Death & Dying


Reflect. Respond. Rejoice.

The inexplicableness of it all. Either the Boston Marathon explosions were the acts of the insane or the “work” of the unheard. Regardless, innocence is the victim. An eight-year-old child waiting for his victorious father to complete the marathon is . . . what? Murdered. To what end? Because the “voices” had become too loud to ignore and the deranged driven to wreak havoc?

When New York City’s Twin Towers were leveled, it was reasonable to ask why would the perpetrators go to such great lengths, sacrifice their lives in order to kill so many? Some Americans don’t like such questions because it somehow suggests culpability on our nation’s part. That American imperialism, militarism and meddlesome foreign policy were somehow a factor. But you have to wonder, why were equivalent buildings, say, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil not targeted?

To what degree do American actions create the feedback loop that has foreigners lined-up to murder us?

Some anti-terrorism experts were suggesting on Tuesday that the bomb was crudely constructed, perhaps the creation of a homegrown terrorist showing solidarity with his foreign brothers. That would be a disappointing development as the predictable response includes the ratcheting-up of suspicion and surveillance of our neighbors (all citizens indirectly). Identify the culprits as American Muslims and that entire community suffers.

I don’t think it the work of crazy homegrown white boys (see Timothy McVeigh), as a U.S. government building was not the target. These spineless goofs/cowards are quite the puzzling phenomena. America is such a large, diverse nation that you can simply disappear to Obscure, Oklahoma or Remote, Oregon and live the independent life. Why slaughter innocence because the “guberment might take my guns?” McVeigh had such concerns.

That leaves the out and out crazy among us who “saw things in the window. . . heard things at the door.” This, to me, is unsettling. We like rhyme and reason to our explanations. Whenever I hear that someone was murdered, I ask, “Did he have it coming?” Of course that is a joke but we prefer a causal relationship to our violence. A jealous boyfriend. The aggrieved wife. The despondent “fired” employee. The deranged Second Amendment “patriot.” We prefer some underlying explanation—crazy at it may sound to us—for the (any) violence.

I don’t know where the investigation will lead or if “justice” will ever be achieved and truth served. What I do know is that life will go on. Not so much for the harmed but for the rest of us for sure. If your daughter is being married this Saturday, that ceremony of life will occur. Toasts will be offered. Exuberant dancing, perhaps even a Chicken Dance or two will get the attendees on their feet. And the exhausted couple will leave on their honeymoon, perhaps without a thought at all of the unfolding developments in Boston. Blessedly so.

That is one of the dichotomies of living. All of us to varying degrees sublimate the tragedies and sorrows associated with our species, with being alive. Very soon in our development we determine our outcomes. By age seven or eight I realized I wasn’t getting “out” alive. While disappointing—it is—what are we to do about it? As mythologist, Joseph Campbell so cogently observed, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”

Reflect. Respond. Rejoice.

What Now?

I did not deny God’s existence, but I doubted His absolute justice.
- Elie Wiesel, “Night.”

I’ve been reading a few pages, each evening, of “Night” by Elie Wiesel. I can only take a few pages before I have to set it down. I inwardly shout, “Get out! Leave! Now! Run!” Night recounts Wiesel’s experience as a Romanian Jew during the Holocaust. It is profoundly sad. I can only internalize so much of his account before I become anxious and unsettled.

When I heard of the Connecticut massacre, of 20 children dying (seven adults, too) I was immediately sickened, physically nauseated by the senselessness of killing babies. You ask yourself, “How can this be? How can slaughtering innocence ever be contemplated, let alone acted upon? Why would this happen?”

That’s really not the question needing asked. But rather, how was this massacre perpetrated? (Answer: see assault weapons.)

The timeless question for our species is why is man so prone to violence, so willing to hurt and humiliate?

I was taken aback by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s observation on the Connecticut massacre that, “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?” I found his comments both disgusting and surprising.

