let alone wear, and I used to have much more. Not to mention a three-bedroom ranch house, state-of-the-art stereo equipment, five guitars, and a Porsche— but I wasn’t happy with all those things. I just had them. I am happy now. More happy than I have been in a long time; maybe forever.

As I doubled back through the cemetery I noticed the man was gone. His question remains, however, so I will pass it on to you. What makes you happy? Think about it.

1 comment:

Robin Chotzinoff said...

I hope that same old man shows up during one of MY morning walks. Or maybe Odin (or one of the other patriarchs) will show up dressed as a ragged stranger and ask me some other important question.

Here's what makes me happy:

my body: I never had any interest in spiritual disciplines that promote disattachment from the body. Despite having had worried-well-American-female body-image issues, I can't imagine anything more rewarding than taking my body out for a walk. I believe in sweat as a precursor to prayer.
mortality: neither my body nor anything else I am or do lasts forever. This tension makes life inherently sweet.
working in the dirt: I have no insight into why gardening make me happy. It always has, it always will.
Creativity in general, but especially music.
companionship: for all the reasons you say, Rami, but I would include children (mine and some other people's) and family (either the one that came factory installed or one you assemble for yourself.) In my case, the people I feel most compelled to eat dinner with. And the subcategory of the one person I feel most compelled to be naked with. Who is also, luckily, a riff with and confide in person.
God: The possibility of contemplating, arguing with, learning about or being with God makes me happy. It makes me a lot of other things too, but the old man didn't ask those questions.