Friday, July 3, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness

"Flag" (1954-55) by Jasper Johns

Tonight is July 3rd. In honor of our nation's birthday, I would like to share with you an essay that has meant a lot to me over the years. Written by John Perry Barlow, the former lyricist of the Grateful Dead, "The Pursuit of Emptiness" touches on our greatest strength and our greatest weakness as a nation.

Turning the famous and elusive utterance in The Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness" on its head, John Perry Barlow questions this unalienable right penned by Thomas Jefferson. For in Barlow's eyes, it makes little sense to "pursue" happiness in any form. He wisely quotes Chuang-Tzu, who says, "Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness."

And wholeheartedly I agree. In fact, right now I'm working on an article for this blog on the American culture of self-medication. Our impulse to self-medicate--not only with prescription drugs, but with food and exercise--seems closely related to the "pursuit of happiness" mentality.

The American people are after something, whether it's fame, recognition, love, wealth, sex, or satisfaction. What propels us is our insatiable demand for more. For awhile, this drive even kept our economy running.

The irony of happiness is this. Barlow quotes Swami Satchidananda:
If you run after things, nothing will come to you. Let things run after you. The sea never sends an invitation to the rivers. That's why they run to the sea. The sea is content. It doesn't want anything. That's the secret in life.
A magical and lovely idea . . . "Let things run after you." Happiness is not something you pursue; happiness is something that pursues you.

The fireworks go off in the neighborhoods surrounding my house and I'm glad to be alive. I'm glad to be pursued by happiness . . . keep it coming . . .

To Read John Perry Barlow's "The Pursuit of Emptiness" click here.


anita lobo said...

This is the best blog I have read today - for both insightful thought and quality of writing. Glad to have read your work!
Anita Lobo

VinaMist said...

Barlow is so right!


Kelvin Oliver said...

The irony of the quote about happiness is something purses brings to mind about people telling each other to go for their dreams or to go after they want. Sometimes when that happens, we never get what we want until we stop looking and let time and everything else come to us. We do our part and all our plans should fall into place. Fair enough. This sometimes happens to me, too but I realize with really makes me happy rather than go seek for happiness.

amboycharlie said...

There's great wisdom there as I have experienced myself. Like you, I went through a dark time in my twenties, and again in my thirties. No dangerous addictions, just severe depression that destroyed my academic career, and postponed my work career. Moreover, I had always wanted to write but couldn't write well. At some point I simply accepted myself as I was and stopped asking questions that had no answers to them. Basically, I stopped pursuing happiness, and in so doing, found it.

I was able to begin writing and accomplishing things with my writing that had never been possible before. I wasn't manufacturing language, I was letting the language come to me and writing it down as it did so. Now, the only way I know how to think is to apply my hands to a keyboard. I don't really know what I think until I have written it down. Kind of makes it hard to plan a piece of writing, but I don't need a plan, just a place to start. Then things just seem to follow from one line to the next.

I have been reading your writing on twine all evening and though you claim to be an amateur, you are one in the best sense of the word. I have also linked all your blogs, though I don't know what good it will do you as mine remains unread.

Maladjusted said...

Hannah Arendt thought that Jefferson (of who she otherwise approved) had made a slip of the pen on that last word. It was supposed to be the rather prosaic (or plutocratic) property that you find in Locke. But Arendt thought that if you put 'the purusuit of happiness' in there, you'd find people willing to trade freedom (the alpha and omega of politics) for this, famously elusive goal.

I say this mainly that Ilike your post and that I'm glad I found this blog via Twitter

Lethe said...

Anita: Thank you, my writing is very important to me.

Vina: Barlow rocks!

Kelvin: As far as dreams go, pursuing them can be an "art". Whether its dreams or happiness, I don't think anything can be pursued too directly.

amboycharlie: Thank you for being so open and honest with your communication on the Blog of Innocence. And thank you for your compliment.

Maladjusted: Trading "freedom" for happiness is not something I thought of. I've read some of Arendt, but would definitely like to read more. Thanks for your comments.


Mobutu Sese Seko said...

Lethe, if you're referring to the Declaration, it's unalienable. Everyone makes this mistake, though.

Also, how on earth did you get so many readers?

Lethe said...

Mobutu: Thanks for the heads up. I corrected it. How did I get so many readers? I don't know exactly . . . there's always the possibility that people like what I'm saying most of the time.


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