Several months ago, the Matron ceased to be a haphazard seeker but became the more serious sort. She was not happy. Wasn't that pursuit her God-given, Constitutionally endorsed 'right': "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
Self-evident and inalienable, this right to pursue happiness.
Not only did the Matron buy this hook, line and sinker, she could even sum up her life in a single word: yearning.
But over the years, it became clear to her that she did not know what this quality -- happiness-- really was. Sure, she had deep love for her children, husband, friends. Satisfaction and sense of purpose from work, paid or otherwise. The occasional sear of completion -- that all is well in the world and her place in it -- when she composes that perfect piece of prose. Enough money to feel safe and secure; confidence and success within the social order. Yes, she has possessed all of these things, at one time or another (sometimes together) to varying degrees and still does.
Happiness remained elusive.
Of course, it eventually dawned upon her that if asked, she could not define what 'happiness' was. The word seemed like an end to itself, a destination whose borders weren't quite clear. Are you happy? Yes, no. This seems like a one stop shop. But the precise qualities that constitute this state don't seem "inalienable" or "self-evident" at all. Is happiness a physical feeling, a psychological or spiritual state, a twist of the mind?
It seems to the Matron that we - perhaps particularly we Americans, with 'happiness' codified as an ideal -- are all in hot pursuit of something we cannot accurately describe to ourselves. We all use the same word: happiness.
But simple semiotics tells us that words are empty boxes we fill with our own precise meaning. Don't believe her? Imagine "COAT." Picture it in your mind. Give it color and definition.
She does this exercise with her students and she means business here: conjure up that COAT in your head before proceeding.
The COAT in the Matronly mind is red suede knee-length, with a narrow waist and white stitching. That's what she sees when instructed like this to imagine "coat." One of her students once pictured a fresh white coat of paint.
She knows that the COAT in your mind was different from hers -- and most likely, different from everybody's else's.
Happiness is precisely the same: an empty box of letters that signifies something we supply. If we break down all language this way (and scholars too) the indeterminacy of language becomes evident. It doesn't really matter much if you think COAT and see a blue blazer, and I see red suede.
It matters a lot when we think about words like: justice, equity, ideal, God, or fairness.
Happiness isn't like COAT or table, dog, elephant. It --that pursuit of happiness or mandate toward happiness -- has a lot of power and prestige. Considerable psychic, spiritual, mental and physical energy is invested in things we desire -- pursue--and happiness is, it would appear, so highly desirable that we mention it a lot. Our nation has organized itself around that word. To achieve or pursue happiness is crystal, constitutionally, culturally and politically clear.
We tend to agree that the process -- activities, career, family, people, God -- that makes us happy varies from person to person: "Whatever makes you happy!" A stock social phrase, giving the individual carte blanche -- the ability to select from the bountiful menu that constitutes the 'pursuit,' the highly individual stuff we do and people we accumulate that set us up for the ultimate goal, happy.
The Matron would like to distinguish between the process and the end-game -- between the pursuit of happiness (the stuff we do to get there) and the ultimate destination (happiness itself).
She's right back to the beginning -- there's all that pursuit beside her (career, family, volunteer work, art, satisfactions of all sort) -- yet on a day she might call herself 'happy,' that state can be squashed in one rough hour of traffic. How secure was her foothold? Not very.
People will often ask us if we're 'happy.' Even if not asked, it's nearly always required to note that one is indeed, perfectly happy (which also means perfectly 'fine'). Class reunions, work meetings ("are you happy with that design?"), lunch with a girlfriend, late night conversation with the spouse, query to a child. Imagine the response if the answer was a definitive no. I'm not happy.
For the Matron -- who does not yet know what happiness is -- hearing that someone is not happy does not mean this person is unhappy (happiness's opposite, whatever that is) or particularly sad. It is just that this state -- happiness -- has not yet been met or recognized.
As of late, when people ask the Matron if she's happy, she says "sometimes." That seems like a good enough answer. Happiness, unhappiness, sadness, joy, serious, funny -- none of these seem like a solid-enough word to describe an overall state of sense of being. But of course, there's no mandate or sales pitch to exist in unhappiness, sadness, joy, seriousness, or humor as a consistent, quantifiable state of being. We're largely supposed to be pursuing happiness in love, work, friendship, vocation, and nation. Claiming that this state --happiness -- is currently not applicable to one's self is disconcerting to all involved.
Reality (at least hers, for her) is a good place to live these days, even if it means rejecting the standard notion of happiness and its fluid attainment. Is this reality complicated? Well, you just read this whole blog post: yes!
But it's honest.
And she knows precisely how to define and live in that word (even when she's not doing it well -- another topic : -).