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Waiting for the Catastrophe of My Life to Be Beautiful

Is happiness an absurd obsession? Last in a series highlighting great BC indie magazines.

By Peter Babiak 29 Aug 2012 | subTerrain Magazine

Peter Babiak is a cultural commentator and a member of the subTerrain Literary Collective. He has flirted with death and nurses in the IC Unit at Vancouver General Hospital and teaches English literature at Langara College. This piece by Babiak is from subTerrain #60 (Happiness).

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Fortune teller's window, Main Street, Vancouver. Photo by glasseyejack from Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

"Human Time Does Not Turn In A Circle;
It Runs Ahead In A Straight Line.
That Is Why Man Cannot Be Happy:
Happiness Is The Longing For Repetition.
-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I got an unexpected text message from a friend one evening in early December. I was at my desk wondering how to massage a bunch of sentences and partial paragraphs into an essay --this essay -- on happiness. I wanted to call it "Waiting for the Catastrophe of My Personality to Seem Beautiful Again," an unoriginal title I pulled out of a poem I like, and I wanted it to be just as light and insightful as that poem. In it I planned to write about the happiest and saddest time in my life, which I imagined some people might like to read about.

It was two summers ago and I accidentally went into a coma while sitting in the kitchen of my East Van home on Father's Day. I woke up the next month and found the tectonic plates of my world had collided. The tremors were the result of my own vanity and ego but because I wanted this piece to be more melodramatic than maudlin I planned to write about how all that damage and hurt had a good deal to do with the green-eyed acrimony and slanderous hysterics of a woman I called Voldemort.

I never wrote that essay. I might, but for now the prospect of writing about happiness when the narrative involves broken characters, the recalibration of emotional deposits across the quiet desperation of their lives, secretive intrigues and exposed anguish that closes relationships and starts new ones, the impotent ritual of goodbyes, and the malignancy of a casual encounter with mortality is just too bewildering. Like laughing when you've cut yourself badly or whistling in a graveyard at night. But then maybe, like Cormac McCarthy says in Blood Meridian, the high point of a guy's life, the meridian, "is at once his darkening and the evening of his day." Yes, it probably is.

So I was at my desk considering all this when my iPhone lit up. The message from asks, innocuously, "How are you?" I texted back that I'd been listening to black metal trying not lose my mind from all the term papers I'd been marking, and then I answered, "I'm all right. Hope you are too." You know how sometimes you're chattering inane pleasantries when the other person says something that makes you aware of just how inane those pleasantries are? Well, it was there, in that awareness and in the minute or two it took my correspondent to type the next installment of dialogue that our friendship happened.

"I'm a bit fucked up at the moment. How does one carry on with a life that appears to be so rich and so full at the same time as one's interior being is in some sheer crisis about how to live rightly?" Maybe my iPhone didn't really change everything, but that message, pitched at me with the sonorous elegance of a surprise question on a philosophy midterm you thought was going to be multiple choice, was lacerated with the metaphysical thrum of that proverbial voice of one who cries out from the wilderness.

Milan Kundera has this line in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel I've always thought is really a poem dressed up like an essay on human aesthetics, where he says that the brain has a special part that records all the things that charm us and make our lives beautiful. That message charmed its way straight into my "poetic memory." I imagine most of these moments in our lives are attached to our lovers, the ones we tell our secrets to, or perhaps to our spouses or children or dogs; but here was my collegial friend, who probably hadn't even been drinking at the time, asking me a question that was so fragile that it anchored itself into that part of my brain.

Text messaging isn't the best way to address someone's dark night of the soul. I index-fingered some clichéd lines -- "Oh, sorry to..." and "I'm sure it'll get..." -- then back-spaced them out of existence. What does a tragicomic middle-aged guy who spends too much time in his office -- and on that moderately alcohol-fueled evening trying not to despise himself too much while wondering why his own happiness and the happiness he was supposed to be writing about was so elusive -- say when he gets such a bereaved question from somebody he's always considered a consummate person -- a writer, parent, partner, and teacher -- who seems to have brilliantly spanned that existential cleavage between soul and self that infects his own and, I'm guessing, so many other lives.

