Happiness is temporary.
Sadness is temporary.
Which one resonates more?
When I talk about the sadder parts of my life, I often am confronted with the phrase, “Time heals everything.” I suppose there is some truth to that. After all, I no longer care about same problems that bothered me in second grade. Transitioning from a new school from another school in the same school district — why was I ever worried about that? Probably for the same reason I now worry about having a sense of understanding in my life.
When I was a child, I was afraid that a shark would emerge from the swimming pool pipes (where the pump in filtered water) and eat me.
It’s not that these problems weren’t stresses at the time; it’s just that, as time passes, it seems that everything that had happened to be since the beginning isn’t as significant. It seems that the things that concerned me back then were such childish concerns. After all, I was a child, and children have childish concerns. What this girl who sat across from me in my sixth grade history class thought of me actually mattered to me. What grade I received on my spelling quiz in my seventh grade English class actually mattered to me. What may or may not have been lurking in the swimming pool waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike at my toes actually mattered to me.
It’s not that these fears have gone away, although I no longer swim in pools with the fear that I would never emerge from my flip-turn; it’s just that these fears have been replaced by other fears — real fears, as opposed to whatever irrational fears floated in my underdeveloped adolescent brain. I still care about what other people think of me. Everyone cares about what other people think of them. It’s evolutionary, and I can’t argue with evolution. I still care about what grade I receive on my economics midterm. I am an economics major, and doing well in my major does have a role in validating my choice to study economics at all. But, in terms of the hierarchy of things I am stressed about, these stresses are no longer something that preoccupies my mind in the same obsessive manner as that of a phantom shark in a swimming pool.
Despite the negativity of my childhood experience, I still have a Tolstoian longing for my childhood, when my fears and insecurities were so simple and immature. Things were hopeful. I was underexposed. There was nothing in the world that I felt as if I couldn’t eventually overcome. Back then, I understood the cause of my problems had solutions I could actively work towards. There were lifestyle choices that I could make to improve the quality of my life. Because the world was on my side; I was the protagonist to my own story. I had all the resources I needed to become whatever I wanted to be, eventually.
But then, as I grow up, opportunities began to slip away. One by one, I am become further and further apart from the person that I could’ve been. Some of these loss opportunities are the result of things that I could change; some are not. But the world isn’t on my side anymore. It’s not against me either. It’s indifferent to me, to my friends, to everyone. The world does not care for moral principles (although certain structural factors seem to encourage them). It does not care about maintaining a sense of fairness. It does not care about letting every rejection encountered in our lives contribute to some sort of character growth, the same way things seem to work out in the well-constructed novel abiding by the hero’s journey.
Happiness, like a summer breeze on a winter afternoon, passes by me on occasion. I am reminded of the hopeful child I was in second grade, eagerly anticipating what growth I would sustain through my next ten years of my compulsory education. The future had prospects, not necessarily in material possessions, but in personal growth towards an ideal self. Of course, I would be excited in learning what collections of souvenirs would end up in my memory box, but I was also excited about what experiences I would have that created those souvenirs. It’s not that I had become disillusioned by my future; I’m sure that I’ll still find plenty of opportunity in my life to strive towards. But, in regards to boundless optimism I had as a child, I can observe my sanguine conception of life deteriorating every day.
Ten years ago, I was excited to learn about what type of person I would become today. My goals were simple; I wanted to get into a good college. It was, along with my other goals, a simple goal. But now, after knowing the person I have become ten years later, I’m not sure that I still have the same feelings of anticipation forecasting my development for the next ten years, when I have entered the age of thirty. Would a cat sit on my lap on my porch in suburban New Haven as I attempt to read Ulysses by James Joyce for the third time? Would I be sipping an espresso shot in New York, reading the latest breaking news on insider trading as I attempt to navigate China’s growing power in world politics? Would I be content with myself?
It seems the more I journey through my life, the less firm my grasp in controlling my own life. My accomplishments, my failures, even the friends I have made thus far are aspects of my life devoid of conscious intention, a set of circumstantial events leading to another set of circumstantial events. They are things that happen to me. And the more I live, the more it seems that my life is just a series of events happening to me. While I should be grateful of the opportunities that have been afforded to me, I cannot help but yearn for my childhood self, when I hadn’t been exposed to the sheer amount of opportunities that will never come and the opportunities that I will never have again.
