I. 4. ALIVENESS NOT "HAPPINESS"
We can only know real joy if we dare feel real pain. Doing so makes us
more truly alive, not "happy."
It is remarkable how often people in our society speak of achieving a state of "happiness" as their goal in life. Our bookshelves groan under the weight of books promising permanent joy by following a particular diet, relationship strategy, exercise regimen or spiritual teaching.
Trulyalive.org aims at a different goal: becoming truly alive, a state that involves both great happiness and great anguish, and everything in-between. Facing death honestly and openly can be one of our most important vehicles for achieving this state of true aliveness.
Of course temporary experiences of happiness, joy, bliss or ecstasy are wonderful. But what does it mean to speak of becoming permanently or usually happy in a world that is both overflowing with food and lets children starve to death, in which thousands die daily from senseless war, 50 million people die annually against their wishes, 2 billion people try to survive on $2 a day, millions exist in literal or defacto slavery, children are emotionally and sexual abused, and the suffering of inexhaustible thirst is built into the very fabric of our day-to-day existence?
It is possible to be "happy" in such a world. But only at the cost of cutting ourselves off from much of human - and our own - experience. C. Wright Mills and Ernest Becker may have been a bit strong in referring to those who claim to be usually happy as "cheerful robots." But there seems little doubt that one can only claim to live in a state of happiness by ignoring not only much of the pain in the world but one's immediate life. This kind of "happiness" narrows, deadens, and desiccates us.
We cannot stress enough a basic point: it is not possible to cut off painful feelings without cutting off joyful ones as well. We cannot selectively avoid one set of feelings. Any attempt to ward off unpleasant feelings diminishes our overall feeling, preventing us from realizing all that life has to offer.
This point is made even clearer when we ask a deeper question: do we really want to avoid feeling anguish, horror, sadness and a host of other powerful emotions that can energize our lives, connect us with others, and add immeasurably to our experience of all that life offers?
Even a cursory look usually reveals that the most transformative, expansive, and meaningful periods of our lives were often preceded by periods of deep suffering, grief, emptiness or despair.
If we wish to be truly alive, the way to deal with pain is the opposite of what we have been taught: we need not try and avoid it but rather to move into and through it. We do not want to stay stuck in it, of course. The psychological truism that "the only way out is through" is correct. We need to feel it fully , so that it can energize and transform our lives.
We fool ourselves in any event when we believe we can avoid the real pain that arises in our lives. We can deaden or drug ourselves so we do not feel it consciously. But doing so does not make it disappear. It rather drives it into our unconscious, requiring even more of our energy to repress. And it also tends to lead us to act out this pain. If I am not willing to fully feel the pain of a relationship breakup, for example, I am far more likely to hurt the next person I get involved with.
Of all the pain we tend most naturally to avoid, the deepest is our sadness about our mortality. If we wish to be truly alive we have no option but to fully feel our pain about our death, so that it can transform itself into a profound and sustained love and appreciation for life, and action on its behalf.
It may be possible to be permanently "happy". But it is not possible to be in such a state without leading a deadened life. And it is hardly desirable for any person who wants to be truly alive. And if we do seek to be truly alive we will inevitably find ourselves living lives of both great joy and great pain, great happiness and great sadness, great anguish and great bliss.