I rarely get depressed. It takes extenuating circumstances to get me down, and then if there’s something constructive I can do about the problem, tackling it will make me feel better. However, I’ve been a bit lucky. My children weren’t squashed in an earthquake because the school they attended was built on the cheap. I didn’t lose a limb in a fire in a garment factory because the boss locked the door on me. A drone attack didn’t blow my fiancé to bits. My daughter wasn’t kidnapped and shipped off to another country to live a life of sex slavery. I didn’t get cancer because I was a first responder at ground zero on 9/11. Those sorts of things would get me down for sure. So I think it’s unfair to demand that other people be happy, and to tell them that they just need to adjust their attitude. What is the benefit of being happy, and happily acquiescing, when you are told to sit at the back of the bus because you aren’t white?
Making yourself miserable is stupid, self-indulgent, and self-destructive. I think we can all agree on that. But making yourself happy can be equally mindless and inappropriate. If you are happy after you get the phone call that your son was run over by a bus, you are an idiot. If you are happy when the last coral reef dies due to raising sea temperatures, you are refusing to look at reality. It seems more like being lobotomized than in some elevated state. Personally, I’d much rather be infuriated about Abu Ghraib than happily indifferent to it.
Normally I’m neither happy nor sad nor anything else really. I’m a kind of pleasant neutral. Right now for example. I don’t actually feel any need or desire to be “happy” when I’m content being content. And have you every noticed in yourself that sometimes it can feel good to get a little pissed off? One might enjoy a bit of self-righteous indignation at stupid government policies, for example. Or one might find camaraderie in a march against the latest planned war on non-cooperatives in multinational oil ambitions.
The other day I felt a pang of sadness when a friend of mine posted pictures of our classmates in elementary school. Something about the plebian architecture, little rows of bushes, and treeless expanse of asphalt playground harkening back to a simpler past – because we were just kids – made me feel a bit melancholic. This was partly because our school in Los Angeles was so ordinary and unpromising. If we would one day be successes it would be in spite of our school, and not because of it. The pictures showed a place and reality buried irretrievably in the past where the child versions of ourselves were nurtured and attempted to get along with each other and our environment. The sadness was a good feeling. A human feeling. If my response to seeing the pictures was just happiness, I’d be missing the poignancy of life and just deluding myself into some sort of abstract vacuousness. Do the happiness Gestapo smile through sad movies and documentaries about Hiroshima or the rape of Nanjing?
When I encounter a quote on Facebook that implores me to adopt a belief or orientation, I ask myself if the ruling elite would want me to believe that. So much of the accepted wisdom of today is just the stuff the landed aristocracy feeds to the peasants to keep them docile and subservient. Facebook quotes constantly remind me to be happy, not to complain, and even that reality is an illusion. In that case, asking for a raise would make one look like a spiritual Neanderthal who refused to be happy and get along with his peers. It would make one look like an asshole.
Incidentally, when I was working at a university in China, a Chinese teacher friend of mine (OK, it was my girlfriend) told me I should ask for a raise. She said that the government was giving all public teachers raises. I really had no idea, as most the Chinese teachers and especially the “leaders” (a term for anyone in administration, irrespective of whether or not they have the quality of a leader) perpetuated the idea that the foreign teaches made a lot more money than the local Chinese teachers. This had been the case years before, but then Chinese teachers younger and less educated than me, with less experience, were making more money than I was. I demanded to be paid the same as Chinese teachers with the same qualifications. As I put it in a letter, “I refuse to work for less money because I am not Chinese.” I managed to get myself and all the other foreign teachers a raise. My salary went from 4,000 yuan a month to 5,000.
Before getting this raise, yes, I got pissed off. I stood up for myself. And I was also annoyed that I had to go and stick up for myself. But right now one of the reasons I’m able to take time off is because of the extra disposable income I made because of taking action and not being happy.
Still going with this example, I told my boss at the university that I was easy to please. One merely had to not try to cheat me or take advantage of me. THAT is a very tall order in China. I’ll skip the dissertation on how hierarchy works in China for now, but if I was merely treated decently, I would have been happy. For years I was happy at that job, until they finally broke our agreements and I resigned.
We live at a critical time for our species. Most of us will meekly go along with mass suicide directed by an elite, fantastically wealthy few, who are so blinded by their own greed that they don’t even realize that they will go down with the ship along with the rest of us. What is needed in response to the refusal to stop pumping CO2 into the air, for example, is NOT happiness and a refusal to criticize, but resistance, tough resistance. There needs to be acute rational criticism of the policies and underlying paradigm of those who, in the name of personal profit, refuse to curb emissions. People need to be angry enough to take action, and fight back.
If we are happy with the way things are, that suits the status quo fantastically. We are like happy slaves, happy with slavery. But if we can just keep up believing that we need to be happy long enough, it will be too late to fight back in anger. Our species will be doomed, and we will have been happy about it.
The meek shall inherit the dearth.