“Damn it, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” said James T. Kirk, Captain of the USS Enterprise.
Happiness is overrated.
I don’t want to be content, comfortable or happy. I want depth. I want to live intensely and authentically. I want to sob when I am sad and shout when I am angry. And I want to feel. Everything. I want it all. Joy, disappointment, jealousy, euphoria, vulnerability, the whole shebang.
But mostly I want a meaningful life.
Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even a selfish life in which things go well, external needs and desires are easily satisfied. People become happy after they get what they want.
A meaningful life means joy is derived from serving and giving to others. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. Meaning also transcends the present moment where happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now. But it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do. Meaning however is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.
We will find meaning by determining a purpose for our lives, doing work that makes a difference to others, developing meaningful relationships, and serving one another and a Higher Power. If we build our lives on meaning, if we lean into suffering, if we release the need to control the outcome of our lives, perhaps we might have to wait longer for answers. But when we get them, whatever they are, we will ultimately know an enduring peace.
What sets humans apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of meaning. It’s what makes humans uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but we are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
And suffer we do. It’s the ongoing tragedy of humans. Our lives and humanity are untidy, disorganized and careworn. Life on earth is often a raunchy and violent experience. It can be agony just getting through the day. It would be great if we could shop, eat, have sex, or drink our way out. But, I have tried and trust me, we can’t.
But no one is served by trying to avoid the grubbiness of suffering. Eventually we do come out – exhausted and changed.
Good people can do great things while enduring suffering. Sorrow allows us to practice compassion. We show up. Pass the time. Be present. Sit with others in their hopelessness and pain and feel terrible with them. It’s just about the most gracious gift we have to offer.
Gravity, sorrow, pain and suffering yank us down. Finding meaning gives us a nudge to help one another and get back up or to sit with the fallen on the ground in the abyss in solidarity. Because of this help, another world opens space within us, and around us, which creates a more radiant and meaningful reality. This reality is your best shot of happiness.
My oldest son August Luhrs who is graduating from the University of Southern California this month recently said, “If our lives are like clay cups, then suffering carves the cup deeper as we endure more sorrow, but only to make it hold more joy as we drink from the well of the love that surrounds us everyday.”
Having a meaningful life, that’s the real happiness.