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Lifestyle Section

Where the Bliss Isn’t
Colin James Haslett

'...we reason falsely that if we don’t feel unhappy then we must be happy'.

It’s been a while since I’ve given the old keyboard a proper pounding. There are a few reasons for this. Reasons like a lack of inspiration and not being very happy with the stuff that I’d been writing, although I’d be hard pressed to explain why I wasn’t happy with it. But mostly it’s been because the things I’ve wanted to write about have been the things that seemingly everybody has been writing about and I didn’t want to be just one note in an overwrought symphony. Iraq and the US war therewith are leading examples of topics that were done to death, but Olympic bids and government follies and social apathy seem to have been sending a lot of people to their word processors over the last few months. Heck, I was almost a thousand words into a piece on writers’ block when I popped onto Hacks and read someone else’s article on the same topic.

But tonight I find myself inspired by someone else’s writing on the Hackwriters site. I just read Tabytha Towe’s diaries about her voyage to South Africa and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was misting up a bit while reading them. I met Tabby about three years ago in an acting class at the Vancouver Film School and was very fortunate to be her scene partner, although I will also admit to not feeling that way when we were first paired up. I think that our early interactions are best characterized by an exercise from that class, wherein we yelled at each other at the top of our lungs, me telling her to "Pay Attention!" and she telling me to "Lighten Up!" (Sage advice from her, to be sure.) But over the course of the semester I got to know her a lot better and came to love her like a little sister. Tabytha obviously grew a lot during her time abroad, as did I during my own travels and as has anyone, I suspect, who’s ever packed a bag and gone out into that big, exciting, scary world on their lonesome.

Those of you who don’t know her personally will be able to see that growth just by reading a few of her early pieces before reading those travel diaries, and if you have not done so already I can not recommend it strongly enough. I commend her bravery for doing things that few others have the fortitude to do, both going abroad and writing honestly about her life for others to read. I also recognize the seeming ironic egoism in applauding as special someone else doing the things I’ve done or tried to do. I can only offer that I seldom give myself that kind of credit and hope you won’t accuse me also of false modesty.

I’ll change tack once more by way of getting to the point here and tell you that I immediately sent Tabytha an e-mail to let her know how much I enjoyed reading those articles. The signature on my outgoing e-mail has changed many times, but for the last few years it’s contained the tag line "If ignorance is bliss, why aren't more of the people I know happy?" And in this case I parenthetically added the speculation that Ms.Towe had learned the answer to that question while she was away.

The answer to the question, of course, is because it is based on a false premise. Ignorance is not bliss. It is a terrible, entropic state that prevents both choice and action but encourages suffering and decay. Ignorance is pain. If you don’t believe me ask any former Enron employee if they wouldn’t have been happier knowing the truth about that company rather than continuing to invest their retirement plans in its stock. I will grant that there may be times when ignorance may seem like bliss; New Yorkers were probably happier never having heard of al Qaida, but I think this example speaks for itself.

Ignorance is a passive state, and human beings tend towards passivity. We seek it out and praise it as efficiency, economy, conservation or maintaining our reserves. We try to do as little as possible in as short a time as possible, and the less we do the better we get at doing very little. Labour saving devices are among our ultimate goals; dishwashers, self cleaning ovens, robot lawn mowers, spell checkers. Drive through this and remote control that. And, hey, who really wants to bother thinking for themselves? Who has the time to think when their favourite TV show is about to start? Ignorance becomes our natural state, just as hunger, thirst and immobility are natural states, and if we do nothing to change this state it will not change. Ignorance isn’t just pain it’s death, if a different kind of death than starvation, dehydration or getting hit by a bus. Bliss? Happiness? Eudemonia? If you want any of that you’ll have to opt for what has become an entirely unnatural state – activity.

US Americans talk about the pursuit of happiness, but too many of us everywhere forget about the pursuit and wonder where the happiness is. And if we aren’t happy we settle for something less and call it happiness to try and fool ourselves. We settle for pleasure and proceed to eat and drink and smoke and inject and fuck and amuse ourselves into early graves. Or conversely we settle for numbness, otherwise known as ignorance, because we reason falsely that if we don’t feel unhappy then we must be happy. We put on our headphones, we bury our chins in our chests and our hands in our pockets, we move in straight lines from home to work and back again and we tell ourselves that by doing and thinking and feeling as little as possible we’ll be rested and ready when something important comes along. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit. I’ve done it, I’ve lived it, and it’s bullshit. Nothing important just comes along. Opportunity doesn’t knock, it walks down the street at a brisk pace until someone comes out their door and tackles it. But if it did knock? If a big Hollywood producer ever gave you his business card in a malt shop? If the coach of your favourite team pointed at you in the stands during the big game and told you to put on a uniform and take the field? If the orphanage you were walking past burst into flames with tiny tots waving desperately at you from the window? Forget rested and ready, my money’s on paralyzed.

The one thing I took away from my brief foray into getting my head shrunk was the counterintuitive notion that it’s action that leads to motivation, not the other way around. If you’ve ever dragged yourself to the gym on one of those days when you just didn’t feel like it you’ll have an understanding of what that means. We tend towards passivity, but we can make a choice to be active. Making that choice is an action itself, one which can lead to further actions. That first step of the proverbial thousand mile journey may be a doozey, but they get easier.

Action leads to motivation leads to more action. Think of it as an upward spiral.

Let me clarify something here: I’m not saying that everyone should go out and join a health club in order to be happy, because that’s sure not a route I’ve ever taken. There’s nothing wrong with that if it works for you, but it isn’t the only solution. Happiness comes from being in an active state. If you are moving then that’s an active state, whether you’re moving your entire body in a gym or on a dance floor or in a soup kitchen, or if your just moving your hands writing or painting or baking. Learning, thinking, feeling, experiencing; these are also active states, these are all things we actually do. And if we aren’t doing them, if we aren’t doing something active and positive and productive, then we are living in a state of ignorance.

Tabytha did something; she went overseas and had an adventure and she came home and wrote about it, about what she did and what that did to her. Bliss. I’m writing something meaningful (to me, at least) for the first time in months, hoping to share something with anyone who cares enough to spend the time reading it. And I’m happy doing it. I’m happy because I’m doing it, and I believe I’ll be happy to do it some more. Maybe I’ll run out of gas in a few months, maybe I’ll find myself with nothing new or original to say for a while. But that too will pass eventually, and I’ve got other things to do in the meantime. And until then I can fit some shock absorbers onto my keyboard and give it a good workout.

© Colin James Haslett July 22nd 2003
chasman@shaw.ca

More Lifestyles
(And Tabytha's diary)

More from Colin
Who Owns Art?
The Big Lie

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