When I'm confronted with the unhappiness that comes from the realization that the lives we live are malignant dramas of selective truths and lying poses we throw up to maintain the narratives and settings in which we've elected to act -- whether they are my own or belong to others -- I think of Kundera's novel, which I've read often but finished only once because I dawdle and loiter in too many of his paragraphs. It's therapy; it's my happy-place. I used to think that it was the lyrical modulation of the words in the title -- The Unbearable Lightness of Being -- that was an all-purpose salve for the serene pain and absurdities of life. If I felt sad or melancholic or lonely I'd pull the title into my head where I imagined it could answer my really big questions with the seeming aplomb of God or Google, even if I didn't know what those questions were.

Kundera's formula

Recently I've been taken, as if by some magnetic force of syntax that's aligned itself with the turbulent narrative of my life -- and, it seems, with the lives of so many other people -- to one clause. It's where Kundera's staggeringly intellectual narrator, at the beginning of that beautiful love story between Teresa and Tomas, restates Nietzsche's principle of eternal return, which is really the preoccupation of the entire novel: "happiness is the longing for repetition." Like a fate tune that you think has been sung just for you, the clause has worked itself into my life -- moving from the enchantment of youth to love and marriage and then to its poignant dissolution and now towards a degree of respectable survival -- and I think, finally, I've come close to understanding what it means.

Happiness, if it exists as something more or less tangible, must be in the submicroscopic moments when we give our attention to a soul because that soul has sought us out. It could be the soul of a lover or child or parent or, in my case, a friend. There was a question and questions always demand answers but when answers are unavailable the only responsibility you have is to offer some response. I considered replying to my friend's "fucked up" question with the truth. I'm having a hell of a time cataloguing my own existential disintegration. I'm more than half way through my life and I have no idea what I'm doing. Or more simply, I messed things up pretty good when I was asking the same question, so I'm really not the one to ask. I considered reversing the onus and laying down some pathos. Hey, I had a vacation in unconsciousness where the angel of death had me by the ear and pulled me to the abyss and wouldn't let me close my eyes until he was satisfied that I abandoned all hope. But that kind of narcissistic slush, no matter how truthful, would make me look like I wasn't wearing my big-boy pants. Or too melancholic, and melancholy is too much like an emo-infused dominatrix who goes around pretending to be a doe-eyed Japanimated Lolita.

Last year a UBC study concluded that men who display too much happiness might, in fact, finish last. Rating the appeal of people "engaged in universal displays of happiness" -- like smiling -- that study, which was published in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion, questioned whether or not the presumed goodness of being friendly in social contexts is good in interpersonal communication. With guys, apparently, happiness isn't. When I read it I felt vindicated in my own recalcitrant sadness, but that wasn't going to be much help to my friend. Nor would it be helpful if I quoted another study I came across in my obsession with sorting out the impossibility of my own happiness -- the Mappiness Project sponsored by the London School of Economics -- that said, after sex and exercise, people are happiest when engaged in artistic pursuits like watching plays and going to museums. Staring down the tiny blinking cursor in that empty bar above my miniature keypad I admit I was spellbound because I was taken into a confidence. There's a line in an Al Purdy poem that is one of the most painful things I've ever read. It's one of those pull quotes that you can apply in lots of situations, like duct tape for the poignancies of life. "I have seen myself fade from a woman's eyes while I was standing there and the earth was aware of me no longer." It's a romantic context, and that doesn't apply in this case, but the sentiment does: before typing in my response I felt like I had changed souls and the world was aware of me again. Whether it is with a wife or lover or child, nothing is quite as agonizing as exposing your soul with all its strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vanities, and nothing is quite as joyful as someone who displays their soul for you.

