Dawn of Happiness
An essay on anthropology. The ability of human beings to give meaning to reality and find happiness in ordinary life.
My bicycle is not a bicycle. At some point in time, of course, it was a bicycle, but now it is no longer a pair of wheels attached to some metal bars. When I think of this common and perhaps simple object, I don't think of it as a material thing, but as an abstract concept. I think about memories related to the bike, never about the bike itself. This is the beauty of human rationality, that we can abstract larger concepts out of concrete items and experiences, that we can voluntarily give great importance to everyday activities: that we give meaning to things. This my bike is standard, normal, it does not have anything special. Nevertheless, paradoxically, it is full of a special meaning for me. It embodies the memories of hundreds of experiences that I have lived with my friends. Every single time I hung out with them, the bike was there. It was either the vehicle thanks to which I got to those infinite lists of bars, pubs and parks, or the activity itself that I was practicing with them. This bike reminds me of a single concept, of a single virtue: friendship. It is not about the bike itself, but about what I have lived with it, what I have lived thanks to it, and what I lived for it that gives meaning to this object. It is more than an episodic character, it is more than a single companion, my bike is an ally in my adventures. But, how is this possible? Does value come from meaning? If so, what is the nature of this meaning and how can someone create it?
There is probably no definite answer to these questions. The world is full of meaning and its subjective nature allows distinct societies and peoples to interpret the world differently, both nature as a whole and simple objects. In Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's Objects of Memory, the anthropologist and folklorist analyzes the different types of memory objects in the peoples and societies, and emphasizes the importance of the human mind in transforming reality into his own. After reading this study I understand better the role my bike plays in my memory and, therefore, in my identity. As the author says, it "accumulate[s] meaning and value by sheer dint of their constancy in a life," in my life (330). Moreover, my bike materializes my friendships, it transforms the "intangible into the tangibility of things" (330). It becomes a symbol full of meaning, perspectives and nuances. When I think, however, of my bike, of its simple nature - as well as the ordinariness of the memories it brings to my mind - , I keep wondering the same question over and over: do we need extraordinary things and experiences in order to be happy? Isn't joy in the little things of everyday life? To what extent are we, humans, able to elevate the common ordinary experiences to the uniqueness of a lifetime?
Today there is a crisis of affection. It is a problem deeply rooted in our hearts and minds: more and more people are feeling desperate and lonely. This loneliness is manifested in several spheres, such as the increasing suicide rates and addiction to social media and technology in developing countries. We often think that happiness is found in extraordinary events and special moments in life, and this attitude leads us to a constant non-conformism in which we value the momentary sensations of pleasure that eventually fail to fulfill our lives. We live in a consumerist society in which many times we find ourselves incapable of appreciating the value and beauty of things, a society in which 'patience' is a word that does not even appear in our dictionaries, a society of the instant satisfaction. Nonetheless, I believe the problem is not that we do not have reasons to be joyful, but that we are looking with the wrong eyes and perspectives. But which are these perspectives? Many times, people seek to evade their monotonous everyday life, without considering the value of it. But, how is it possible to properly value life without falling into impossible dreams?
This impossibility is what scares people and what provokes cowardice, hesitation. Expectations are no longer motivating our performance but undermining it. The fear of failure threatens the whole view on life and the world around us. Nowadays we are often not able to find value in life, and our human relationships are becoming alarmingly distant with a superficial and corrupt emphathy and interest in others. In Madhu Kaza's essay titled The named and unnamed dead we find an approach to the idea of value and care for other people's lives related to death. The author uses the example of the killing of nine girls in Afghanistan and Homer's epic poem, the Iliad, to talk about how dead people are often left out and forgotten. "It's striking how little," she says, "we learn of many of the lives that were lost" (3). After reading this essay I was considering whether we need extraordinary events - like death - to happen in order to feel urged to care about people that at first would seem totally irrelevant - unworthy of our attention. Madhu explains how in war "women - mothers and wives - carry the burden of grief," which made me reflect on how the death of a relative or friend makes us think of all the everyday moments we lived with them (4). Usually, it is not the amazing experiences that come to our minds, but the ordinary and repetitive moments we lived together, which are full of meaning thanks to their very own repetitive and ordinary nature. This is an example of how what constitutes our memories of the people we love are always the most normal and common ones. These are experiences that, although undistinguished in the moment they occur, now they are eternally saved in the beautiful diary of memory.
A really interesting insight on the value of ordinariness is found in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, where the moral message it transmits could be resumed in the following sentence: wake up to reality, stop looking for happiness in illusions - your life is already joyful, go find the joy in it not away from it. It is a movie in which the main character, Walter (Ben Stiller), undergoes several adventures in his mission of finding a lost photo that he needs to hand in to one of the high executives at his company. That photo is defined as the "quintessence" throughout the movie, and no one knows what is shown in it until the end. But surprisingly, the picture does not show Walter in the volcano, or swimming with the sharks, or jumping out of the helicopter, but it shows him working at office in a normal day. This is what conforms the lesson of the movie. The photo - the "quintessence" - does not show Walter in any of the amazing adventures he experiences along the movie, but Walter in his everyday life, which in the end... is the greatest of all adventures.
