sometimes happiness can only emerge from periods of unhappiness.
What we think we want: to be happy.
What we don’t know we want: to be whole.
We have turned the pursuit of happiness into big business. The irony is that striving to be happy often makes us unhappy, partly because we don’t know what to want. We miswant, which is the word psychologists use when we want things that we mistakenly think will make us happy (winning the lottery) or know will ultimately make us less happy (feeding an addiction).
The pursuit of happiness also keeps us focused on our own damn selves, which dovetails nicely with a culture fueled by hyperconsumerism and narcissism. It brings us temporary pleasures, but no real joy, and leaves us disconnected and miserable. Even spirituality can turn into “spiritual materialism” when it becomes what Chogyam Trungpa calls “an ego building and confusion creating endeavor” (the main purpose of which is to feel good and escape suffering).
How is this working out for us?
Healthline reports that depression rates rise by 20 percent every year. When you think about the things we do to feel better (eating, shopping, cruising the Internet, sex, gambling) the soaring rates of obesity, addiction and consumer debt underscore the fact that we are not a happy people, no matter how many blog posts we consume or seminars and workshops we attend.
What if we accepted the fact that we are not meant to be happy all the time? Or even that, sometimes, happiness must emerge from periods of unhappiness?
What if we recognized the dark times as a process of initiation into a deeper wisdom, that can serve to heal others as well as ourselves?
The hero and heroine’s journeys are not quests to be happy.
They seek to restore what was lost.
The hero ventures out into the world, and returns with a boon to heal a wounded community. In so doing, he heals himself, through learning how to lose or sacrifice that self for his community.
The heroine ventures deep within herself to confront psychological darkness, heal a split in her psyche, and turn her wounds to light. In so doing, she gains a sense of self independent of community. Her transformation inspires that community to alter the beliefs and values that no longer serve them (or serve to wound them).
Versions of these journeys compel us in story after story after story, whether it’s the hero’s journey made famous in Star Wars or the heroine’s story in films like FROZEN or the upcoming WILD (based on Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir). Since the best stories also serve as emotionally charged delivery systems of timeless wisdom, I can’t help but wonder at our refusal as a culture to apply that wisdom to ourselves, to move through the tough stuff instead of slowly killing ourselves as we seek to deny and avoid it.
I keep coming back to Jung’s observation that the great wound of modern life is the absence of soul.
That’s what the journeys are:
A call to soul.