A large number, maybe even the majority of us are managing unhappiness from day to day. We have hope that the script will flip and we’ll break through to something more satisfying, but the wheel turns again and we find ourselves in the same old cage as before. By god, we want to be happy, but there are just so many things that seem to get in the way.
There’s always tomorrow.
If we understood the cause of our unhappiness, perhaps we could snap out of it. Our tendency is to blame things and other people outside ourselves for how we feel. Our circumstances are the reason we’re stuck; that’s why we’re unhappy. Which of course means that our hope for happiness awaits a better job, a different spouse, a new set of circumstances. If the problem is outside of us, the solution must be as well … or so we tend to believe.
But it isn’t outside of us, neither the problem nor the solution. Understanding our unhappiness and why we spend all this time and energy trying to manage it is the only way through. Otherwise all we’re left with is hanging curtains in our prison cell to make it seem more like home.
The question we need to ask is how we got into this cage in the first place. Logically if we reverse our steps and unwind the script that landed us here, we should be able to make some different choices.
Let me start this process by distinguishing between what I’ll name primary concerns and ultimate concerns. Primary concerns arrived at our door even before we had the capacity to reflect on them. In fact, the deepest of these primary concerns pokes our nervous system far below conscious thought, at the very roots of self-consciousness.
Security is our sense of being supported in a reality that is safe and provident. As this spontaneous feeling depends to a great extent on the nurturing love and attention we received as newborns, our sense of security – and of reality at large – is a function of having caring and able parents.
But you know what? No parent is perfect, and every family system has endemic dysfunctions with histories trailing back into ancestral generations. Our mother couldn’t be present every time a pang, ache, or startle announced itself. Our father didn’t always respond with the motherly compassion we were expecting. As a result, insecurity gained a foothold in our nervous system – just a toe perhaps, or some greater degree of magnitude. But there it was. Maybe reality wasn’t so safe and provident after all.
The thing that makes a sense of security problematic, of course, is the fact that reality is not all that secure. Accidents do happen. Normal processes stray into abnormalities. We don’t get what we need right when we need it. Sometimes we just don’t get what we need, period.
When this misalignment between our needs and reality occurs at a level where we are most dependent on what’s outside ourselves, the insecurity can be overwhelming and debilitating.
When we feel sufficiently secure – not perfectly, but sufficiently – we are enabled to begin taking control in our life where necessary and appropriate. Gradually we find our center and begin relying less on our taller powers and other props. We learn how to control our sphincters, our movement, our fingers, our tongue, our temper, our thoughts, and our actions. This primary concern of control is essential to our sense of integrity: of how well our identity and our life hold together, persisting through time and across circumstances as a unified system.
But when we are insecure, this natural progress toward control gets complicated. The feeling that we are not safe and that reality is not provident may compel us to grab on for relief to whatever is nearby. Or we might insist on clinging to our supports longer so we can continue borrowing on the stability they provide.
In either case, our insistence on control (but not in the healthy sense) locks us up inside a web of neurotic attachments, with an unrealistic expectation and impossible demand that they deliver on our need to feel secure. That’s what the cage represents in my diagram above.
In this condition, freedom, the third of our primary concerns, is simply not possible. Besides, the very idea of freedom provokes anxiety in us since it would mean being without all these safety strings attached. The prospect of living outside the cage is terrifying when we’re convinced that reality is a dangerous and unpredictable place.
Having all we need to feel secure in our prison (though not really), we may only dream of freedom. But we will sure as hell never leave what we have for its sake. This is what I mean by “managing unhappiness.”
The short dotted arrow extending vertically from primary concerns to ultimate concerns indicates that while the process of development would normally cross this threshold, many of us choose to stay inside the bars. True enough, we probably don’t see this as a choice we’re making but simply as the way things are.