The whole movie is about Walter's anagnorisis, which in the end is also ours. It is about finding the beauty and the "quintessence" in the ordinariness of life, which is already worth infinitely by itself. Walter's life is beautiful, but he does not know it, because it is not easy to open the eyes to this reality, for, as Sean O'Connell says in the movie, "beautiful things don't ask for attention." In fact, Walter starts looking at his apparently boring everyday reality from a different perspective through elements like his mother's cake, the Papa John's, his backpack, or the elastic toy. It is through these simple and apparently meaningless objects that he realizes of how happy he should be. Many times, we are not able to discern the essentiality of the marvelous experiences because our mind is full of distractions. As the character Sean O'Connell says when talking about the beauty of nature - which is by definition one of the most ordinary element of our lives - "sometimes, if I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it." Sean is Walter's guide and mentor throughout the movie, and this is one of the main lessons he teaches him. He teaches him how to focus and stay on the moment: how to abstract the beauty and value from the ordinary situations in life. One of the reasons why Walter's adventures are worthless is because he faces them alone. Everything - blessings and misfortunes- , when shared, has its nature raised towards joy. Thus, Walter's journey is nothing to the eyes of the spectator, for he had no one at his side. In his everyday life at work, however, he is surrounded by people that love him and care for him - like her sister, his coworker, his mother, etc. - , and this is what empowers these experiences and transforms them into the "quintessence". All the objects or places of his past are full of meaning to Walter now that he sees them with different eyes.
Similarly, my bike is relevant to me and brings beautiful memories of friendship to my mind thanks to a different perspective. Once I switched the focus from the object itself and my selfishness to the repercussions it had with the people around me, I was able to value the object as an element and cause of friendship. My bicycle changed from being a mere physical vehicle to a moral, intellectual and internal vehicle. As I mentioned earlier, it transforms the "intangible into the tangibility of things" (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 330).
We often seek happiness in the extravagancy of extraordinary adventures or products, while we have joy in front of our eyes in the everyday effort. We need to learn how to order our desires, we need to be able to value the true meaningful things that life certainly has. The problem is that they are hidden behind the appearance of simplicity, but they can gain significance through several ways, and one of them is purpose. The long-term view of our quotidian life, like the goal we want to achieve or the person we want to help with our effort, is what empowers and gives us energy to live our apparently repetitive life. The main way to transform reality is through meaning, just as humans give meaning to the physical world by naming it, i.e., by making it theirs. We, in our daily life, can transform everything we do - even the most repetitive activity - into a valuable moment, by giving it a meaning that is related to its purpose. Here is where love comes into play. Love - and the good of the person loved - is always the purpose of the most sincere and powerful deeds.
What makes relevant all the objects and experiences that Walter Mitty remembers affectionately is the love behind them - the love of a sister, of a mother, etc. Just as all these, my bike has jumped from the repetitiveness of my life to the marvelous realms of memory thanks to love - thanks to friendship, which was giving a purpose to all the rides in that bike. Furthermore, just as the bicycle, a friend is also simple and ordinary, but thanks to affection and care he becomes a person of extraordinary value. This topic is amazingly analyzed in a symbolic way by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his book The Little Prince. One of the most relevant scenes of the story takes place when the Little Prince meets a fox - who, by the way, will become a Fox with a capitalized 'F' thanks to the human ability to give meaning to reality. The Fox asks the Little Prince if he can tame him because he is alone and wants a friend: he wants meaning in the world apart from himself - in other creatures. The Fox explains the Little Prince how the world is meaningless for him, because he has no bonds, because he has not been tamed - which is defined as "to create ties" (59) -, and "one only understands the things that one tames" (60). He says that the boy is "nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys" but that if he domesticates him, then he "will be the only boy in the world" for him (59). The Fox is seeking to transform his boring reality, but instead of running away from it, he is trying to embrace it and give it a meaning. Then, the Fox describes his life as "very monotonous," and says he is "a little bored" because everything is "alike" (59). He is not able to distinguish things, because they all have the same importance for him, they lack meaning. Nevertheless, he explains that if the Little Prince accepts to domesticate him, then "it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow" (60). In addition, he not only makes the other person significant to him by giving meaning to the Little Prince, but he would also see the relevance in the world around him, in the world around them:
"The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat" (60)
It is amazing the depth of the Fox's moral imagination and internal world. He discovers the transformative power of friendship, its ability to change the way someone looks at reality, even the most normal, routine and apparently meaningless experiences. Nonetheless, contemplating the scene of the book and the character of the Fox, this attitude seems distant and too beautiful for being real outside literature. Are we condemned to the eternal dissatisfaction? Can we escape from the dreariness of life? Is all this possible or just another beautiful dream?
Life is much more than an unintelligible sequence of events which we have to go through or even suffer. It is not a random fall of domino pieces which we can only observe but not fully embrace. Our freedom is our main weapon to fight the apparent monotony of life. It is through reframing that we can transform all our 'boring' deeds into opportunities to grow and to help others. It is through purpose - and thus, love - that every single moment of our everyday life becomes unique. It is up to us to give importance to humble objects and experiences - to little things in general - that otherwise would be forgotten and never stored in our memory and ingrained in our heart.
- De Saint-Exupéry, Antoine. The Little Prince (Translation by Richard Howard), Harcourt, 1943
- Kaza, Madhu. "The Named and Unnamed Dead," 3 Quarks Daily, Mar. 2014
- Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. "Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review," Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader, 1989, pp. 329-338
- Stiller, Ben. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," TSG Entertainment, 2013 (Movie)