In Pursuit of…What?

A Time for Everything

For two weeks in 1988 the number one song on the billboard chart was “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by the a-cappella singer Bobby McFerrin. The song still enjoys occasional airplay and can he heard from time to time, covered by numerous other artists, each one lending his or her little slant. The end result is much the same, nonetheless. While most people cringe a bit upon hearing the opening ‘ooo ooo” notes (or are they words???) most will grudgingly admit that the song does tend to put a bit a smile on one’s face. It is doubtless one of the most popular ‘feel good’ songs around and is certainly iconic of a prevalent undercurrent that exists in our society—that we all deserve to be happy and that happiness is a desired goal in life.

I say all this because I have my doubts about all of it.

Just the other day I was sitting solo in a coffee shop, half-heartedly reading a book, sipping a coffee and doing little else. I was just marking time while waiting to give one of my family members a ride home. My book was not all that interesting. Not nearly, as it turned out, as interesting as had been the encounters I’d had with two old friends over the past few days.

One of them has recently had a setback in his personal life. His partner and he have, for at least the time being, decided to end the relationship. The news came as a shock to all of us who knew him. The relationship he had with his partner had been one marked by giving—by both partners. We—all of his friends—thought he had been in a happy relationship and certainly never saw this coming. I was most taken, though, by his response. When he speaks of this change you certainly sense no happiness in his voice. You can tell that he is struggling with the notion of moving on, and what a struggle it was facing each day somewhat diminished. There seems to be an implied sense of hope, though. The talk might have an underlying theme of how hard it will be, but there is an implied belief that the problems are solvable; that there are options. You do sense something of a quiet resignation; an acceptance that hard times  may be ahead. But no negativity.

The second is well into retirement. Two years ago he fought a battle with Cancer. By the sound of it the initial prognosis was uncertain, but there was hope. While he had not experienced any great amount of nausea, he did note that the treatments used to leave him very tired. This was a particular problem because he felt he still had much to do. While we was retired and did not need to report to work each day, he wanted to try and address the many loose ends he felt existed in his life. He spoke of his struggles to improve some of the relationships in his life that were less than perfect and how difficult it was making progress. He spoke also about addressing the many other things—finances, his home, his various insurances. But, as he mentioned, there he was, 70 years old and not too much the worse for the ordeal. While he certainly has no great desire to go through it again, you get the feeling that if he had to he would face the beast again with a spirit undiminished from the first encounter.

Come back to the song and think about how its message applied to this situation. The whole idea of just saying ‘be happy’ just seems so shallow when viewed in the context of the rich encounters between the two old friends. Just imagine how utterly stupid it would have been if I had contributed to the conversations by adding the usual platitudes—you know the ones, “you deserve to be happy,” and “it will all look after itself,” and perhaps even, “It’s all part of The Plan.” Fortunately for them that was not the case. Frankly, it seems to me that the two old friends were doing it all exactly right. There is no bitterness directed at either the cancer that had crept in uninvited or towards the companion who had done essentially the opposite. No, those wise gentlemen just know that there is a time for everything and this time, for them, is one of reflection, re-evaluation and, for action. Certainly it is not a time to just sit back and not worry.


Some might question my definition of happiness. “Oh,” you might say, “you’re confusing happiness with joy.”  They might then go on with something like this, “Happiness is not that sudden urge to break into laughter. Happiness is more of a long term thing. It’s a judgment that you make over a longer period of time. Sure you have up and down times but if, on balance, you have more ups than downs then you call that state happiness”

No; just no.

If you think that then I suggest that I am not the one who is confused. We have the capacity to experience a large collection of more finely-differentiated emotions and feelings that just ‘ups’ and ‘downs.’ Off the top of my head I can name some very distinct ones including: angry, irritated, scared, disgusted, uneasy, resentful, hurt, lonely, grieving, ashamed, humiliated, embarrassed, regretful, shocked, confused, excited, proud, joyful, loving, confident, grateful, relieved and just plain calm. I also believe that ‘happy’ is another one of those items. There is enough that is unique about the state of mind that we generally refer to as ‘happy’ that it can be included on this list as a separate item and not just a ‘catch all’ that includes many of the ‘good’ items or some overall timeline summary.