Surprising from the perspective that I thought, Huckabee, as an ordained Southern Baptist minister, would have emphasized that God is present everywhere and always. He suggests the contrary. That because prayers are not offered in public schools, what? Death and mayhem shall ensue?

As a non-believer in a personal god, I find such questions intriguing. In the 2011, visually stunning movie, Tree of Life, a character observes, “He sends flies to wounds he should heal.” He, of course, is God. It’s a legitimate observation to me. One, I imagine, discussed from church pulpits all over America last Sunday. It is a question that can only be finessed because that is exactly what the Old Testament God does time and time again.

It begs, however, the question, “Why?” I have questioned the existence of God ever since I was old enough to realize that really bad things happen to good people. Why? Where was God during the Holocaust? Or, during the Trail of Tears? Or, the Moro Massacre? Or, Sandy Hook Elementary School? Was God’s attention diverted, busy creating other universes? Discussing whom to smite with Archangels Gabriel and Michael? Was God on vacation?

I don’t think that is the case because if I were an omnipotent, omniscient, forever-always-present God, I would know that Adam Lanza would on December 14, 2012 systematically execute innocence. These children had no choice of “free will.” If I knew humanity was capable of the Holocaust, would I (God) not reasonably tweak ever so slightly my design of mankind?

Why were children massacred in Newtown? Because a mentally deranged man had ready access to assault weapons. He went off the reservation of “acceptable” human behavior.

No, a far better question is how was the act accomplished? To the degree we can identify and help the mentally ill is one issue, with what ease (how) we slaughter each other is quite another.
Happiness is not a warm gun. John Lennon knew that.

Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures; peace is our gift to each other. Elie Wiesel

What now?

It’s All Mirth To Me.

But you’ve got to try a little kindness
You show a little kindness . . .
. . . overlook the blindness
Of the narrow minded people
On the narrow minded street.

Glen Campbell

I get sorrow. I do. It’s part and parcel with being human. Lives abruptly end, rudely out of natural “sequence” (my incredible sister Susan for example, a son in Afghanistan or a child at birth). Floods (see: Katrina/Sandy) wash away our possessions (mom & dad’s treasured marriage certificate and photos – my gawd how young and beautiful and full of life they were!). Relatives/friends deconstruct in real time—over decades no less—sorrowfully sucking the joy out of daily life. Tragedy (sorrow) is one job loss, one car accident, one diagnosis, one fall, one moment away.

And then you die. I am 63 and by my reckoning I have 19 years remaining. And I am completely okay with that. My grandfather lived until age 83, my father until age 81. I’m splitting the difference. I’ve eaten far less red meat and consumed but a mere fraction of the whiskey they downed. Each generation, however, has its vices. I’ve also been exposed to far more pesticides and industrial chemicals/additives—we’ve all been—than our parents and grandparents. I will, however, be extremely disappointed (and will, indeed, rage) if I do not get my full 82 years. Give or take six months.

Intellectually, I am disappointed that this shell called Christopher Robin, like all human carapaces is built for speed (metaphorically speaking – our all too brief life spans) and not for the long haul (hundreds/thousands of years— as some trees for example).

My death does not in the least perplex me. I wish I could have it “all” but, alas, sigh, my end is knowable and certain. I entertain no fantasy of an everlasting afterlife sitting at God’s feet, in raptured bliss, singing hosannas to His splendiferous magnificence. That is so much nonsense (to me). Asserting there is life after death is a mythology, a bridge to get “you” through the darkness of that long night (the realization and disappointment accompanying the finality of individual human existence).

Some argue that in order to rein in humanity’s excesses, religion was created (by man) and the cudgel of “judgment” the ultimate instrument of control. What you do in this life determines the quality of your next existence. The Ancient Egyptians had Ma’at. She weighed souls in the underworld and a “feather” was the measure of whether or not your ultimate destination was paradise. Christian beliefs are essentially not much different.

It’s all myth to me. Or, shall I say, it’s all mirth to me.

Ah, the timeless question. If there is no personal god, no life after death, how then shall we behave today? If I am not going to be judged—rewarded or punished—why act one way or another?

