July 17, 2012 On Happiness
“And they lived unhappily ever after”.
So ends the famous Hasidic fairy tale titled “Goldy Lox Goes Off the Path”, a well-known bedtime story in which bad girl Goldy runs after her heart’s desire and winds up deep in the woods, lost, eating porridge with wild animals of the first order, sleeping with them, and in the end, being eaten and chased and defiled by the beasts. Goldy ends up living, or dying, or something, unhappily ever after.
It’s the classic story of the person who left the beaten path and wound up miserable. Although the Goldy story per se may have been a bit invented by me, the lesson certainly wasn’t. It is common knowledge among Hasidim that those who leave are then unhappy forever. They run, they look, they search — what for they don’t even know!! — but they are always seeking, never happy.
Since I left, people often ask me “so are you happy now? are you even happy?”. Let me see: On the particular moment you ask me it may be raining, my five-pound weight loss plan may have inverted itself, my homework seems impossible. Am I happy? Get the hell out of here, that’s what I am! I am human, and sometimes I’m happy and sometimes I’m not. But I know this: this life can make me happy. The other day, while my son and I were having a popcorn picnic in the backyard, and he was lying comfortably on my lap, laughing at Amelia Badelia’s antics, I looked at his browned face and golden hair and I suddenly felt a wonderful, deep rise within my whole heart. It was happiness.
But then again, what do I know? One wise commenter named Stanley had summarized it best. He said “Despite reaching the pits, Shpitz is also in a state of denial where she earnestly believes she has reached a state of salvation, happiness, and newfound freedom in her transition to secularism.”
So that was denial I felt after all.
It’s ironic that Hasidim even ask this question, because theirs is not a society driven by and for happiness. While the highest ideals in the secular world may be happiness and money and success, that’s not what Hasidim strive for. Theirs is a world that values honor and good community standing much more than happiness. Respectability is one of the most desired things in the community, and people hope to do good matches, have money and good health and be sufficiently pious and learned mostly to that end. Happiness, while a part of life, is not the ultimate prize.
What’s this fuss about happiness suddenly, then? There are many things to life besides happiness. Freedom, for one. I would rather be unhappy and free than a happy prisoner. I would rather be knowledgeable and grouchy than ignorant and “blissed”. I would rather work hard for my family and friends than exchange that for a moment of gratification. I didn’t leave because I am looking for happiness, but in the process of pursuing what I need in life, yes, I find happiness.