We exist, more or less, as we do now for a reason. The word ‘evolution’ nicely summarizes that reason. Over thousands of generations the presence, or absence, of those feelings made a real difference in our survival and the fact that they still exist tells us that it is likely that compelling reasons why. Simply put, it is entirely natural for those feelings to happen. There are times when we should feel scared or, for that matter, humiliated. At those times those feelings dictate the correct response, whether it be ‘flight or fight’ in the case of fear or reflection and the willingness to face past mistakes and learn something from them, in the case of humiliation. In fact, in this light it becomes quite obvious that there are many times when feeling happy is exactly the wrong thing and furthermore, that it will generate quite an improper response.  It is just plain improper to laugh it off when faced with danger or great loss. Hard times do visit us from time to time and when they do we have to have faith and look for the appropriate feelings and attendant responses.

Belief, Faith and Hope

I believe in Santa. No, I do not seriously think that a red-suited chap delivers toys to all good little children on Christmas Eve. Yes, quantum uncertainly does allow for the possibility that a particle, and, by extension, a person, can simultaneously exist in several places. The fact is, though, that the probability of that happening is so vanishingly small as to be impossible. And, of course there is the fact that to do this trip, house by house, would require speeds far in excess of the speed of light, along with accelerations that would tear a black hole asunder; let alone a somewhat rotund version of the human body. No, my interpretation of the word ‘belief’ runs closer to accepting the existence of something at another level entirely. My belief in Santa has more to do with the acceptance that the concept does lead to events in the real world; events that have mostly positive outcomes. Belief in this sense implies, therefore, a willingness to work within the confines of a concept. Rather than focusing on some concrete existence, belief simply acknowledges that something has its own existence that may or may not be concrete but which does have a measurable effect on life in general.

That brings us to faith. In the normal sense of the word, faith is often put forth as a reason why one should accept something in the absence of concrete or otherwise demonstrable evidence. Besides the obvious positives this interpretation has also had its share of negative consequences. How many wars have been fought ‘on faith?’ How many senseless killings and other forms of violence all inflicted by those acting in the name of faith?

Yes, in this modern age, faith has, at best, a bit of a shaky reputation. Just take a look at the scope of the debate taking place in popular culture between so-called religious fundamentalists and so-called militant atheists if you need justification for this stance. Underlying that, though, is the fact that the term lacks a common understanding. For some it represents an un-wavering insistence in the truth of written statements or the existence of some being or other and for others it perhaps represents the stubborn insistence in not facing facts arrived at through a different process—probably science—than was used by the former group. Fortunately, for the purpose here, it is not necessary to wade into such a divisive and difficult issue. For my purpose here and now it is helpful to define ‘Faith’ as a steadfast acceptance of truths along with, more importantly, the willingness to make great personal sacrifice because of them.

Before we go any further, let me be clear: I am not wading into the debate about the existence of, or nature of God. That said, I do find it useful to make use of some of the concepts and terms that people either make use of, or ridicule—as the case may be—when they engage in that debate.

So what does faith—as I have defined it—have to do with any of this? You might argue that any belief of concept that has any value should be able to withstand testing. In other words, if you cannot explain it in concrete or otherwise measurable terms then perhaps the idea has no value whatsoever. There is some truth to this. It is possible to explain many emotions and feelings, along with the various responses, both useful and not, that can be associated with them in terms of brain chemistry and physiology. Our current understanding of the function of the brain, arrived at painstakingly, piece by piece through biochemistry and through the use of modern wonders such as functional MRIs do permit the suitably-educated practitioner to present a pretty solid brain-based view of the world that explains feelings and appropriate responses in this manner.