I find this question infantile. You don’t rape your neighbor’s daughter because you might go to hell?

We’re a young species, out of the trees, walking upright but for a brief few moments (relatively speaking). We’re (humanity) making it up as we go.

This Thanksgiving, let’s all pursue, as pragmatist Richard Rorty recommended, “The creation of a world in which tenderness and kindness are the human norm.”

Yes, as Otis Redding once so melodically sang, “Try a little tenderness.”

Make that your Thanksgiving grace. For all seasons.

What A Woman!

In the spring of 1988, while working at Winter Park Memorial Hospital, I received a phone call from the Executive Director of Crealdè telling me that a new newspaper was forming in Winter Park and looking for columnists. From that one fortuitous call, 2013 will mark 25 years that I’ve written a weekly Observer column. Over 1200 columns, approximately 650,000 words. It, the writing, has been incredibly rewarding at a personal level.

I could not foresee in 1988 how serendipitous, how valuable for the quality of my life writing for the Observer would become. Out-of-the-blue, I would be contacted by individuals who read my “stuff” and wanted to meet. I became so close with one such reader, John Fisher, that we met every Thursday for lunch for 17 years (nearly 800 lunches). What an immeasurable gift. I so miss Fisher and his acerbic wit. In 25 years I’ve developed over half-a-dozen such relationships, readers who became friends, folks I have vacationed with, people who changed my life.

This column is about one such person, Nancy Chambers. About eight or so years ago I received a call from a stranger who wanted me to come to her residence for a chat. She liked my “perspective” and wanted to compare notes on the world.

For a number of years back in the late 1990s I occasionally received humorously threatening, quite creative, anonymous postcards, mailed to the Observer recommending for example that, “Jepson should be used as roadfill for interstate potholes.” That’s a classic. Needless to say, I have a reluctance to meet anyone for the first time in their home. But I did with Nancy and what a gift.

She must have been 79 or 80 at the time. She’d had a stroke a few years earlier but had recovered nicely. Nancy was a lovely woman, the type of gal you just knew was stunning (Gorgeous!) in her physical prime. Diminutive in stature yet anything but demure in personality. She was outgoing, quick, witty and extremely well read. A bit of a flirt. We’d lunch and she’d laughingly say, “Sit down and tell me some gossip.” Nancy divorced three times, thought the institution (of marriage) vastly overrated yet was a hopeless romantic. She’d moved to Winter Park in the 1950s, a doctor’s wife. She had three accomplished sons she forever bragged-on. I met them all and she was right to feel pride in their lives and achievements.

And so with some regularity we’d lunch or have dinners at her residence. I invited her to parties I hosted. Sometimes after a lunch she’d recommend we’d go to the Thrift Shop on Canton and I still have a great cotton robe she insisted I buy for a buck and a half. Nancy knew value.

I was then serving on the Planned Parenthood board of directors when Nancy and I first met. She was an ardent feminist, pro-choice, a woman who understood that history had proved particularly challenging to assertive, strong-willed women. We attended a few PP events together. Nancy had one pronounced regret in life, that she didn’t finish college. She was of the last generation of American women who came of age experiencing “the” rigid societal ceiling for females—that motherhood was the only appropriate expression for what it means to be an accomplished woman.

Nancy Chambers died September 8 and I will dearly miss her enchanting, impassioned femininity in all its delightful manifestations. What a woman. What a gift.

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be . . .

Sometime during the spring of 1966 my family and my father’s best friend’s family were on a picnic in Stone Park, just outside my hometown of Sioux City, Iowa. The war in Vietnam was raging and the topic was always on people’s minds. The two fathers got into it over whether or not they would recommend that their sons volunteer to fight in that war.

My father’s position was that under no circumstances would he recommend that I, or my brother, “serve” in Vietnam. He reasoned that Vietnam was an unjustifiable war that America had no business waging and that his sons would be fools to enlist.