We are just making our way as best we can, except that this ‘way’ is going nowhere. Time’s circle finds us in the same state of mind as the day before, as the year before. And even if we manage to exchange one disappointing relationship for another, the same neurotic insecurity soon enough makes it just another prison.
Before we leave this tragic condition, I should make the point that all our chronic troubles as a species can be traced to this preoccupation with managing unhappiness. All of them. It’s even likely that a majority of our medical ailments and diseases are psychosomatic – not merely comorbid with our neurotic insecurity, but caused by it.
Think of all the economic, political, and religious strife over the millenniums with its cost in terms of hopes trashed, lives lost, futures foreclosed. All because we are convicts of our own convictions, hostages to ideologies we have ourselves created in the expectation that maybe this, maybe that will bring us what we presently lack.
A few have found liberation, though not from the insecurity of existence. They realize that life is not perfectly secure, and neither is their longevity or individual prosperity guaranteed. Their key realization, however, has to do with the difference between the inherent insecurity of our situation and the open option of allowing that fact to shake our nerves to shreds.
There is always the option (which is why it is qualified as ‘open’) of releasing the anxiety, recovering our center, taking control where we need to, and choosing another way. Not a different partner or profession, but something that ultimately matters.
Only when freedom is embraced and not abandoned for the false security of a cage, are we able to direct our creativity and devotion beyond the management of unhappiness. The first of our ultimate concerns is purpose, which refers not to someone else’s agenda for us – even a patron deity of religion – but to our own commitment to live intentionally. When we live ‘on purpose’ we are more aware of where we are, not just our physical location but more importantly where we are in the moving stream of our life.
Opportunity reveals itself only to the one who is paying attention, who is purposefully engaged.
Perhaps the most important engagement of a life lived on purpose is with the construction of meaning. Whereas the millions who are managing unhappiness believe that life is meaningful or meaningless as a matter of fact, those living on purpose understand that life just is what it is, and that its meaning is up for us to decide. In this respect meaning is a function of the value, identity, and significance we link to things, to other people, and to the events of life.
This entire system of linkages constitutes what we call our world. Worlds are human constructions, and each of us is responsible for our own.
Meaning isn’t only an individual affair, however, since our personal worlds are nested inside larger tribal and cultural worlds. The overlaps and intersections are places where we find agreements, differences, misunderstandings, or conflicts, as the case may be. Obviously – or I should say, what is obvious to the person who is living on purpose and taking responsibility for the meaning of his or her life – whether this greater scene is a marketplace, a wilderness, or a battlefield depends a lot on our guiding principle of truth.
Is there an absolute and final meaning of life? Many who are managing unhappiness inside their prisons believe so. Indeed they must so believe because life is only bearable if there is a meaning beyond question – an infallible, absolute, fixed and transcendent meaning that makes our searching, fighting, dying, and killing for its sake worthwhile.
Or maybe meaning is never final. Maybe our world construction project will never be finished. Maybe it’s not just about how reality-oriented (i.e., factual and evidence-based) our world is, but also how effectively it facilitates our fulfillment as individuals. By this I don’t mean just another synonym for feeling happy. To be ‘filled full’ is about reaching our capacity, realizing our full potential, filling out into a fully self-actualized human being.
Because meaning and world are anchored to us as persons, fulfillment is necessarily apocalyptic: we see that our world is not the last word, that there is life (authentic life) on the other side of meaning, and that this larger experience is profoundly transpersonal – bigger than us, beyond us, including us but not revolving around us as we once believed.
Our quality of life at this level can be described as enjoying wellbeing, where being well and being whole inspire a deep joy in being alive. This doesn’t mean that things always go our way or that we always get what we want. Existence is still inherently insecure and nobody’s perfect. But we have released our demand that it be otherwise.
Happiness will come and go. Our circumstances and life conditions will inevitably change. Only now we can let it be. In time, more of us will leave our prisons where we manage unhappiness from day to day, to take responsibility for our lives, stepping mindfully and with gratitude into each moment we are given.