Just a roll of the dice

6 April 2019

Is happiness a state which occurs when there’s no sadness or are happiness and sadness two primary polar opposite states of mind? I guess to unravel this one we’d have to get to grips with the states themselves.

On rare occasions I’ve engaged the odd friendly shrink about this thing called happiness. Invariably the question has prompted them to engage that dark zone, currently termed depression, but which in days of yore was referred to as melancholia. Strange that my friendly shrink was prompted to descend into the darkness when the other half of the question addressed the subject of happiness! But having descended into the dark zone, there followed a lengthy string of adjectives such as anhedonia (a big word referring to the inability to enjoy oneself - use this word at your next cocktail party to impress the group!), pessimism, low self-esteem, distrust, hopelessness, helplessness and blame apportioned to everything from God and the Universe to parents, employers, family and friends. And indeed on being subjected to this life-sapping tirade one can just catch a whiff of the stench of this dark space. However this string of horrors still doesn’t define the essence of sadness. For the simple reason that sadness can also occur when happy people lose someone or something of great personal value. But hold it right there. Loss! Suddenly light enters the confused and wrestling mind. Loss is indeed a critical component of this discourse.

The universal hallmark of sadness is loss. I would suggest that it’s the perceived permanent loss of something cherished. But here comes the rub – it can result from the loss of something previously possessed as well as the perceived loss of that which one aspired or hoped to possess but never actually possessed. Right here, right now we can add a second component which often accompanies the need to possess - that is fear of loss. Fear of loss is the forbearer of anxiety. The fear of loss is much more acute in cases where there has been a threshold amount of possession, albeit minimal. If possession has been sub-threshold, any anxiety is quickly replaced by resignation and despair. Fear of loss would obviously apply to that which one already possesses as well as to that which one aspires to possess or has an expectation to possess. It is one of those cruel quirks of the order of things that the loss with the most damaging consequences occurs in the earliest period of our individual life narrative, our nurture period. For here we have the greatest need for possession – that of care in its broadest sense. Loss of care whether experienced and lost or aspired to/expected, which never materialized, establishes the circuitry associated with loss and all its negative accompaniments - pessimism, low self-esteem, distrust, hopelessness, helplessness and blame. A deep sadness indeed and one which will dominate the future life narrative, re-enforcing itself with perpetual self-fulfilling prophesies. In those instances where there once was a threshold of possession of care or a justified expectation of care, anxiety will be a sure accompaniment.

Turning to happiness, well that’s an easy one to define – its life without loss and a life which seldom ponders expected loss. The adjectives generated by this state would include gratification, purposefulness, meaningfulness, self-esteem, curiosity, engagement and a general state of optimism. And you guessed it, this state of mind is regarded as one of success in our current collective reality. But here I stretch my neck out as far as my seven cervical vertebrae will allow: Does this state of mind represent the pinnacle of human endeavour? Nay say I. For me the pinnacle of human endeavour is that lofty place where sensitivity, empathy and awe reside. It is a place of heightened awareness or consciousness. It is in fact a place which transcends happiness and sadness. The foot-path to this Nirvana originates not from sadness nor from happiness and success. Rather it commences with awareness and appreciation of the full spectrum of human subjectivity – the happiness, the sadness, the possession, the loss, the suffering and the successes. The path is fueled by empathy, awe and gratitude. Remembering always that ‘ there but for the Grace go I ... ‘. Because it all boils down to the cards that you were dealt. It really is just a roll of the dice!


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Just a roll of the dice

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