I don’t want you to be happy
I was giving unwanted advice to my friend the other day, complaining to him about how he’s this absolutely fantastic, wonderful young person – all true – and he’s wasting his time feeling like he’s wasting his time.
Look, he’s obsessed over time. He’s always complaining about being late, or being too slow, or being rushed, and he never thinks he has time to do anything. He’s too old to embark on something.
He’s on tenure track, so that might be part of the problem, but on the other hand he’s gonna get tenure, even he admits that, so not really.
I was telling him to stop worrying about time and just enjoy being awesome. Here I am, quite a few years older, and I’m not at all rushed when it comes to accomplishment. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and many of my favorite role models are women who change their careers at the age of 75, become potters or writers or poets or what have you. I don’t think I’ll ever need to feel like it’s too late to do something I really want to do. If I’m still alive there’s still time.
“Anyway,” I end my speech, “I’m just saying this because I want you to be happy.”
“Happy?” he says, “please don’t say that. You don’t actually want me to be happy. Come on, you can do better than that.”
And that’s when it hit me. I don’t want him to be happy. I just want him to have better suffering. Instead of suffering about the amount of time he has to do things, which is a self-produced drama, I want him to strive for goals and accomplishments without the noise of crappy I’m-too-late suffering.
I want him to have meaningful suffering, not happiness.
I mean, it depends on what you mean by happiness, but in that conversation he made me realize that wishing happiness on someone is a pretty bland goal. Maybe even an unkind goal.
In fact, it’s the goal I say I wish for my kids when I really hope they’re safe. I’m not so sure “happy” is all that different from “doesn’t get involved in the world too much, stays out of trouble, and is safe”. If you don’t believe me, check out this guy (hat tip Chris Wiggins), whose stated goal is to be happy but whose practice is to ignore all things that interrupt his world view and to make silly lists.
Example from my life. If a friend of mine got his college savings, bought an apartment in Paris, and spent his days combing the catacombs of Paris, I’d want to hang out with that guy. If my son did the same thing, I’d want to convince him not to do it, and to go to college instead. After all, I’d argue, it’s for his own good, he should get an education. I’d tell him I was urging this because I want him to be happy.
First, as a parent I’ll strive to spend less time protecting my children from harm and more time letting them seek their own adventures. I want more for them, frankly, than that they’re happy/safe.
Second, I want to start urging my friends to find meaningful suffering. Strive for something and be temporarily miserable when you don’t get it. Hate the world enough to never be satisfied with how shitty things are, love the world enough to stay engaged with it anyway.