I’ve always loved this quote from Robert G. Ingersoll, recorded in 1894 in Thomas Edison’s New Jersey lab:
While I am opposed to all orthodox creeds, I have a creed myself; and my creed is this. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so. The creed is somewhat short, but it is long enough for this life, strong enough for this world. If there is another world, when we get there we can make another creed.
[h/t Don Ardell]
I’m sure Ingersoll would not define happiness as something more or less akin to a state of oblivious bliss. The words he left to us, words that so eloquently rail against the world’s great injustices—particularly racism and sexism and the role of religion in perpetuating both—leave little doubt about that. I don’t know much about the thought processes that led him to his creed, but it took me a very long time to come to terms with my own understanding of happiness, to somehow reconcile fierce anger and even hopeless despair in the face of the world’s injustices with the equally powerful feelings of awe and transcendent love for the magnificence of the universe in which we find ourselves, the Earth, and so many of its creatures. Many times these clashing forces have threatened to overwhelm me from within, and occasionally they have followed through on those threats. This is the very real risk of engaging in any sort of activism in opposition to the status quo: feelings of powerlessness, disillusionment and the guilt that results are only too common. I suppose everyone who aspires to affect change in the world has to find their own equilibrium; maybe this comes easier for some.
Anyway, what I’ve come to is this: joy and sadness (or rage) do not exist in opposition to each other, such that one is diminished by the presence of another. Indifference lies at the other end of the spectrum from all of these things. They can and indeed must coexist, if one is to be fully present in life. This is not to say that disengaging from the world is not necessary from time to time: a temporary state of oblivious bliss actually has much to recommend it, whether one finds it in literature, hobbies, silly movies, daydreams or intoxicants—all of which require a considerable amount of economic privilege to indulge. It seems to me that this is one mechanism by which grinding poverty robs people of their full humanity, and ultimately robs all of us of lost contributions to a better world, in whatever capacity and shape that might have otherwise taken. The poor have no choice but to engage with the world, constantly, in a struggle for survival. There is no disengagement option, no licking one’s wounds, no moment for peace and recovery.
For a while now, I’ve envisioned my life taking place in a kind of protective bubble surrounding me and others inside of it, a bubble that I forged for myself over the years, made out of hard-won knowledge and the once-alien skills of boundary-making. When I’m at my best, its membrane is flexible and resilient and crystal clear, and I can expand it to envelop almost anything. I have strength in here, so much of it in fact that I have it to spare, and I find great joy and deep satisfaction in using that strength in the service of helping others—just as Ingersoll promised I would. There are patches, though, where my bubble can be opaque and suffocatingly close, and so brittle that almost any adversity will shatter it, leaving me unprotected from the whims and horrors of the world and vulnerable to all manner of blowing debris. That’s just built into the nature of such bubbles, I think, and it takes work and time to piece them back together. This is where the aforementioned silly movies can come in pretty handy, though for sure nothing helps to rebuild a bubble more than the love and support of people who understand and appreciate you, and your bubble.
But lately I’ve been thinking maybe there’s a better metaphor for all of this…this…stuff. Maybe my life is really taking place in my private garden. To keep it beautiful and productive requires regular nurturing and care, as well as the utmost vigilance in keeping harmful critters at bay. This includes yanking weeds from time to time, even (especially?) those you’ve grown accustomed to, lest they quietly strangle your azaleas and berry bushes by the roots. Of course none of this protects a garden from the hazards of storms, or the relentless determination of destructive species. But in the aftermath of the devastation, the very process of cleaning up—mourning what’s been lost, salvaging what remains, and planting a few new specimens—turns out to be inspiring and even exhilarating. You are, after all, patching yourself up. And in a surprisingly short time, you witness growth and new beauty. It’s powerful stuff.
If all of this seems unsettlingly dissociative, well, it probably is. Dissociation, for better and for worse, is a common reaction to childhood abuse and other traumas, and I’ve certainly had my share. If you have not experienced any of that, then it will likely make little sense to you when I say that these things, both the bubble and the garden, are integrative steps for me, milestones of a sort on a journey to healing and progress. In fact, this entire post may well seem like so much blather and nonsense to you. To which I say: good for you. I would ask only that you recognize your mystification as a distinct form of privilege. Or, put another way, your beautiful bubble has never been breached, your splendid garden never violently uprooted.
One more thing about the garden metaphor that I really like: there ought never be any guilt or shame in tending to one’s garden. I can neither feed nor comfort anyone here if I do not tend to it, and well.
Whenever you see the welcome sign hanging on my garden gate, feel free to stop in. Please rest and replenish yourself: I have plenty, and it makes me happy to share with you. When my gate’s locked up tight, though, I have work to do. I can only let you in if you’re packing some kind of shovel: some wine, maybe chocolate, kind words, a shoulder. This is how I will live to fight another day.