Saturday, April 20, 2013

Happiness is Not Juvenile

Choose most any four star movie, and you will be in for a huge sucker punch at the end - the tragic undoing of the lead character, their hopes, their dreams, their lives destroyed. The implication seems to be that you were foolish for daring to try anything to change your situation, for daring to hope that life could be full of joy. Over and over, we are beaten over the heads with this kind of nihilistic crap ... which is subsequently showered with the highest praises from the lauded authorities of the industry.

These supposed paragons of intellect seem to think:
  • Children are happy.
  • Adults are miserable.
  • Therefore: Happiness is childish; misery is maturity.

What a narrow-minded, sophomoric point of view! First of all, it does not follow that adults should be miserable. In my experience, I am surely miserable the times when I dutifully follow someone else's rules, and then my situation only gets worse. I don't think that is the natural state of things, though.

I have come to realize:
If you follow someone else's rules and fail, that's tragic, but
If you follow someone else's rules and succeed, that is only ever average.

The remedy:
If you follow your own mind and fail, that's average, but
If you follow your own mind and succeed, that is sublime.

Our society seems to encourage people to defer making their own decisions to authority figures. (And just like fear mongering, it seems to be a job security scam.) In this environment, it's not so surprising if people associate the adult experience with some grim notions. Especially when highly decorated authority figures are reinforcing this notion of maturity. Certainty from authority figures is a kind of trap, where the comfort of certainty can keep you from exploring other options even when the existing results are not very pleasant.

This tendency to associate happiness with childishness also seems to come from people who aren't satisfied themselves and are looking for excuses. Disappointed optimists can use this line of thinking to justify giving up their own dreams. While it's bad enough when one person gives up on themselves, what's even worse is when they destroy the optimistic dreams of others, through mocking, derision, building up and then dismissing straw men. It's where pragmatists fail. There is no way to measure the opportunity cost of an abandoned idea. Many people with sour views act as though they are knowledgeable and mature, but they are not. I don't think it's done intentionally. I think it's an unconscious attempt to comfort themselves for the devastating loss of sacrificing their own dreams along the way. (Misery loves company.) I'm writing this post in the hopes it helps to shed light on this situation, to help remove false doubts with no basis in reality and their subtle, persistent drain on energy and creativity.

Seems to me our goal is to become a transmuting machine, with ever increasing range and structural integrity. I'm not saying it's easy to achieve, just setting the direction here. Adults (and children too, by the way) are often faced with grave and challenging obstacles, but I don't see this as the final result or the natural way of things. I think the goal is to overcome these obstacles, first by understanding their root cause (it's a lot of independent work), and then having the strength to resolve the situation with courage and creativity (also a lot of work). And depending on the particular challenge, even if you don't succeed with your first attempt, you may get more than one chance; you may even get a whole lifetime of chances.

Our goal is not to stagnate in disappointment at the trials we face as adults; this is not maturity. What use comes from that? I say true maturity (at any age) is transmuting a challenge - be it all at once or bit by bit. From here, forward.  The ultimate goal is to experience childlike joy again, not from ignorance, but through a vigilant process of understanding, optimizing, creating.

While I agree that the old refrain "and they lived happily ever after" is a simplistic evasion, I think the same thing from a creativity-deflating tragedy. All you can say about tragic films or novels is that they are tragic, not that they are actually useful or true. (Catharsis is one thing, but juvenile despair is quite another.) Dare to find meaning in a happy ending! I view it as the highest challenge for a storyteller to figure out how to capture and relate a triumphant arc in the course of a person's life such that their options from that point forward are grand, expansive, and ever more meaningful … before moving on to the next level of the adventure, and then the next. (It's not like the world will run out of mysteries. :) Here's to celebrating our successes along the way!

by Laura A Knauth

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