For a little change of pace, I’m sharing an essay I wrote for “Storyworth”, a family history/memoir project brought to me by my two sons. When I run out of gas, or they run out of questions–or both– we’ll end up with a bound hard-copy book for each of us that will be, essentially, my memoir, driven by their questions, and done one week at a time. The following is this week’s essay.
What Gives You Peace of Mind? you ask…
Well… I have to take exception to the premise of this question. At least a little. I’m not against peace of mind in general, but just that I’m not sure that ought to be the goal. Or my goal, anyway.
And I think there’s a difference between being “happy” and having “peace of mind”. And there’s also a time element on both, and on unhappiness, too: nothing seems to be permanent, good or bad.
Lemme see if I can untangle that.
For one thing, I don’t think we humans are wired to be happy or content for long.
We eat, then a few hours later we’re hungry again and are motivated to go shoot something and cook it. (Or order pizza.) We listen to some beautiful music in the car, then some jerk cuts us off in traffic and we forget the music and get angry. We fall in love, but little irritants creep in and over time, we fall out of love. We seek the comforts of another and enjoy sex, and feel good for a while. But by the next day, the euphoria is gone and we get antsy again.
This is what the Buddhists mean when they say that all existence is suffering and an illusion. Everything we think is important is transitory, and chasing after things that do not last is what makes us unhappy. I think they have a lot of that right, but they make one mistake that modern science is redefining a bit.
We’re designed to be more or less dissatisfied or unhappy a lot of the time. Otherwise, we wouldn’t ever go to the trouble to eat when hungry, and the species would die out because having sex would be just too much trouble. They’re right, though, in thinking we put too much emphasis on temporary things, that we essentially fool ourselves instead of seeing the world as it is, namely full of unhappiness and suffering. Science says, ‘yeah, well, what did you expect? That’s what makes it all work.’ Science doesn’t have much of an answer to the existential questions this raises, though, so boo on science for that.
I also am descended from a few centuries’ worth of farmers. And if there’s anything farmers know, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. It might rain at the right time for your crops, it might not; and if it does, you and every other farmer will grow a lot of crops, which will drive the price down and you still might go broke. Too little rain and you have drought, and everyone goes hungry. A horse might stomp on your foot and put you in a wheelchair, and you’ll starve. Bankers might take your land. Grasshoppers might swarm and eat everything.
In other words, my genetics and cultural memories tell me to mistrust happiness (and bankers). Everything could turn to shit tomorrow. The ancestors say: “Don’t get comfortable, and don’t get complacent or you might get gobsmacked by something you should have predicted or prepared for. Stay out of debt, because bad times might mean you could lose everything to those bastard bankers” (lots of ingrained hatred of bankers due to my Midwestern populist background, and parents and grandparents who survived the Great Depression when bankers repossessed a lot of farms.)
The ancient Greeks were pretty sour on being too happy, too. The gods they invented were cantankerous, evil, venal and unpredictable assholes, for the most part. But the Greeks, who lived in rocky, mountainous country, learned how to scratch out a living and came to the conclusion that there were some good things, too. Ideals of freedom and democracy. Logic. Natural science. Philosophy.
And the ideals of continual improvement…. The Japanese came up with this, too. (My pet theory is that Buddhism, which predated the rise of the West, has too much in common with some western philosophies, such as stoicism, for there not to have been some cultural exposure somewhere along a trade route somewhere. After all, Alexander conquered Afghanistan and western India and his generals started a dynasty that put Greek ideas next to Buddhist ones for a couple of centuries, at least.)
But the attitude that we should never be satisfied, but always trying to be a little better, is an ancient one, and is now backed up by the science that observes this tendency is also hard-wired into us by evolution.
So, back to the original question…. I think it’s not only rational, but also less stressful in the long run, to embrace the hard-won, nitty-gritty, Greek/Buddhist/Japanese/genetic science wisdom and learn to accept a more or less constant irritation with how things are. They could be better. I could be better. Being “at peace” sounds to me, therefore, like a false goal, and one doomed to failure anyway.
The trick, though — and something I haven’t mastered yet — is to be unhappy, but in a joyful way.
Something to work on tomorrow. 🙂
Several philosophers, including Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus, are said to have accompanied Alexander in his eastern campaigns. During the 18 months they were in India, they were able to interact with Indian ascetics, generally described as Gymnosophists (“naked philosophers”).
Pyrrho returned to Greece and founded Pyrrhonism, the first Western school of skepticism. The Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius explained that Pyrrho’s equanimity and detachment from the world were acquired in India. Pyrrho was directly influenced by Buddhism in developing his philosophy, which is based on Pyrrho’s interpretation of the Buddhist Three marks of existence.
Another of these philosophers, Onesicritus, a Cynic, is said by Strabo to have learnt in India the following precepts: “That nothing that happens to a man is bad or good, opinions being merely dreams. … That the best philosophy [is] that which liberates the mind from [both] pleasure and grief”.
The philosopher Hegesias of Cyrene, from the city of Cyrene where Magas of Cyrene ruled, is thought by some to have been influenced by the teachings of Aśoka’s Buddhist missionaries.”…) Wikipedia