Broken friendships. Broken relationships. Broken…whatever. A long string of events in our lives that progressively add more burden to our existence. A little bit more of weight on our backs as we turn to turn to click the snooze button on our 8 AM alarm for our 9 AM lecture on the applications of Bayes’ rule in a Monte Carlo simulation. Just as we become accustomed to the heap of disappointment resting on our backs — just as a gust of spring tenderness graces our soul as we emerge from an uncaring winter — we encounter another broken friendship, another broken relationship, another…whatever. And winter returns to our lives.
I wonder about those countries far into the northern hemisphere that have sunlight for four hours each day, if at all. Compared to warmer places like the lively beaches of Miami or the vibrant marketplaces in Beijing, how is it possible to maintain a degree of happiness when the environment seems to encourage oppression? Winter, by nature, is not conducive to happiness. After all, we have never heard of seasonal affective disorders (literally abbreviated SAD) caused by increases in the temperature. With Pennsylvania winters, we only face a continuous strand of three-month periods of sadness. In those winters, how do we reconcile an infinite submersion of sadness with the will to still live?
I never considered myself much of a summer person. I thrive in the winter because it represents the same mental state I have become acquainted with throughout my entire life. While winter represents a temporary phase of melancholy for many people, for me, the sight of the fragile snow falling from a dark sky represents a way of life. In that regard, I often feel quite different from my friends. I do not live in a constant state of contentment with my life, not that the difference is worth noting. But, to me, there has always been an inherent disconnect between how I should feel about my reality as opposed to how I actually feel. And the question I have come to ask is, how do I reconcile my own experience with those that the world comes to expect?
Poetry and literature, I suppose, offer an answer. It’s my version of Freudian sublimation. My sentiments certainly are not unique to myself. After all, I have not been the sole individual who has experienced sadness in their lives. A long history of writers and artists have felt the same way I do, if not worse. And, in terms of personal realization, I do find solace in knowing that my problems are not exclusive to me alone. It mitigates my feelings of isolation, even if my peers seem to exist in another world to me. Out of all the emotions that I have been acquainted to in my 20 years of existence, I find despair to be the one universal human emotion. While happiness comes and goes in our life, I have never thought of my existence defined by a few temporary moments of ecstasy.
Trying to view winter as we did when we were a child — that is all I want life to be. We age, and with each winter we progressively become more and more acrimonious. White snow falls from the sky, but the more time a snowflake stays in existence, the dirtier it gets. And while the first moment of a snowflake’s existence is pure and unblemished, it can never return to the same innocence of its childhood once it reaches the ground. Like the snowflake, we can never reclaim the same unadulterated purity once we have settled into the ground and into our adulthood. Because once we anchor our existence in reality, we are only touched by the uncaring boots of trample our hopes of remaining pure.
Every year, we have more reason to become caustic towards our existence. More missteps. More what-ifs. More reasons to stay up at night. And now, on this spring morning filled with summer, I cannot help but glance at those cheerful students prancing down the street enjoying the weather and become overwhelmed with a splash of woe. Because, unlike the collection of friend groups around me, I breath the air around me and only feel toxicity. Happiness, unlike the sun, does not necessarily resurface after a melatonin pill and seven hours of sleep.
I live my life in accordance with almost every recommendation in positive psychology. Yet, my levels of happiness feels like it is derived from an rnorm() function with a negative skew. Nevertheless, my lifestyle is my way of doing as much as I can to have a sense of contentment in my life. Because happiness has never, nor ever will be, a part of my life I take for granted. It’s a series of conscious decisions in my life that shifts the mean of my normal distribution slightly more positively, so that the value of subsequent samplings would be slightly less sad. It’s reducing the variance of each sample so I won’t have another surprise, existential dread! day. It’s making the most of what I have, given what I have.
Because, in terms of the progression of my life, my life doesn’t seem to be moving towards happiness. Within the past couple years of my life, I don’t really remember any moments of pure happiness; spaced between the moments of sadness are just moments where I had forgotten about how sad I was. A friend here, a friend there — none lasting longer than two months. It’s just a series of happenings between how I was then and how I am now. And in a few years, it will be a series of occurrences between how I am now and how I will be. I will change as a person, but I’m not sure the melancholic state that has followed me for my entire life would.
All the same, I do feel as if vocalizing thoughts and sentiments has meaning. It might be invisible, impalpable, imperceptible; but slowly, like the sight of barnacles reappearing during the low tide, the effects can be observed. And all we can do now is wait for the tide to recede back into the ocean until we can, once again, see the barnacles clinging on the edge of the dock.