June 12th, 2009

So yesterday morning, yesterday being a Thursday, when I start class a bit later and have time to sift around the internet, I read this post at The Useless Tree, and it got me thinking (as Prof. Crane’s posts almost always do). I was going to sit down and write out some of these thoughts yesterday afternoon, but as so often happens, I got distracted, and so I didn’t. And so I was going to sit down and write them out this afternoon, but it’s Friday, it’s hot, I’m tired, and how much of what was running through my head yesterday morning do I remember, anyway?

Well, Prof. Crane quotes a post by Pico Iyer, a post musing on happiness and less. Not asceticism, as such, not wilfull denial, but just needing less. Well, I didn’t read the original Pico Iyer article, but that seems to be the gist of the two snippets quoted. But one phrase leapt out at me:

…then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies…

Ah, yes, Running to Stand Still, one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands. Well, I suppose I could get the lyrics off one of those countless song lyrics sites, or I could go to the source itself:

And so she woke up
Woke up from where she was lyin’ still.
Said I gotta do something
About where we’re goin’.

Step on a fast train
Step out of the driving rain, maybe
Run from the darkness in the night.
Singing ah, ah la la la de day
Ah la la la de day.

The song opens with notes of pure adulterated joy from The Edge’s guitar before settling into a gentleness that betrays a strung-out life. We don’t yet know the problem, but we know that these still waters hide some deep fury.

Note: There are no typos in the preceeding paragraph.

Sweet the sin, bitter the taste in my mouth.
I see seven towers, but I only see one way out.
You gotta cry without weeping, talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice.
You know I took the poison, from the poison stream
Then I floated out of here, singing
Ah la la la de day
Ah la la la de day.

And here the tension rises a little closer to the surface, the agony of crying without weeping, talking without speaking, screaming without raising your voice threatening to break out into voiced pain. I suspect Munch knows what this feels like. There is a visible way out, but there is also the poison stream and the easy relief it offers.

She walks through the streets
With her eyes painted red
Under black belly of cloud in the rain.
In through a doorway
She brings me white golden pearls
Stolen from the sea.

She is ragin’
She is ragin’
And the storm blows up in her eyes.

This is where the tension really builds, Bono has a full head of steam behind him, barely suppressed fury trying to tear its way out of his larynx, the ‘she’ whose story he is narrating is about to explode, smash her way out, but:

She will suffer the needle chill
She’s running to stand still.

And we’re back to the calm of the start of the song.

And yeah, you could, as I usually do, interpret this song as being about drug addiction (although I think you’re better off asking U2, I mean, they wrote it), but I can no longer see any difference between drug addiction and regular, mainstream modern society. Some people do heroin. Most do consumerism. Both amount to the same thing (including, I suspect, in terms of their effects on human health).

Heh, kinda reminds me of that early montage of scenes in Trainspotting (the film, at least) in which a variety of characters talk about how they wouldn’t put that muck/those chemicals/that poison in their bodies as they swill beer, smoke cigarettes, and stuff their gobs with saturated fats.

As Pico Iyer (at least, as he is quoted in that post) and Prof. Crane seem to be suggesting: In this modern world we’re constantly being told what we need to possess in order to achieve happiness, and yet, it’s always changing, there’s always more. 20 years ago a Walkman was cool. Now it’s an ipod. Tomorrow who knows? What was it a young Chinese couple needed 30 years ago? A bicycle, a sewing machine and a…. the third escapes me… oh, a watch (谢谢老婆). These days?

And yet, no matter what we acquire, there’s something more we’re told we must have in order to be happy.

Yeah, I know, I’m far from the first to rant on this topic, and I won’t be the last, and we all always say the same thing. And we keep saying these same things over and over again because the rest of the world writes us off as a bunch of manic street preachers announcing the end of the world. And yet, the evidence I see suggests to me that even as they dismiss us as prophets of doom, ordinary people are at least subconsciously aware of their situation and occasionally see that they are “running to stand still”.

And still, the Joneses buy a Porsche, so they scrape together their meagre savings and credit cards, mortgage the pet dog, and send their two year old son off to the coalmines so they can buy a Mercedes Benz. And for what?

Brings to mind one of my favourite poems, What Then? by W.B. Yeats:

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

All his happier dreams came true –
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’

But before I continue just quoting people more famous than I’ll ever be, let me drag myself back to the original spark for this particular ramble: Prof. Crane, as should be expected, bring Daosim into the mix, quoting Daodejing 24 (but somehow all this copying and pasting is playing really silly buggers with formatting here, so I’ll copy it out the old-fashioned way):

He who stands on tiptoe is not steady.

He who doubles his stride can not go far.

He who displays himself is not wise.

He who justifies himself is not prominent.

He who boasts of himself is not fit for leadership.

From the perspective of the Dao,

These are like the remnants of food and tumours of the body,

So disgusting that the one with the Dao stays away from them.

Likewise the sage knows himself but does not display himself.

He loves himself but does not feel self-important.

