Time is the nemesis of happiness. Time steals away happiness. Then gives it back. And then steals it away again. One cannot seem to hold onto happiness with any hope it will last. Time is no petty thief either, but a grand larcenist, all the more formidable because it is so insidious and imperceptible, elusive and gradual, greedy and all-consuming. It drops doubts and questions in your head as if they were keys that unlock and steal away the secret of your happiness, leaving you stripped and forlorn and without any visible line of demarcation to mark your crossing from happiness to unhappiness.
This sense of loss, like the ache of nostalgia, cuts deep, leaving behind the kind of dejection and desolation that come with mudding through the residue of a love affair when the romance has faded and passion has dissolved into the stale routine of the everyday, when the eyes of a lover look like question marks burning up with the bewildered sadness of falling out of love, sobbing for what Time has stolen since that glorious honeymoon when love came with arms open and heart hungering, surfeiting on an intimacy for so long unknown, until it discovered the illness of growing fat on the excess of passion, and the soul retreats into thin solitude, dieting upon nostalgia for the Time gone by, waiting to feed on the future with a more modest appetite, and the eyes express a fear that dreams are naught but myths destined to be slain by the provocations of Time.
The apathy which lies beyond the crest of love’s long sad arc from first bloom to final doom, can be said of many things in life. It seems an unhappy fact of life that Time cannot be relied upon. Life goes on and you do what you do, maybe even what you want, or at least what you can, and you have moments when you are happy. Graduate from school. Start a new career. Make friends. Fall in love. Earn promotions. Have fun at parties. Find new gadgets to buy on Amazon. Play games on the computer. Watch TV. Listen to new songs on Pandora. Take up a hobby. Read a book, watch a movie, or play with a child. You find ways to be happy. You let your heart be content with the pure and uncomplicated joy of living.
But the moments are not forever. You move onto the next day. You get bored with old gadgets, games, videos, TV shows, and songs. You lose touch with old friends. You run up against bosses, clients, and disgruntled co-workers. You fall out of love. Your children grow up. You get closer to the end of your life, and what remains of happiness is only its memory. Sure, you find new spurts of happiness. New friends, new interests, new loves. But while they replace the old, they eventually become old too, and at some point in this cycle, you find yourself yearning for the time in your life when everything was new, and everything was ahead of you.
In the final episode of season one of Mad Men, Don Draper makes a pitch to Kodak for their new slide projector, which features a wheel that can continuously display the slides. Don sees not a wheel, but a carousel. He invokes the carousel as a metaphor for Time, a time machine that goes backward and forward, a slide show that carries us to a place where we ache to go again, to a place where we know we are loved. Don delivers his pitch by using the device to show photos of his own family. The photos trace the history of his family, but backwards, showing more recent photos of him with his wife and kids, and then older photos of his wife when she was pregnant, and then finally going all the way back to his wedding day. As he delivers this tribute to his family, he is reliving the times when he was happy with his now-estranged wife, and he feels the old wound of nostalgia, that place the heart aches to go again, a place of happiness that only a child knows, before even the child tires of taking one too many spins on the carousel. When the new suddenly becomes old for the very first time.
The carousel of Time continues to spin, a cycle of old and new that gets mixed in with the cares and concerns of adulthood that make you unhappy – bills, bosses, taxes, deaths in the family, dramas in the family – and you cannot help but wonder why it is you can’t just be happy all the time, like a child on a carousel. Thoreau said most men live lives of quiet desperation. He said most. I guess there are some sturdy souls who achieve a permanent happiness – that Zen or inner satisfaction that is steady and calm and strong. I do not know the nature or cause of that steady happiness. In my younger days, I would equate such equanimity with a kind of stoic philosophy – a romanticized notion where you remain calm and poised in the face of adversity, and find peace and happiness in the pursuit of Truth and Justice. It was an abstraction typical of youth. Like Bob Dylan’s line: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. But the unhappy thought that comes to mind these days is Harold Bloom’s observation, in an essay about the novel Don Quixote, that old age has taught him that Being is more important than Knowing.
But how is one to find happiness in being without knowing how to find it? Experience is the name men give to their mistakes, says Lord Henry, and in our mistakes we might find what did not make us happy. Yet doing something else is no guarantee you will not once again do things that make you unhappy. Maybe you gain perspective on what matters and what does not in life. I think this is called maturity. And yet, if maturity is all there is to it, wouldn’t most men find peace and happiness as they get older? The answer seems a resounding No! Why the mid-life crisis? Why divorce? Why the sleepless nights and recurring nightmares? Why the rivalries and resentments and jealousies? Why all the personal disgraces we suffer in public or private? Yes, age and experience seem as likely to produce, even redouble, unhappiness as we suffer through insomniac obsessions, regret, past glory, or at least the consciousness of what Time has given us and what it has taken away.
I hate to say we are helpless. But it seems all you can do is live and die. The best you can hope for is to do so memorably.
To do so memorably. But does one have the courage to live memorably? There seems to be no in between when it comes to a memorable existence. You are either going to be one of those men or women who do something great and noble and just (and suffer public pillory for it), or one of those train wrecks that makes all who chance to follow see very clearly that yours was a life lived on stormy seas, and then love you for it (for no other reason than that your life was like a movie or a novel). As for me, I do not believe one finds happiness in the delirium and debauchery of a reckless life spent on hurricane seas, like the romanticized autonomy of a disheveled drunk dispensing wisdom from the disinterested perch of a barstool, but I do seem to find a satisfaction in the observance of such a life – a vicarious copout, I admit, but one in which happiness is a kind of sad observance, a kind of empathy. Is not the wonder and beauty of empathy that you relate to another human being, feel sympathy for that human being, admire that human being, love that human being? I think a simple truth in life is that happiness, for as long as it lasts, is found in love. And a love that lasts is not lust, passion, fire, storms, but a sense that one belongs in the presence of another person, if only for an instant, like in the passing of conversation. That is a happiness that lasts – the happiness of sharing a presence with someone who leaves an impression you can never seem to shake.
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