Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Commentary on Happiness and Wonder

The following is commentary on quote sent by a friend.

The test of all happiness is gratitude," Chesterton wrote, and many of us have flunked that test. "Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?"

It is not coincidence that makes the root of happy is hap. The test of happiness is what happens. It is true that we can fake ourselves into an emotion for a time, but happiness is one emotion that does not stick for long, like say hate. I would find it difficult to believe that the sex slave is unhappy because she is ungrateful. Would anyone in his right mind expect her to be grateful for what is happening? And so it is with billions of people that are not as blessed as Chesterton. That happiness is elusive is not strange. Happiness represents the condition of being in equilibrium. Since equilibrium is a fragile condition for a biological being, so too is happinesss. Without continued equilibrium, continued happiness is a danger to life. Unhappiness is compulsion to action. Unhappiness is continual when action does not bring one closer to equalibrium

We feel no wonder at ordinary things; it is no wonder that ordinary things disappoint us. Chesterton could be made happy by the sudden yellowness of a dandelion, but we do not find dandelions delightful if we are constantly comparing them to orchids. "It is not familiarity but comparison that breeds contempt.

We feel no wonder at ordinary things because they are ordinary. As far as the relationship to things out there, the brain is largely a difference detector. Its attention focuses on that which is different in the background of experience. It is not that I don't feel wonder about my legs it is that I don't notice them at all unless they don't walk, hurt, itch, etc. I don't say to myself, "oh poo, just legs, how ordinary!" I just get up and walk without thinking of legs at all. I don't notice them unless they do something (extra)ordinary. Attention is limited and gets assigned to what is new -- wonder. There is no wonder for things already known. Children have more wonder than adults because more things are new for them. I don't find things to be contemptible merely because I am familiar with them. On the other hand, it would be impossible to hold in contempt something I don't have any familiarity with. I would first have to wonder about something before I dispise it. I'm not sure if the author is condemning comparison; if he is, then he is talking nonsense. I delight in the yellow of dandilions in the spring, but by the third time I've mowed them, they are not so delightful. Orchids, on the other hand, do not mess up my lawn. Is the author implying that unhappiness lies in having a favorite flower?

And all such captious comparisons are ultimately based on the strange and staggering heresy that a human being has a right to dandelions; that in some extraordinary fashion we can demand the very pick of all the dandelions in the garden of Paradise; that we owe no thanks for them at all and need feel no wonder at them at all."

There is something in this, though I find it misses the mark. (I just love using those old concepts in new ways.) Certainly we have a right to Dandelions. The heresy is not recognizing that other beings have the same right to the dandelion, including dandelions. The heresy is, "these are my dandelions," or "dandelions may be used only in this fashion and no other," or "this land is mine and dandelions have no right to it." We do owe thanks to the dandelions, but not wonder.

The twin brother of this presumptive attitude is despair, and the two make us sick and tired. "Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other the good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless."

Pure balony. Don't tell me the sex slave is weary of joy. How could she be?


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