The following John Perry Barlow piece is deep on a few levels. It works as both a criticism of our culture, and as a call to inspiration. It builds to a lesson I need to learn, and I know plenty of others who need to as well.
…I have found four qualities that I believe naturally enrich the ecology of joy. When I’m capable of sustaining them, they sustain me and continue to do so even in these strange days. They are: a sense of mission, the casual service of others, the solace of little delights, and finally, love for its own sake.
Having a sense of mission has served me extremely well, even better than I thought it would when I wrote Adult Principle Number 15 and bound myself to purpose rather than its by-product. Often I would have been hard-pressed to define mine and it has certainly taken on many different manifestations in the course of my careers, but I have taken a lot of happiness from a sense – often grandiose and sometimes illusory – that I am, by my various actions, helping create a future that will be more free, more tolerant, more open, and more just.
My primary ambition is to be a good ancestor, and though, by definition, I will never know if I’ve succeeded, I am pleased to believe that I’m giving it my best shot.
Connected to the happiness of mission is another joy that can no more be pursued than grace itself: the gift of creation. I’ve been blessed by the opportunity to let art pass through me on occasion. Whether songs, or essays, or interestingly designed haystacks, these manifestations of beauty, for which I take no more credit than the faucet should take for the water, have been wonderful gifts.
The sense that one has become the instrument of invention is so satisfying that I find it truly stupefying that anyone one would claim that artists are motivated to create primarily by the money they might get from such miracles. Not to say they shouldn’t be paid. Paying them provides them with more time and liberty to channel art. But it’s a rare artist who’s in it for the money. A real artist creates because he has no choice. He is pressed into the involuntary service of art, and thereby, humanity.
Which brings me to another solace cheaply available to all. Consider the joys of service. As a few leaders, ranging from Jimmy Carter to the Dalai Lama, demonstrate with their lives, we can become happy through the exercise of compassion. But following the training we receive in schools and workplaces, we have come to regard service as self-suppressing obligation rather than a self-fulfilling responsibility. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I think a related problem is that we tend to approach service the same way we approach exercise programs, in lunges and spasms of temporary idealism. We raise the initial bar too high. We fail to see that they also serve who, while not quite heading off to Calcutta to comfort dying lepers, merely treat the strangers miscellaneously at hand with a little humor and kindness. You don’t have to be Gandhi to be a good guy. There are few things that make me happier than successfully resisting the impulse to snarl at some idle transgressor and elevating myself into an actively benign stance. Such opportunities arise almost hourly. (Not that I always rise to them.) The habit of small kindnesses is immensely rewarding.
Which brings me to another under-appreciated fountain of happiness: the common little joys the universe leaves lying around for the truly casual observer. I think of something Kafka – that noted happiness-hound – wrote:
“It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.”
He is not talking about the pursuit of happiness. He’s not even talking, as one might easily and incorrectly conclude, about lying in wait for happiness. He’s talking about making oneself genuinely available to it. He is talking about opening one’s senses to the little delights – the sunsets, the lilac-scented breezes, the hilarious bartender jokes, the quick flash of anonymous smiles, the inside straights, the large purring cats, the click of stiletto heels, the popping of bubble-wrap, the liquid song of the meadowlark, the shrug of a New York cop – the granular texture of unsolicited joy.
There have been many hard times in my life – including the present – when I took refuge in reduced focus, comforting myself with the glorious filigree of immediate existence. Even a man facing a firing squad can appreciate the dawn that also arrays itself before him.
Finally, and always, there is love. By this, I don’t mean that economic bargain that often passes for love these days. I don’t mean that I will love you if you get good grades, or that I will love you if you’ll sleep with me, or that I will love you ifŠanything. I mean what I mean when I say, “I love you.” Period. Without expectation, condition, term limit, codicil, or obligation. To say that – and to mean it in that way – makes me happy.
What makes me happiest of all is when someone says “I love you” to me – meaning it as unconditionally as I intend to mean it – and I simply accept it. Learning to accept unconditional love has been the most demanding part of my education. It requires me to love myself as much as I am loved, which is not easy, since I like to pretend that my loathsome short-comings are invisible to all but me.
Still, when I love without goal and accept love without doubt, I am happy. In this, I am not pursuing happiness. I am becoming it.