Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Goal vs. Process

The myth of progress is that once you reach your end-point, you just stop.

One of the most problematic (even pernicious) phrases among the documents that founded the United States is the phrase, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Problematic only because it has been so often interpreted to mean so many different things. (Pernicious only in that many conflicting interpretations have led to ideological warring.)

The problem with the Pursuit of Happiness is that almost everyone things that once you find happiness, you'll have it forever. That you can keep it, like a stone in the garden. That contentment is a permanent state of being.

I long ago realized that happiness is a state of being that one enters into, usually without preparation or planning, that it is not a goal. That it cannot be a goal.

As a culture, we tend to intellectualize, even fetishize, happiness, as well as make it a goal to be pursued. We think we can think our way to happiness; in doing so, we confuse it with contentment, and with stasis. Many people tend to think happiness is merely a lack of unhappiness, a lack of chaos and disruption. That's a very weak definition of happiness; it tends to evaporate at the least touch, and we must begin all over again.

The process viewpoint accepts what the goal viewpoint cannot: that nothing is permanent. Things always are changing. Nothing stays locked in place forever—unless it is dead. Stasis is death. But even in death there is change, decomposition, decay, return to constituent elements. The worms recycle our dead flesh through their guts, making fertile soil for new things to grow in.

There are no permanent states of being. Everything changes. Even the earth, even the stars. In a million years, the land will have changed greatly, and the stars overhead will have aligned themselves into new constellations, because we are one star-system swinging through a cluster of stars revolving at varying speeds and with varying orbits around a common center, the core of our galaxy. Even the stars and the land, the two things that in my own life seem the most permanent, the most unchanging, the least likely to betray: these too are constantly changing.

The perception of permanence is merely a matter of scale, of things changing too slowly for us, in our mayfly existences, to perceive.

The myth of progress is that there is a goal towards which we progress, and which, once achieved, will be permanent and unchanging. This is the dream of eternal security within a world that has none. This is the myth of safety in a world where there is none.

Happiness is something that happens—like the weather. Like awe, it is a state of being that comes over us, stays awhile, then moves on. If it's a deep experience, it can change us. There may be a cause, but it may also arrive from nowhere, with no anticipation. We often confuse our wishes with a cause: if only we have this Thing, or this condition, we'll be happy. Sometimes effect precedes cause: you're happy long before you know why. It is not a rational, linear process—but it is a process, which is what matters: a process, not a goal. It is not something the mind can control or dictate; because, like awe, you cannot imagine happiness, you can only experience it.

We move in and out of states of being, sometimes caused by events and our feelings about events. Those who live more or less unconscious, non-directed lives perceive causes as exterior to themselves. Jung once wrote, When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate. That means, what we often view as fate is something actually going on inside, projected out onto the world.

What causes our suffering is when we cling to those states of being: when we demand that they be permanent. If you know your happiness will not last forever, you will not be made to feel ever more unhappy, when your momentary happiness inevitably fades. If you believe that happiness is a permanent goal, you're bound to make yourself unhappy: because clinging to the idea of permanent happiness is doomed to disappointment.

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends,
then let's keep dancing.
We'll break out the booze
and have a ball
if that's all
there is.

—Lieber and Stoller, Is That All There Is?

This great existential song is neither cynical nor despairing, but in the end has a positive message: even if life has no meaning, life is still worth living. We want more, no matter what.

If we strive for permanence, we're just setting ourselves up for unhappiness. If we don't cling to happiness, if we don't try to force it to be permanent, it has a way of coming back, when we least expect it, a surprise visitor at our doors. If we let it go, it comes back. If we try to hold it forever, it drips through our fingers.

If we strive to make art, we must always remember that it's forever in process. We might litter the road with the products of our art-making, but the art-making itself is a process, always changing, never ending. Even if, as sometimes happens, it changes so much over time that we can't recognize what we were making or thinking, years ago.

Far better to have exchanged the dream of progress for something that is always a work-in-progress.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand. – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

This, Art, is one of those things that when you first read it the world feels as if it has suddenly shifted into focus for a second or two. It was a real moment of clarity for me. Indeed these words are underlined in my personal copy of the book.

It was after reading these words that I realised that I shouldn’t believe all those people who told me that I couldn’t be happy unless I drove such-and-such a car, or wore this or that brand of jeans or splashed my face with whatever brand of aftershave was regarded as de rigueur that week. I suddenly became impervious to all kinds of advertising. I felt like I’d woken up in a kind of Stepford world where contentment could only be achieved by conformity. True happiness though would only come if I was different to everyone else but different in the right way, if my car was better than my neighbour’s or if my jeans were a better brand than my best friend’s. True happiness equals one-upmanship.

The problem for that kind of consumer-based happiness is that there will always be new products and so there are greater and greater levels of happiness that can theoretically be achieved. Believing that can be depressing because I can’t control these things that are supposed to make me happy. I have to wait on other people inventing them or designing them or sanctioning them.

The wise learn quickly that Happiness is always one step ahead of them. They learn what her true nature is and that they’re really incompatible. The idea of happiness is far more powerful than actual happiness just as anticipation wins out every time over fulfilment.

With all of that in mind I hope you have as happy a time over the following couple of weeks as you can. Just don’t expect too much and whatever comes your way is gravy.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The Huxley quote is magnificent, indeed—a real touchstone for keeping it all in perspective. (Which Huxley was often very good at.)

Your analysis of consumer-based happiness is dead on target. For myself, I was cured of that by years of working as a production artist and graphic designer in the marketing and advertising fields. One reason I have difficulty marketing myself as an artist is because of the deep cynicism about marketing as an activity that I developed during that part of my career. I want to be honest and true, and present myself as authentically as I can—things which are not rewarded in marketing, which is all about exaggeration, nor in advertising, which is all about creating artificial needs in the consumer. Who really needs another brand of high-end car or perfume? No one NEEDS it; some may want it.

I don't go looking for happiness, I let it happen when it does. I try to notice it when it does, and I don't have a perfect track record for that except in hindsight.

This year, I made several of the gifts I gave to people. And I made my own Xmas cards to send to people, as I try to do every year. One nice thing about living in the Upper Midwest is you get great new snow photos almost every winter. So I use those on my cards.

11:53 AM  

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