But there is a major problem with that. We are alive and we feel these things whereas the models present a level of abstraction between us and that hard-to-define thing that you might call ‘life’ but which I shall choose to refer to as ‘being.’ The fact-based, modeling approach does have its uses. No doubt about it. Pharmaceuticals are constantly being developed according to this modeling approach to the brain. Countless academics also find personal and professional meaning in teasing out this model.

For us, though, the time, talent and effort required to understand our lives in this way are simply not worth the effort. Besides, scientific knowledge is, if nothing else, tentative. In all likelihood the dominant scientific models and techniques used to explain the brain even 50 years from now will likely change radically.

Yet we will not be markedly different. Being is being.

So, at some level, we probably know that this dispassionate approach to being is not entirely satisfactory for daily use. We have to get back inside ourselves and try to make sense of this all at our own individual level.

So that brings us full-circle back to faith. We accept that we cannot rationalize everything in our lives so we therefore create boundaries and construct a reality for ourselves as best we can. Fortunately, for us all, there are shortcuts. That same process that has made us all what we are has also resulted in us sharing many useful similarities. We don’t have to figure it all out, piece by piece. Enough similarity exists between many conceptions that we can consider them as having their own unique existence. Many things do not need to be argued about. We can, for example, assume that conceptions of some things such as ‘gravity,’ ‘love,’ ‘thirty-three’ and ‘hot’ have enough similarity from person to person that we generally do not have to argue much about what they mean, leaving that task to either academics or crackpots, as required.

But we do need to have things that have enough significance to us that we are willing to sacrifice for them. Instead of saying why this is true, it may be of more benefit to consider the alternative. My youngest son has a beta fish in a small aquarium in his bedroom. Day after day that fish moves to and fro in the aquarium, always appearing placid; contented. Perhaps you might say that fish is happy. I doubt it has any worries—the water is changed regularly and food is placed within reach every day. But would you trade places with that fish? Is that what you aspire for in life? Of course not! While thoughts of carefree times on a beach or skiing down a mountain or catching salmon (or whatever else stirs your fancy) sound attractive, you just plain know that at some level those sorts of things, by themselves, will ultimately prove to be insufficient. Suppose you did win the lotto and were lucky enough to be able to spend the rest of your life in idle recreation you just plain know that at some point this, itself, will lose its meaning.

Look at the ‘idle rich.’ We already know that many of them find their lives to be generally unsatisfactory.

Looking Deeper

None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with happiness. No one can seriously doubt that the pursuit of happiness has great value and meaning. The issue, is better seen as one of balance or perhaps clarifying just what people really mean when they say that they are seeking happiness.

There is a time for everything. Sometimes feelings that have negative connotations are the right ones. Anger is sometimes justified, as is indignation. While we might be inclined to think that frequent ‘negative’ feelings and dispositions may lead to a life that is somehow bad or not worthwhile, upon reflection it is not hard to see that this is not necessarily the case. Take Mother Theresa, for example. Born into a somewhat well-to-do family in Albania she nonetheless decided at a very young age that a life in service to society was for her. For most of her adult life she was in poverty, working long hours in truly harrowing conditions, all for the betterment of others. Do a Google image search. It will reveal millions of pictures and, while many do show a joyous face marked by a wide smile and eyes that genuinely do twinkle, the dominant theme is quiet determination. Do the search. Look at the lines on her face. Clearly she has experienced the worst kind of pain and suffering both personally and through others. The marks are left behind and hers is a face that has known pain and enormous doubt.

Yet who can argue that she did not live a life that was meaningful in the best possible way? The same can be said of countless others: Ghandi, MLK, Mandela for instance (and, yes, even Batman!) have all led lives marked as much by suffering as they have been by triumph. Yet, in the end you are left with no doubt—their lives were worth living.

