I started writing this blog yesterday and was delaying posting, wondering if I should. Now at past 4 in the morning, I can't sleep and I thought I might as finish writing and hit the publish button. This entry is about happiness, or at least about trying to find it.
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The other day started out as a lazy day. That kind of day where you feel like you just go through the motions of working, on a day that lasts forever. Being a typical Monday, the few people at work didn't contribute to lifting my spirits up. It was was the handful of usual suspects there, mostly working in their rooms with their doors closed, doing the usual solitary work that academicians do. At work, I leave my door open to signal that anyone's free to bother me any time about anything. I sometimes feel like a small-scale work hero when people come to me with small or big thoughts. At times I go bug them myself, when I need a sounding board. But there are just some days when the corridors at work seem strangely empty, and you don't seem to notice that people are at work although though they're physically in their rooms. At days like that, I must admit I find my work environment a bit deflating. As a colleague put this work situation into words: “you think working in a university makes you feel part of a big team, but in reality you're working alone in a room.” On days where it really does feel this way, work gets done, although slowly, but I get the feeling that everybody, like me, is just trying to work an hour at a time until the clock strikes 5.
What's not too great about these solitary working days is that at 10 past 5, I'm already home with the boring day finally over – I've been waiting for this for hours! – and I realize I don't quite know what to do with my time at home, feeling equally alone as I was at work. I washed some clothes, cleaned a bit, surfed online. All of this was done in an hour or so. It wasn't a running day so I didn't even have that to look forward to. I also have more than enough time to read some pages of a book in the evening just before bed, so I'm saving the pages. And of course I could work some more until the evening, but why the heck should I? I can't go calling my friends all the time for entertainment either, but that still leaves the question, so what do I do now, with all this time? I guess I'm not alone in feeling this way.
Eventually I glanced out into the balcony, on which I did some major cleaning last week. I haven't had dinner out on the balcony for a long time, something that I had often told myself that I should do more often. The café set and even a potted flower I had bought for the balcony were waiting there for me, for a day like this. It seemed like an idea. I just really didn't have to do anything more than to take myself and my plate out.
As I wrote about some other time, even leftovers can make you feel like a king. This time too, all I ate were “luxury leftovers” warmed up in the microwave: slow-cooked ribs from the day before, some old boiled potatoes that were left over from making a pie, and a dollop of beetroot salad. But as I ate, as I heard the sound of my knife and fork on my plate, and as I chewed on these delicious fatty ribs falling off the bone, I realized how satisfied I just became. An idea that was now a reality made a difference to my day, and I leaned back on my chair thinking I rediscovered the meaning of carpe diem. Boy was glad I cleaned the balcony last week, and was I glad I made those ribs the other night. Because just then I could enjoy the sunny evening without much effort from my present self, and it was exactly this moment that I needed.
Inspired by the moment, I thought, why scrimp on the fun? and topped that meal off with some watermelon slices and glass of vermouth. And I smiled to myself. My goodness, this wasn't bad at all! I was genuinely enjoying myself.
Some time when biting into that watermelon, I realized the power of the now. It's not every day that one gets to capture it, but when it does happen, everything else seizes to matter and you have just this one extended moment when everything in the world is good.
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Wednesday. It's our third wedding anniversary today. Something that for some time now had seized to matter, at least in the factual world. I'm not even sure if I should bring it up anymore, but this time at least, it's somehow relevant to the story. All sad personal stories share the same theme: life may not turn out the way those involved hoped it would. You could feel sad about how things turned out, but you could also feel sad for the things that never would happen.
Two years ago was our first and only anniversary together. It was in the hospital. It was one of the many visits for sepsis for Marcus, following what had already been a year that we just trudged through. That spring, the doctors weren't even talking to us about a new transplant anymore. In fact they hadn't been talking about future prospects anymore, and everything was quite uncertain, even if at this time my brain was trying to convince me that it probably wasn't that bad as I thought. Eventually I got used to nurses coming and going at our home, and ambulance calls eventually became so frequent that we even started joke about our bug-out bag. It feels strange to think about all this now; how it somehow still feels so near although it's getting to be years ago now.
That anniversary day, we had a bottle of bubbly cooling in the hospital sink. Not the most charming kind of cooler, but it did the trick. And when we went home after that visit, I remember long evenings in the balcony where I was just as satisfied as I was the other day after that lonely day at work, also then beaming with satisfaction about the food, the sun, the company and the vermouth (which you have guessed rightly as my summer drink). Very different circumstances and yet equally satisfied. That to me is the power of appreciating the now. It's really just about the small things actually, but there are ways to find genuine pleasure even in the oddest and toughest circumstances. I remember eating an avocado that summer in the balcony and it was the best avocado I've ever had. Marcus was joking that the cemetery looked much like a nice manicured park.
Of course, I can feel sad remembering this story because I know how it turned out. But my point is, I think I learned from that part of my life that the now is the only part of your life you really do have control of, so you might as well choose to enjoy that moment. To put it another way, what you do have control of is your attitude to the present circumstances and only the next few steps in the direction of your intended immediate future. Somewhere there, is a choice to see the good in things. Or maybe it's a kind of passivity where you allow what is good in that moment to overcome you? Or is it a desperate act to grab on to what is valuable? At least for me, that had sometimes meant the difference between feeling lonely or being quite alright, as if happiness itself were also an active choice, or something that also needs to be seized. Sometimes this is not harder than taking your dinner out to the balcony. Sometimes it takes more effort, with the help of friends. At times it happens when I've decided that I should stop crying and I should just do something. But I think happiness feels best when you don't even have to do an effort, and that's best achieved when you share happiness with other people.
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Carpe diem, seize the day: I don't think it necessarily means living the present by abandoning any future outlook, which would be resembling denial. What it is for me is the ability to appreciate the present, but also the knowledge that I can choose a form of action, which sometimes involves choosing an outlook about something concerning a present situation. As someone said, "the pessimist and the optimist may be equally wrong, but the optimist has a better time". You can choose one or the other, yet neither of these states of mind can really exist without some idea of a projected future, no matter how shortsighted.
How the future actually unfolds is another story though. Like I said, all sad personal stories somehow involves mourning a future that never happened. That's the problem in trying to invest in happiness with other people. Things may not turn out as you hope. Hoping and promising is a treacherous thing that way. Actually, the whole saying goes Seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in the next. Put that way, it's also a reminder, a caution: present happiness is worth appreciating to the full because it's the only thing we have right now for certain, and the only thing we can do something about. The future may not hold any promises for long-term happiness. But then again, that's the the whole point the uncertainty of the future, isn't it? My optimistic side tells me that, logically, that you never really know what the future holds. The past is no guarantee of what will and what won't happen, and optimism makes us place our bets where we will likely be most happy, even in light of the future we know nothing about. That's what people in love do: they place their bets on the long-term happiness, even at the risk of heartbreak.
From a short-term perspective, if it just boils down to choosing at every moment, then we all might as well choose on the side of happiness. It's in the long-term perspective where everything gets muddy.