I originally wrote this week’s post in a handwritten journal at age 21, more than half my life ago, in 1997 – possibly before at least a few of my readers were born. It was a reflection on my travels backpacking around Thailand and Laos, in the middle of the life-changing experience where I was learning to break with utilitarianism and move instead toward Buddhism. I have not made major edits, because I wanted to preserve the in-process nature of my learning at the time, so it retains the somewhat disjointed style of a first draft. I think it gives a very accurate picture of who I was at that time: someone who had discovered some very important things, perhaps even the most important things, but still had a long way to go.
The piece begins by exploring Stan Rogers‘s wonderful song The Mary Ellen Carter. (If you’re not familiar with the song, I would recommend first listening to it or at least reading the lyrics for the post to make sense.) I’ve been delighted to learn that this year’s youth craze – among people who are now the age I was when I wrote this – is sea chanteys and other sea ballads, so this seemed an ideal time to share this long-ago reflection with the world.
Utilitarianism is self-contradicting. The more time you spend trying to “maximize” happiness through sensual pleasure, fame and fortune, the less happy you will eventually be.
I think of this because I was just humming “The Mary Ellen Carter”. A utilitarian would think the narrator crazy: he digs up the boat not in order to be on a boat again (presumably he could get other work fairly easily), but because of a sense of gratitude, to an inanimate object: “She’d saved our lives so many times, living through the gale.” The utilitarian would agree with the owners: “Insurance paid the loss to us, so let her rest below.” The first thing they teach you in management school is to ignore sunk costs. What we have here is literally a sunk cost – and for its sake alone the narrator spends the whole spring diving, catching the bends twice.
And yet the sense of pride, contentment and satisfaction the narrator radiates in his quest is undeniable. This seemingly useless quest gives his life a purpose, brings him to sing some of the most inspiring lines ever written:
And you to whom adversity has dealt the mortal blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go,
Turn to and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!
The real problem with utilitarianism isn’t that it doesn’t prove happiness is desirable, nor that it doesn’t pay enough attention to the happiness of the individual. The real problem is it doesn’t tell you how to be happy. Because it assumes it. You just add up the sum of your pleasures in a hedonic calculus and the total is your happiness.
But what kind of idiot would believe that you will really feel good, feel happy, like that? Well, an idiot like me five years ago, or like John Stuart Mill (who learned Latin and Greek at age 5). Ayn Rand, to her credit, has a broader conception that still confuses pleasure and happiness, but discusses pleasure deriving from productive work and human relationships as well as recreation, art and sex. (Well, actually it was Nathaniel Branden who introduced that scheme, but it was included in a book with Rand’s name on it, and considering her general level of patience with dissenting views I think it’s reasonable to include it in her philosophy.)
But living here, I find more and more that the secret of happiness is not in how much good you have, but in how you deal with the bad. It is impossible to live a life without frustrations, annoyances, unfulfilled desire. Life is full of paper jams, people who can’t give directions, commission-wallahs, and the other very minor troubles that used to make me miserable to the point of crying.
I get the feeling now that I will always remember myself staying late at work, desperately trying to finish a draft copy so I could leave, watching the paper jam screw up the printer, and jumping up and down on them and frothing at the mouth. True misery, suffering and anger from a measly paper jam.
And let’s not forget Agra! How I ran from Delhi’s touts into far worse ones at Agra, ones that had me crying amid the beauty of the Taj Mahal and sent me running onto a 30-hour train with no food.
You know, thinking about my India trip now, I start to feel it was nothing but one big frustration after another, with the possible exceptions of Bhuj, Calcutta and maybe Hyderabad. I remember first wanting to entitle my journal of that trip Paradise and Purgatory, and then, going to Bangkok at the end of the trip, thinking Bangkok was paradise and India purgatory. I thought that judgement was unfair, but I think now there may be a bit of truth to it. My journey to India was not good. But – here’s the thing – that was my fault, not India’s.
The amount I’ve grown became very clear to me yesterday while searching for an Internet café. The woefully incompetent ECC staff knew exactly where the thing was, but refused to use any means of telling me how to get there that would actually clarify matters. They managed the amazing task of drawing me a map that contained neither a single street name nor a single landmark. Then, when I pulled out my Lonely Planet map, they put it in what turned out to be the completely wrong direction – they couldn’t read a map of their own hometown even though they could read its English script.
Then I tried explaining this garbage to the tuk-tuk driver, and the paper-jam frustration rose in me once again as I attempted such a Herculean task. Everybody knows the feeling that brings tears to your eyes and makes you want to shout “NOOOOO!” and beat the ground in despair.
But the thing is, this time I stopped it. I really exercised Buddhist detachment from my emotions, and didn’t allow such a minor frustration to make me miserable.
I think it’s something I finally learned in Laos. I haven’t figured out exactly how yet, but somewhere in the irony of dealing with fellow backpackers, the bliss of lazing on the slow boat, and the discomfort of roaches crawling in my belly button, I think I may have discovered the secret of happiness.