Photograph by the author
The other day I had a discussion with my friend R., who (like everyone else I know, including myself) thinks he knows everything. This disease has infected most of humanity; and its roots run quite deep, as Plato’s apology so amply demonstrates.
In any event, the question of happiness came up. My comment was something to the effect that I no longer gauge happiness in terms of anything other than my inner relationship. The word itself, in relationship to its temporal effects, seems insufficient and superficial. It’s only the inner condition that determines whether or not I am satisfied; and when I am satisfied, it’s not necessarily what we mean when we use the word happy.
The word happiness originally derived from the English word hap, chance or fortune— hence, the word happenstance, among others. The first record of the word as meaning “very glad” dates back to the 1500’s (OED); before that, almost all the meanings in the English language relate to having good fortune of one kind or another. Fortune itself, of course, comes from a Latin root meaning good luck. So the way we use the word today is quite different than what it originally meant. Its original meaning was fundamentally material and outward, related to good fortune in a material sense — in other words, the events of outer life or things in the world.
Nowadays, we commonly say we’re happy if we feel good inside. And, of course, all our standard ordinary emotional reactions derive from outer events. We eat a good meal; we see a pretty woman or a handsome man… they fall in love with us. We make a killing in the stock market, or our dog loves us. Etc. All of these are outward events; and it turns out, in the context of the word as it’s used today, that happiness always depends on these outer life events and circumstances.
I’d like to propose a completely different idea about happiness—one that probably isn’t much considered without having a proper and correctly ordered inner experience.
Happiness of the kind that we generally refer to when we use the word is a material happiness. It’s of this level; it’s attached to the outer world of objects, events, circumstances, and conditions.
Yet the effect that all these things produce is a distinctly inner one; happiness belongs to the inner world alone, and whether one experiences it as an emotion, which is at a lower rate of vibration and more superficial in terms of the way it constitutes our being, or a feeling, which is at a higher rate of vibration and penetrates to the soul, it’s always an inner experience. I think our failure to distinguish between the inner and the outer in life somewhat blinds us to this.
This raises several questions.
Does all of our inner experience have to be dependent on outer events?
Or does our inner life have a satisfying validity of its own before the outer events take place?
What is real — that is, true, essential — happiness? What inspires it? Where does it come from?
Is there such a thing as an organic happiness? A happiness that is rooted in the marrow of the bones, rather than the outward circumstances?
My hypothesis — based on my own experience – is that true happiness is a strictly inner event, and that furthermore it cannot possibly arise from the objects, events, circumstances, or conditions of the outer world. It’s a spiritual experience, not a temporal one; and it is directly related to the condition and temper of the soul itself, rather than the winds of fortune and the direction that they happen to be blowing in at a given moment.
I believe that Victor Frankl made this clear enough in Man’s Search for Meaning; in his recounting of concentration camp experiences, he makes it quite clear that no matter how bad the outer circumstances were, it was ultimately the value and quality of his inner experience that created meaning, that is, actual value. The concentration camp, obviously, had a very low value — it was an example of extraordinary misfortune for anyone to be incarcerated in this manner. Yet it was possible to discover inner values that sustained life and made it worth something quite extraordinary, even in the midst of such catastrophe.
This simple illustration might, some would say, prove to be enough; yet there’s a deeper question at hand here, and it is man’s relationship to the spiritual inflow of a higher energy — Grace, or Prana — which we call the influence of the Holy Spirit in Christianity.
This inflow is, as I’ve pointed out many times, substantial, and ever-present, if we wish enough to be available to it. This is what can create real “happiness”; yet the word is entirely inadequate here. Only the inward flow of the influence of God, through such Grace, can create true happiness. If one has not experienced this inward flow of Grace, one doesn’t quite know what true happiness is; once one experiences it, there is and can be no other real happiness.
And one also understands that Grace transcends any ordinary emotional description, because Grace brings a spiritual satisfaction entirely independent of the world and its things.
Sparkill, Nov. 23, 2018
Wishing the best for you on this day,
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.