So that brings us to the real question. What is it that we are really pursuing? I have been hinting around that it may not be happiness. So what is it then? That is not for me to say. Entire careers have been spent in pursuit of that question so I certainly won’t try and let a few pithy words try and do what so many have spent the equivalent of centuries pursuing. While I cannot say with certainty what it is, I can perhaps summarize it up and say that what we are after is a general summation, a feeling that the sum total of our actions and beliefs have been, on balance, worth it. That is what we associate ‘good’ with.

We also associate ‘good’ with happy and, perhaps, therein lies the problem. In saying that we should pursue happiness perhaps we are mistaking a symptom with the underlying cause. Maybe it’s not happiness that we are seeking, rather the transient feeling of happiness is just perhaps the most pleasurable consequence that can happen and our instincts drive us to go for that outcome instead. Sometimes too often, I suggest. There are certain desirable things in our lives and our faith, which we need to have leads us to pursue those things. We can choose either to act on our beliefs—that is, to have faith—or not.

I cannot say, with certainty, what those things are—as we teachers say, “that is left as an exercise for the reader,” I can say, though, that it is incumbent on us, if we wish to live a meaningful life, to find out those things and then to pursue them with all our hearts. In the end we may or may not be happy. We can, however, control, to a reasonable degree, those things in which we have faith. That, in turn, can cause our actions to be in harmony with our beliefs. Happiness may or may not happen, but it is not really the goal. As individuals, we do have to constantly choose those underlying things are that drive us and that is, maybe what defines our life’s journey, not the destination.

Two Final Cases

Last week marked the retirement of a much-beloved and admired colleague and friend, V. The task of putting together a suitable send-off fell to L. L, as is her way, threw herself into the job and, in the end did us all proud. Not only did she construct an event in-keeping with V’s quiet dignity and determination, but also she composed and delivered a complete and moving tribute. She worked on the project for weeks. None of us who know her doubted, even for a second that L would make us all proud.

Just a few hours before the event I stopped by her hotel room so see how things were going only to find her and C. going over the tribute speech. Tears were streaming from all four eyes.
“What’s going on?”
“Oh, we are just putting some finishing touches on this.”
“Can I see?” I took a look. The tribute, as expected, was well-crafted and complete; in all regards an excellent job. The part near the end, though, was particularly touching. Now, I am not in the habit of doubting L—she has a perfect track record of accomplishing even the most difficult tasks. I did have my doubts this time. “Are you sure you can do this? It contains some powerful stuff, particularly at the end. We all have our limits.”

The reply? “I have to.”

That was that. L did pull it off. The tribute was presented with dignity and nobody could be anything but moved by it, especially V. But it took a toll. I have no doubt that ‘keeping it together’ during that tribute was one of the hardest things that L has ever done. But she did it. She did it because she values V as a mentor and as a dear friend and, to the point here, L knows that is much more important that a little momentary happiness.

While composing this post I took a short break and walked down the hallway where I ran into F. “How are things?” I asked. In summary, the reply that came back was that ‘things’ were just fine. F is busy working to implement a whole new program. Not only is the curriculum changing, but also, a whole new learning environment is being built. It is stressful. “I would up in hospital again for a while,” noted F. His colitis was acting up again. “It’s the stress,” I said. “Note though, that I didn’t tell you to slack back or take it easy,” I continued.

“Thanks for doing that,” was the reply. “I know it’s hard. There’s a lot of work and it sometimes takes a toll. But I love my family, I love my job and I love my life. Sometimes there’s a bit of a price to be paid, but in the end I figure it’s worth it.”


The signature line from the song I referred to was actually penned by the Indian Mystic Meher Baba (d. 1969). The full quote was “Do your best, then, don’t worry; be happy in my love. I will help you.” While it lacks the simplicity and charm of McFerrin’s version it is much more profound. Don’t you agree?


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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5 Responses to In Pursuit of…What?

  1. merbear74 says:

    Happy is an emotion. I don’t think it’s so much a peace of mind. Just like anger, comes and goes. I consider myself lucky that I can feel happy. But it’s usually fleeting. Excellent post.

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