My father’s friend offered the “My country right or wrong” cliché, popular at the time and that his four boys should serve. They went at it, hot and heavy, the remainder of the picnic. Their friendship was never quite the same after this heated exchange. It, too, became a casualty of Vietnam.

I was recently listening to a TV interview with a woman who was discussing the economy and the “quality” of her life, all the while straightening up her garage with her young daughter. Abruptly the conversation shifted to her son enlisting in the Army. Eyes welling, her voice cracked as she said she was unsuccessful in dissuading her son from enlisting, that she had had a prolonged year-long conversation with him during his last year in high school. He would enlist against her misgivings.

What should a parent, in this case a mother, do to protect her child? I am immensely grateful for the sanity of my father regarding Vietnam. There was no family expectation that I go to Vietnam, actually just the opposite, that I lucidly avoid the potential death, disfigurement and violence of that ill-conceived tragedy. Survive. Thrive.

Here are the latest figures regarding military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a recent AP report, 45% of the 1.6 million veterans of those wars are filing for disability benefits for injuries that are service related. That is nearly one out every two returning war veterans are requesting injury compensation.

As a mother, what do you say to a child for them to grasp the idea that warfare is not a lark, that “To be all that you can be” means that, today, there is nearly a 50% chance that you will, my son, come back “less” than what you were. Physically, mentally or emotionally.

At this point, the conversation quite reasonably shifts to the legitimacy of the state’s argument for war (and any claims for our children to fight them). Arguably, America had one justifiable war the entire 20th century, that being WWII. We wrongly, immorally invaded Iraq and why occupy Afghanistan when it was Osama Bin Laden needing taken out?

Democrats and Republicans alike are militaristic fools and jingoistic blowhards. Our military is tragically and repeatedly used for fool’s errands and rather than strengthening—making the nation more secure—we are more fearful, more of a garrison state than we’ve been since the American Civil War.

The trajectory of the West (since Ancient Greece) has been a focus on the individual and his/her ability to reason. The state tells you it needs your child as cannon fodder. Think. What do you logically, reasonably conclude regarding that request? Act.

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be . . .

Where I Spend My Mind.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. Henry David Thoreau

Some suggest that the study of philosophy is to prepare one to die. Gracefully, I might add. A rational rejoinder might be, “No, Chris, such inquiry is to facilitate the graceful life.” Ah, nuance. One and the same, perhaps, much as Thalia and Melpomene are the balancing faces of drama, of life.

I’ve concluded that what the world (life) has quite enough of is sorrow. There is pain a-plenty for all. Few walk into a bar and order a round of sorrow for the house. Yet that is what is served up “fresh” daily. Sorrow is relentless. Decay and death is the human condition and depending on the individual, at some point our mental tickers all start “tocking,” and the literal countdown is recognized for the inevitable finality it represents. Arguably, this is when grace matters most.

If you have enough (life’s necessities) and are at all reflective, at some point in your life you reasonably ask, “How do I want to spend my time?” I phrase it a little differently, “How do I want to spend my mind?” This is where the insidious nature of sorrow intervenes; it consumes your mind. You can be experiencing a most joyful moment and the smallest prompt will redirect your revelry to dark, maddening thoughts of disappointment, disheartenment or despair. Sorrow, by any other name. Oh, and as so many understand, there are much more sorrowful events in life than death.

And, who among us wants to dock their boat very long at that port? Much of life is a redirect. What’s the expression? When handed a lemon—make lemonade out of it. Vomit. My natural inclination is to slap (vigorously resisted) such simplistic sentiments out of the purveyor. But I do understand the necessity for such an outlook. I do.

Sorrow is not the only unavoidable intrusion that saps one’s time, one’s mind. Pettifogery. Banality. Insipidness. Depending on your tolerance, any number of life’s everyday experiences will and do regularly intrude upon your mind, yet as duly noted, “time is fleeting” (please read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15).

So where shall one ultimately spend her mind? I find pleasure (diversion) in art (all forms). Beauty. And words.

