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Unhappy with happiness


I am lucky. I have a life anyone would want. A cup of tea or coffee starts my day. I hitch up the dogs and make sure that my son has his pack together. We walk four blocks to the community center and sign him into his summer program, where he stays until 4:30 or 5 p.m. After the dogs and I return home, the newspaper takes up an hour of the morning. I wash the day’s ink off my hands and the rest of the day is my own.

The problem is that I’m profoundly unhappy. I worked my whole life to get where I am right now. When I dreamed of becoming a writer, I struggled to pay the bills, and the dues, to become the writer I am. I used to think that if I only had time to write, my life would be fulfilled, happy, and worry free.

It is exactly all those things. I am self-employed. I teach classes, and for the last two semesters, I’ve taught online. No one stands over my shoulder. Except for some deadlines and days spent grading, I have nowhere to be and nothing to keep me from, say, taking a walk in the park or a drive around the city. I ride my bike and walk the dogs. Sometimes, I watch television in the afternoons—a delicious depravity that I’ve never been able to indulge before. The lack of people and places that demand my presence make for a lovely life.

I have always maintained that employment is way overrated. Jobs get in the way of my work. And I’ve been at it. In the last six months, I’ve written numerous essays, a few poems, and the first draft of a book.

But life is missing something very fundamental. I have what I want. I don’t want more, so that is not the source of my agonies. Or, maybe I do want more. I have only two good decades left. I want to squeeze every moment for all it can give me. I want more moments, more water from that rock.

If I was a different person, I might see my ease as something to enjoy. After all, isn’t a life free from worry and want what we all strive for? I’m 52. Not long ago, I struggled in every aspect of living from putting food on the table to being a father. I have food and money in the bank. I don’t want to purchase anything for I have all I need. I have, over the years, learned how to be a patient, loving father.

I wonder if I have become so inured to struggle that the lack of tribulation is screwing my life up. I find myself in the mornings, after the newspaper and before writing, wanting to climb back into the difficulties I once endured. I miss having financial problems. I feel empty without worry and anxiety—so much so that the lack of anxiety creates a certain amount of fear. I feel I’m not producing enough, that I am wasting my time.

I want to streamline, not to have less stuff but more hardship. I understand adversity and privation. I don’t understand or know how to handle happiness, freedom from material want, and the simple joys of being a good father.

I keep thinking of Kafka’s Hunger Artist. The performer resented the social and legal strictures that limited the scope of his fasting. He wanted always to better his own record. He could never be happy as a successful performer. When hunger artists fell out of fashion as entertainment in the public square, he finally found himself a place in a circus. There, he was able to starve himself as much as he pleased. But he groused at the lack of attention that the passing crowds gave him. He begrudged the animals and performers that people took greater interest in. Finding no joy in either his art or his life, he starved himself to death without anyone noticing. People paid more attention to the panther that replaced him.

The panther was perfectly happy. It received the food it wanted and the attention it needed. When his art fell out of fashion, the hunger artist need not starve himself any longer. He was relieved of privation. He could pursue other interests. But he found life without privation impossible. He found that without struggle, life was impossible.

Am I being ungrateful? I don’t think so. I know what I have and what I didn’t used to have. I might give up my life of great well-being if others didn’t depend on me. I put myself into a position of having the good things in life. I worked hard to get this far, and I’m damned glad to avoid having to live without.

Maybe I should get a job, a regular, 8-5 position at a desk. That’s where I’m really miserable.

In the end, I am selfish. I am childish. I have everything I want but it is not enough. Maybe it is too much.

Getting around this unhappiness with a dream life means that I have to re-evaluate who I am, and there’s nothing that makes me more uncomfortable than finding out who I am. Since I’m always changing, this is constant work. I’d rather play on the internet than look inside. But the only time I find myself happy is when I look inside, where I find the contemplation that a full life depends on.

My way is clear. I don’t want to do it. But, if this profound unhappiness continues, it will be work that I’m after. I suppose it’s work that I’m doing right now in writing this piece, in asking you to understand how one can be unhappy with the perfect life.

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