If every facet of the entire world has changed, then so must the definition of our happiness. What makes us happy, when we are cut off from friends and family and lovers? When we our favorite restaurants and bars and theaters are now forbidden to us? Some have the good fortune to be locked in with their children and partners, but in even those cases I have been told that this has its limits. With all this taken away, can we still be happy?
I was talking to a friend this afternoon, and I asked her how she was doing. Long story short, she said “I don’t even know what a good day is.” We were both surviving. Both privileged and lucky enough to get by. But we weren’t feeling good, necessarily. We weren’t smiling. We were just living.
Another friend told me “You’re only goal is to survive 2020. That’s it.” He said that out of love and concern. It was absolutely wise, but maybe not complete. There must be something more to surviving. If this pandemic continues for as long as some predict it will, I don’t want to waste a year of my life simply surviving. The worst part of Cast Away, is that after Tom Hanks returns to civilization the movie rushes into the romantic subplot. We don’t see that he’s learned anything from years stuck on an island. He hasn’t changed except to get a haircut and a new suit. Sure, I feel his heart break. But he should also be dancing with joy every time he warms up a Hot Pocket in the microwave.
The need to find happiness is evidenced by the hundreds who gathered in front of bars, standing to side by side, well within six feet of one another and without masks. All so they could grab a drink. People across the country demanded to be let into restaurants, and to have their nails done and hair chopped and styled. When they were denied they reacted in fury and protests and verbal abuse. An ice cream shop in Boston opened, and when the employees implored people to maintain Covid-19 protocols they were met with abuse so severe that one woman quit. There are few things uglier than happiness denied. And it’s being denied us everywhere. But are there still places where we can find it today?
I want this answer to be “yes.” I say that with no evidence or insight. I live my life believing I can still be happy with the same faith I step into an elevator and know it will not collapse and go hurtling down twelve stories. I just need to believe this because if I stop believing, I won’t be able to function. That’s how I felt this weekend. My malaise peaked on Saturday night and continued through this morning. Accidentally seeing a Tik Tok video of an ex (sort of, it’s complicated) doing a duet with a hunky guy who had an amazing head of hair, led to one random thought which spiraled into another, sending me spinning down towards feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and I no longer saw the point in anything. My walk through Manhattan helped for awhile. Someone asked if I found joy, and I couldn’t answer. I just said “It was OK,” and truth wasn’t in the words but in the ambivalence of my answer.
During the following days I sat on my couch. I stopped cleaning. Workouts were abandoned mid rep. I slept all day. I stared listlessly at my favorite movies. There was no point. I was kept alive only by the reflexive pumping of my lungs and heart. Any voluntary attempts at life were ignored.
And then I thought, “Enough.” I had to change. I had to do something to keep me going. I was tired of being tired. I credit this resilience to the one summer I was unemployed and homeless. Wandering through the streets and wondering how I could ever rebuild my life, I told myself that I had to be positive. It was a thought of pure faith and no logic, but mostly it was a reaction coming from my survival instinct. I had to be positive if I was going to survive.
But then the question, what is happiness? Is it going to a bar or getting your haircut? I actually feel sorry for the people who broke quarantine protocols for a beer. If that is the definition of happiness, something worth dying for, then if this pandemic showed us one thing it is that some people’s lives are shallow and empty.
I was taught, mostly unintentionally, that happiness comes from being with someone. It has become painfully, and sometimes embarrassingly, clear that this isn’t true. Possible? Yes. And if that happens it must be wonderful. But not guaranteed. During last summer (I can’t believe it was a year ago) I was lucky enough to go on a few dates with a raven haired beauty. But she’s suddenly stoped talking to me, as have many other people I hold dear. I’m not bitter. Well, a little bitter. But beneath the surface I know that everyone is coping and handling this situation differently. Many have withdrawn. Emotional exhaustion and depression has forced some to avoid contact with anyone who might ask the ultimate loaded question, “How are you doing?”
(Side note: I’ve noticed that the few people who do text and call regularly are people who are still working regular jobs. Maybe because their lives feel more normal and stable. Maybe they’re avoiding work.)
The multiple break-ups are just another side effect of survival. As my friend said, the only goal is to survive, and some do so by cutting themselves off. Maybe there’s wisdom there, intentional or otherwise. As Alan Watts said, “. . . I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.”
How do you connect with everything when you have nothing? Perhaps by looking within. I’ve been asking questions lately. Like, who am I really? What do I want? What is truly important? Spoiler alert, it’s not haircuts and vodka sodas (if those are the most important things in your life, I ask you to think a little harder). It’s no small coincidence that I’ve written more in four months than I have in the entire previous year. But that’s not the most important part of my day. Sitting with my coffee, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to, I can finally sit and just think with no pressure or limits. To quote the Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hath:
“We need silence, just as much as we need air, as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.”
Are we isolated? Yes. But that isolation also brings silence, to leave space for us (apologies to anyone who’s raising kids, if you even had time to read this far).
Maybe we’re all still connected. Joined together in a crusade to end the reign of Covid-19. Maybe the silence and the pain and loneliness are a badge of solidarity as we march against this life changing, life stealing virus. We can’t feel good by seeing our friends. We can’t find joy in a walk by the Hudson or in some bacon wrapped goodness at Criff Dogs. But we can feel good because we are surviving against the greatest catastrophe of this generation. It’s still possible to feel good. We just have to redefine what “good” means. Feeling good means being alive. Being healthy. Feeling good means knowing that thousands of people are no longer dying each day in New York State. Because almost everyone chose to lock themselves in isolation. To be able to breathe when so many thousands can’t. To see the sun rise and set. To know that those friends are still out there, alive and well.
With all the tragic and horrible deaths happening, maybe we should learn that we can be happy simply by being alive. And in so doing realize what a gift life is. And when this is finally over and the doors are opened and we see our loved ones and the whole world gets a giant “do over” for life, we can really learn to love every moment for what it is. Maybe being happy is being alive. It’s a lesson I hope I can learn. Am I right? I don’t know. But believing that it’s true will keep me going for a few days more.