Topics I will explore in upcoming columns: Are redneck zombies worse than Manhattan zombies?; Bridges I have crossed; Waiter! Waiter! I’ll have a round of apologies; Is a religion different than what is done in its name?; Dangley-Down-Parts; The “take” I took; Cloning one’s self; Prosperity gospel; My son applying to be the Nightshift Jesus; Life—it’s a receipt book that keeps getting thinner; Meet your maker party–location/time to be announced; Reason—what are you going to place above it?; Babies—better than dawgs sometimes; Life goes on while you’re dying; The double-bubbler; Schwanz & Tucker – Winter Park lawyers and, I have no schedule but I do have an agenda.

Another topic is all time great lines husbands have given wives. Remember when Homer’s Odysseus returned home after 10 years (following the fall of Troy) to his wife Penelope. He had spent seven of those 10 years on an island with the exquisite goddess Calypso. How well would that explanation go today? Is that an illustration of unfaithful but loyal?

Perhaps Odysseus merely explained he was fishing. In the stream of life.

The Cocktail For The Ages.

I want a busy life, a just mind, and a timely death.
Zora Neale Hurston

I am going to employ a standard rhetorical device called paralipsis by saying it is unnecessary to state the obvious (but do it anyway). The Boomer Generation is retiring, is getting out of the way, is moving on. Approximately 13% of the American population today is 65 or older and when the last of the boomers retire in 2030, 18% of our population will be older than 65. 10,000 Boomers are retiring every day and will for the next 19 years.

Steven M. Gillon, author of “Boomer Nation” described it this way, “The pig has moved through the python, and is moving to the final stage.”

Ah, the final stage. Various estimates suggest that nearly 30% of Medicare payments cover the cost of care for people in the last year of life. Whew! That’s a big number. Need more? 12% of Medicare spending is allocated for people who are in the last two months of their life. We will mortgage our future, borrow billions from China for medical care for the last 60 days of an individual’s life? Is that money well spent? Whatta waste! Gosh, we could be spending that on bombing Iran, or tanks or on something that goes “Atten-hut!” I jest. But I don’t when it comes to boomer end times.

In 1729 Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal” in which he satirically recommended that impoverished Irish sell their children as food to rich gentlemen and ladies. A tasty morsel of an idea, yes? Modest I suppose because he simply didn’t suggest “they” be ground-up and used as a natural fertilizer – to increase crop production to lessen the Irish famine. Nothing like a little 18th century Juvenalian satire to get the blood racing.

I have a modest recommendation for boomers but, unlike Swift, I am unequivocally sincere in my proposal. Ms. Hurston suggested of living that we experience “a timely death.” I recommend for my fellow boomers that we exit with dignity. Die with grace. On your own terms. Die at a moment of your choosing. Do it for yourself. Do so for your children and America.

One of the ironies of Alzheimers Disease is that when you have finally lost your marbles, you don’t give a damn about your dignity. Let alone for those who are now responsible for your welfare. You are reduced to walking vegetable matter and society is left caring for decaying fruit. That is a harsh but accurate assessment. You may select to experience that end, I will not.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to die as I have lived. With purpose, intent and in control. That may be an illusion (philosophical or otherwise) but it has been my modus operandi since it occurred to me that I was master of my own thoughts (age five or so).

I’ve considered the question of whether it is more tragic to die five minutes too soon or five minutes too late. Too late and you are a burden to children and country. Consider the “timely death.” It is an ethical choice.

I predict more and more boomers will choose a “timely death.” Do so with intent and prior to those last horrendous, humiliating and “costly” two months. Phenobarbital and whiskey. The cocktail for the Ages. Or, rather, for the aged. Skaal.

Life. Fun With A Capital PH!

I’ve been told all my life that I don’t look my age. Or, that I look young for my age. Or, that I look good for my age. And, yes, more than a time or two, that I don’t act my age. I am writing this column on my 63rd birthday wondering how a man my age might comport himself?

