Reflecting on Happiness

The Tao of Sudden-Onset Joy

It’s a beautiful day in Des Moines. It’s not too hot, not too bright, just warm enough to wear a light dress with a light cardigan to cover my regrettably-tattooed shoulders. My roommate standing across the counter from me, is talking about unimportant stuff, cracking jokes… I sit, graciously receiving the humor and responding in kind, munching on peanut butter pita with a drizzle of honey and thoughtfully sipping on fresh mango lasse he had just made.

Suddenly, so suddenly in fact that it surprised even me, I find myself doing something I haven’t done in years.

I smile. No, I grin. A big, toothy grin. And not just because I got to use the phrase “prostate hockey” unironically to mock someone a bit earlier. I show teeth, even though I’m very self-conscious about the state of my teeth. I laugh quietly to myself at the sheer, simple, beautiful ecstasy of the moment. What’s more, I can’t help it. Almost every smile and grin and twinkly eye flash I’ve ever had has been a conscious decision on my part. In my weird little brain, I decided that the culturally appropriate response was to smile, so pull those muscles, and follow it up with a chuckle. Good… But here and now? I have to laugh, I have to smile. I can’t hold it in any longer. Then a thought rings through my head:

“No one deserves to be this happy…”

The thought gives me pause. For starters, the exact opposite is true. Everyone deserves to be this happy. Imagine, as John Lennon sang, just imagine. Every single man, woman, and child taken with a fit of joy so intense and overwhelming that they just have to grin and have a giggle fit. I think a lot of problems would cease if everyone could just have that moment.

Second, I have no reason to be that happy. Not in my conception of it, anyway. I am broke. Painfully so. 

[note: at the time of this event, I was actually about -$70 in my bank account.] 

Upon further reflection, I come to realize that the major motivator for my life has been the acquisition of stuff. If I could just get that dress... If I could just buy that bed... I had "if I could just"-ed myself into hedonistic self-indulgence and its late-to-the-party cousin, destitution. 

So why am I, $70 in the hole on the 18th of the month, happy in that moment? It isn't the dress (although it helps, it is super cute, you guys, for real), it isn't the food (the pita came from the buffet we had after the mishpacha shabbat service a week before, and was getting a bit stale), and it isn't the jokes (but they were good). 

There's a je ne sais quoi to it, a secret fourth element, that makes all of it so damnably, unbearably wonderful. And that is the exquisite truth of Taoism embodied by the famous painting The Vinegar Tasters.

Here, gathered around a pot of vinegar are, from left to right, Kung Fu-tzu (Confucius), the Great Buddha, and Lao-tzu. The three men have, as the title claims, tasted the vinegar. Kung Fu-tzu is bitter. Angry. This has offended my tongue! The Buddha is sad. Alas! I am in pain. Lao-tzu, serenely, smiles. Why? Because the vinegar tastes like vinegar. Tasting it was an experience. It was life. And when you get right down to it, life is fun. And that's kind of the core concept here. Finding a way to have fun. Yes, my situation is not ideal by anyone's yardstick, but "Making the best of it" doesn't have to mean "putting a brave face on 'barely scraping by'."

Such is my joy that an hour later, I am still smiling like an idiot, staring out the window. A robin hops across a branch of the tree in the yard, his mouth so full he can't close his beak. A humorously fluffy cloud catches my attention behind the robin, and I stare for a while at it. Have I found the Immortal Tao? One leg unconsciously lifts ever so slightly off the ground, as if I may take flight, pulled into the sky that holds my gaze by my lightness of being.

My roommate, a man I've known for 20 years, asks me what I am thinking about.

"Happy," I respond quietly without looking away from the window. 

He sees my smile, my contentedness. He understands, and says nothing else.

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