Oh wait, we’re using two quite different translations… Oh well. Compare and contrast the translations with each other and the original as you will.

So all this ranting about what happiness is not. Then what, pray tell, is happiness?

知足常乐 – contentment brings happiness.

Yeah, maybe, but I suspect most of these proverbs exist to keep people in line, as in, “Shut up, pleb, your place is on the factory floor, and you will be happy with whatever scraps the boss throws you.” And yet, there is truth to such proverbs. We shouldn’t read this as, “Be happy with what you’ve got”, but as “Appreciate life for what it is”. As I commented on Prof. Crane’s post:

We’re surrounded by so much glitter and noise and distraction all telling us what we need to be happy that we’re no longer capable of understanding the pure, unadulterated happiness of sitting beside a small lake in a Norwegian wood high in the mountains by the Swedish border eating a fish that was caught two minutes before it was cooked, sipping coffee that was boiled over a fire of birch branches gathered from the forest floor.

Meaning, we have lost the ability to savour the moment in all its beautiful simplicity. One does not have to be sitting in a Norwegian wood, not by any means [indeed, how did Norway attain such mythic value? For me, personally, it’s because I have sat in pretty much the situation I described. What’s Murakami’s excuse? Or the Beatles’? Or Wu Bai’s?]. For example, I spent yesterday afternoon sitting beneath trees in the courtyard of a nearby hotel with a colleague and a couple of beers, and it was good. Just walking down a city street watching the traffic pass is good. Modern folks seem to have forgotten how to just stop and be in the moment.

But there’s more to it than that. Life is an active process. Life is progress and development. We need to be able to stop and be in the moment, but we can’t wallow in it. We have needs and wants and they are natural, it is desire that we must be wary of. Yeah, I want a house of our own, and I want a car. I can live quite happily without either. Having a house would give my wife and myself a little extra security, so far as one can be secure in this world, and that is a good thing. That extra security would add to our happiness by reducing stress, but we must remember that owning a house in and of itself could never make us happy. A car would give us easier, less stressful access to her home village. It would also allow easy access to the regions surrounding Beijing, many of which are more than worth visiting. As much as car owners like to delude themselves, a car would not make getting around Beijing any easier. Indeed, it would vastly increase the stress of living in this city. And in the cases of both a house and car, all the extra costs and worries would quickly negate any benefits, leaving us overall no better off than before.

The point is, there’s a difference between need, want, and desire. Need is entirely natural. We need oxygen, food and water. We need shelter from the elements. We need to belong to a community of some kind. These are the fundamentals of our existence. There is a bit of overlap between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’, especially when it comes to ‘community’. Sex is not quite a need but is a pretty serious want, and the same applies to friendship. We will not die without these things, but our lives would be seriously impoverished. But lower down the scale we have such things as comfort, convenience and enjoyment. We need shelter, but a comfortable place to live is infinitely preferable to a cave. We need community, but a good meal shared with good friends is infinitely better than belonging to some kind of ‘tribe’ or ‘nation’.

Then, of course, we venture into the area in which ‘want’ is warped into ‘desire’. That old “keeping up with the Joneses” bollocks that I already alluded to. A certain amount of acquisitiveness is natural to humans, as it is to many animals, because storing up an extra bit of grain- either as grain or as a belly- helps protect us from lean times. But this acquisitiveness is easily corrupted, and we can see this corruption any time we step outside our homes- or, all too frequently, just by looking around our homes. None of us are immune to it. I, for example, have a particular weakness for books, music and movies. The trouble with acquisitiveness is that allowed to run rampant, it leads us inevitably to the very same misery described in U2’s Running to Stand Still. The bigger trouble with acquisitiveness is that it is encouraged to run way beyond rampant by the ‘consumerist’ warping of ethics promoted by modern capitalism.

If we allow ourselves to be carried away by consumerism, then we forego any chance at happiness, and the greatest torture is being able to see “the one way out”. The only choices are to either keep dipping your cup in the poison stream, or to simply step off the treadmill.

Of course, when one lives in a world in which everything, including natural disasters, is measured in a dollar value, it can be really hard to step off the treadmill.

Looking at this modern world, or indeed, the world as it has been throughout recorded history, I think of another Midnight Oil song:

There is nothing that grows in his arctic world
There is nothing that grows in your arctic world
There is nothing that grows in this arctic world

And the very next song on that album leads with [follow the same link and scroll down]:

There is enough for everyone

Indeed, there is.

Happiness is such an infuriatingly simple thing, it lies in stepping back, accepting life for what it is, accepting oneself as oneself, accepting themselves as themselves, and just living.

3 Responses to “happiness”

  1. Ji Village News Says:

    Beautiful writing, Wangbo. You provided a perspective I needed badly. Thanks.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Thanks, and no worries.

  3. nz Says:

    If we allow ourselves to be carried away by consumerism, then we forego any chance at happiness, and the greatest torture is being able to see “the one way out”.

    What do you mean with that quote?