I do not subscribe at all to the current hype that 60 is the new 40 or any other such age-related nonsense. 60 is 60. I’ve a lot of photographs of my father and I imagine a lot of readers have the same experience I do when looking at pictures of their once young parents, “Wow! They sure were pretty.” But I also look at photos of my father and invariably think, “He looks so mature.” He did. He was a serious man with a serious streak of whimsy. I’m more a whimsical man with a curious streak of serious.

Interestingly (to me only), I became cognizant at a relatively young age that we – none of us – get out alive. Any notion that I was immortal, well, I never had such illusions. Death became, not a bosom companion through my days but more of an accompanying shadow. A presence, a reality, the quiet guest, so to speak, always in the other room. I became aware, it became crystal clear that life is about moments and you damned well better be of the moment. I willingly describe myself as a short-term hedonist yet I place a premium on long-term relationships. Ah, the best of all possible worlds.

I first began calculating my remaining years when I was around the age of 20 or 21. My grandfather died at age 83, my father at age 81. I split the difference determining that give or take “months” I would die around 82. And I am so okay with that. I came to “grips” years ago with my mortality, eventually got over the unfairness of it all (death of my all-to-brief consciousness) and in doing so was liberated.

I do not welcome death (I am much too alive!) but neither do I dread it. It is. I’ve concluded that five minutes too soon is preferable to five minutes too late. That when one dies is important. I’ve got the how covered (barbiturates and whiskey); it becomes merely a matter of timing. My goal is to exit on my terms, date (time) certain. I readily acknowledge the hubris associated with my “plan.” What is the adage? “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” But I want to die as I lived. With intent.

The question on the table is how does a man of my advancing years live? At this point in my life I do not have much choice in this regard. As the twig is bent so grows the tree. I will live as I have always lived. (We all do.) I will continue to reflect on the important, shed the nonessential and parteeeee likes it’s 1999!

I’ve passed-on my genetic “essence” to successive generations thus participating in the “purpose” of my species. Meaning of life? It is strictly an individual human construct. I find it in beauty and grace. In relationships, love and affection. In passion. Language. Art. In whimsy. In “a” raison d’être.

My father often spoke of fun. Big fun he spelled with a capital PH. Indeed.

If This Is As You Are.

He sends flies to wounds He should heal.
Terrence Mallick

It’s the premise I cannot buy. Language is a human construct. At some point in our development as a species, a distant ancestor took that gush of lung air and articulated a feeling, a thought, an expression. A warning perhaps. A rush of expressed pain. A rudimentary sentiment of emotion. Who knows the word(s) uttered. Lost in the ether.

My third child skipped single words altogether when he first began to speak. “Had it first,” was what rolled out of his virginal mind and mouth. Does that not express the quintessential essence of humanity? Anyone who ever experienced an older sibling gets the sentiment.

It is through language that we build our world. It constructs our universe. It reveals the unknowable. It forms our fears. And it defines our gods. What a jump of imagination it was when “that” distant evolutionary cousin so long go introduced god into the human equation. How else to explain what was “then” unknowable but to an unknowable super entity, god.

And as our language grew, so to the attributes of our god(s). Powerful beyond description. Omnipotent. Omniscient. Omnipresent. All powerful. All knowing. All present. And that is the premise I cannot buy.

I recently saw a marvelous movie, Terrence Mallick’s “The Tree of Life.” Brad Pitt and Sean Penn star but it is the female lead, Jessica Chastain who rightly commands our attention. She is the mother of three boys and wrestles with life’s accompanying sorrows, constantly imploring/questioning god’s meaning. It is a beautifully filmed movie. Some attribute “religious” overtones to the movie’s meaning but that should not prevent one from embracing its artistic pleasures, its humanity.

A line softly uttered early in the movie goes to the heart of the human predicament, “He sends flies to wounds He should heal.” This is a statement questioning God’s plan.

And it is a fundamental question we should all ask of God. The words attributed to God are “Omnipotent. Omniscient. Omnipresent.” If you are God, you know everything that will ever be, you cannot create a mountain you cannot lift and you are everywhere for all time.