But questions still warrant replies even if there are no legitimate answers. "If I knew what to say to you I'd a told myself the same thing last year and fixed myself. My answer? Spend time in the woods, be helpful to people, beer, listen to the Undertones." That's what I said in my response. It sounded a lot more heroic at the time.

I've since wondered if that crisis message -- which I read while I was struggling with my own crisis -- was an ironic synchronicity that the gods, with all their horoscopical retrogrades and mercurial transits, decided to toss at me for their amusement. I mean, is there a better way to remedy the spells of despair in your own life than hearing about a more articulate friend's despair? It's textbook schadenfreude, but if that person reaches out to you -- to me? -- in a moment of unvarnished sodality, then maybe it's just an act of absolute goodness. It's beauty, and happiness, something like the Buddhists mean when they talk about "loving kindness," and it has everything to do with the slowness of conscientious communication with another person who has put you in a state of grace by confiding in you a wound in their life.

'How do you feel?'

Because I'd been teetering on the brink of my own despair since I disappeared into a parenthesis for a few weeks of my life I'd done some anecdotal research into the state of my own happiness. To the point that it was, and probably still is, an absurd obsession. I got the "gottaFeeling" app, which I tell people I downloaded because I read about it The Financial Times and because its homepage features a quote from the philosopher Spinoza: "Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it."

To help me form a picture of my suffering, every day for half a year my iPhone's been pinging me, usually in mid-afternoon, and asking "How do you feel?" The possibilities go from "Happy" to "Guilty/ Sham." That day in December I clicked the first and it asked, "What level of Happy do you feel?" "Jovial," I thought, but only because classes were done and I already had a couple of drinks. After I registered my feeling the screen said, "You feel jovial," which I already knew, and showed me a pleasant black and white cartoon sketch of a woman who looks like Olive Oil drinking a glass of wine and sitting on a chair in a fi eld with nothing but a hill and some trees.

When I'm feeling "guilty," the worst feeling you can have, and I register the level as "mortified" and the screen shows me a despondent woman, her back towards me and hands in her pockets -- although she should probably have a drink in one of them -- sulking away in the direction of her long shadow. I know this because I've seen that picture quite often, although I'm not sure how picturing this or any of the other feelings has eased my suffering. The same day I got my friend's text message I also did an online Chakra Test. I noticed it in the advertisement bar at the top of my Gmail inbox. I'm not exactly sure what kind of thing a chakra is, but my results sounded bad. All of them are "closed," except for my heart chakra, which is "weak." The "Chakra Healing Team" has been kind enough to send me at least one remedy a day since doing the test.

I've tried many things to eliminate the chasm that separates who I am from who I appear to be -- to be happy -- and alleviate the resulting sadness that comes from not being able, ultimately, to do it. Buddhism, yoga, herbs, sex, increasing my quotient of Facebook friends and "Liking" their stuff in the hopes that they'd like mine back, narcotics, psyllium, running longer, reading, drinking more, moving into an office with a better view, wearing clothes more suitable to a college English prof, bird watching, punishing myself with guilt for the hurt I have caused others, tending to plants, quality time with my daughter and dogs. I even tried therapy, but my employer covers only part of the cost and I can't afford that kind of bling to give the inside of my head a makeover.

But in that momentary exchange with my friend, which I'm sure to anybody else was entirely unremarkable, there was a happiness. It happened between the expression of vulnerability that came in the form of a text message that evening in early December and a hesitant, inelegant response. That's where happiness is. In the agonizing slowness that happens when you are considering another person's wounds.

Andre Dubus, the writer of extraordinary mid-life crisis and disintegrating relationship novellas, says in We Don't Live Here Anymore that what kills a marriage faster than adultery is the selective dialoguing that comes with it. There are always things, in other words, that the two people can no longer talk about -- love, desire, intimacy, passion -- and that’s the problem: "you avoid touching wounds and therefore avoid touching the heart." Many of us know this first hand. And how can you be happy when you don't touch hearts and, when necessary, wounds?  [Tyee]

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