So why, if this is as you are, why would you not ever so slightly tweak the human model? Knowing what you know? If you knew that on December 16, 1967, American pilots would open their bomb bay doors and rain napalm on sleeping Vietnamese peasants and the flesh would melt like butter from the arms of screaming innocence (children) as they ran from their burning huts—why not tweak the model? Why not ever so slightly “change” that which you claim to so love?

Mallick does a good job of finessing this question. Masterfully, actually. Just look at the beauty of the universe. As life consumes us all, in every sorrowful iteration, the universe displays its glory (beauty) in all its infinite iterations. And God, well, he’s a busy chap. A busy beaver. And please don’t take it personally (the sorrow). It’s all of a piece, don’t-cha see.

No, actually I do not see. The words we use to define God give him all the cards. He deals deuces to some and aces to others. A rigged game.

Yet none of us get to sit it out. We either need a new croupier or a new vocabulary.

I opt for words.

Musings on Happiness.

I recently had dinner with friends whom I hadn’t seen for quite some time. I’ve been down with cancer the past few months and hadn’t been out and about as much. There’s nothing like a little surgery to put a stagger in one’s step. I’m on-the-mend, thank you very much, but the next day I received an e-mail from one of my dinner compadres asking, “In spite of all the things going on in your/our lives, are you/we unhappy? Notice I didn’t ask if you’re happy.”

Asking whether I am unhappy or happy is a distinction I do not see but it left me wondering, “Did I appear unhappy?” Was I noticeably different in my outgoing persona? Was I unusually subdued or particularly reserved? Heaven forbid! I reflected on that possibility and determined that the question was more philosophical in its intent? Was I unhappy? Were “we” unhappy?

As context is everything to me, such questions can only be framed with “compared to what?” I actually think about the “specifics” of happiness, perhaps more than the average lad. Imagine a happy time in your life. That moment inevitably passes, what then are you? What are you when you are not happy? Are you pre-happy, post-happy or just in-between bouts of happiness? Is life about moving from distinct moments of happiness—which constitutes 34.6% or 47.3% or 58.9% or 15.1% of your life—to your next instance of elation? Is contented (moooooo!) the same as happiness?

And all this begs the question, what is the meaning of life? And where does happiness fit into that equation? Happiness, per se, didn’t move to the first tier of serious philosophical consideration until, oh, about the 18th century. It was codified in America’s Declaration of Independence when Thomas Jefferson wrote that the pursuit of happiness was a self-evident truth. Arguably Jefferson was speaking to/of a “public happiness” but regardless, his self-evident truth has become the raison d’être of modern living.

The pursuit of happiness? Hmmm? Must happiness be pursued or is it possible to achieve happiness by just being? Is that an intellectual possibility? “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so?” I particularly enjoy beauty. Flowers give me joy (happiness) strictly from their beauty (color, balance, harmony, form, etc.). No pursuit necessary. But I do tend my garden.

I am a hedonist, unapologetically so. Human beings are sensation junkies. Everything we know and are relies on our senses to convey. Yet scientifically, mere observation changes the equation. (I like to watch, Eve. Hah!) Is happiness then only a derivation of our “subjective” perceptions? Ah, the $64,000 question. And the answer is yes, unequivocally so.

Have enough food, adequate housing and sufficient “meaningful” relationships, toss in health and satisfactory intellectual/artistic pursuits and the modern individual is left, many times, to consider the meaning of it all. Which is where some of us find ourselves.

Life intrudes. Mythologist Joseph Campbell said that we must, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life.” On the surface that seems incongruous. For as much as happiness is a worthy pursuit, life and its accompanying sorrow always intrudes. People die. We waste away. Some expire before “their” time. Many self-destruct. We all participate in our collective idiocy/destruction (as a species).

Happiness is no more the human condition than sorrow.

But we try. Damned, if we don’t.

And I love humanity for that. Happy New Year!

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