Happy at Last

Have you ever had the experience of waiting until the last moment to do something and then wondered why you didn’t do it sooner, while you still had time to do a good job? I pretty much went through college like that.

I remember when final exam week rolled around, it was as if it only then dawned on me that there was not enough time left to cram in a whole semester’s worth of knowledge.

Decades later, I still remember the process I went through. Once I finally recognized the need for some preparation, I’d dig up any notes that I had written during the semester, skim the table of contents in the assigned text books, looking for any chapters that corresponded to my lecture notes; and then, in whatever time was available before the exam, I would start condensing my notes to a few pages, then to one page, and finally to a few bullet points. Finally, I would memorize the bullet points.

I thought of this process as resembling a root structure in which the major roots were connected to a more extensive system dangling from them. My hope was that I could rely on short-memory rather than deep acquaintance with the subject; the peak of a pyramid visible in the light of day invoking the body of a larger pyramid of facts I had skimmed through immediately before the exam.

Later in life, I learned that it could be a pleasant experience to become interested in a subject of knowledge for its own sake and for the sake of connecting with what wiser and better-informed minds had discovered and were generously sharing. I belatedly learned to appreciate any opportunity to expand my understanding of this life as a human being.

Now that I can see my final days lining up before me, like a stairway descending into a mist that is rising from the ocean below, the sound of waves reverberating in each passing moment, I realize that I have never felt deeply happy for more than a moment now and then. Perhaps that’s simply the nature of being alive in a world that imposes limits on satisfaction and fulfillment. However, I attribute this paucity of happiness to my holding back from the risks of caring too deeply about others; and with my habit of doubting the reality of anything that I can’t touch in the unexplored terrain all around me.

Part of me hopes that some future transformation will bring happiness along with it, like the warmth that accompanies the afternoon sunlight following the morning’s rain. The change I am waiting for these days is that—when I die and all the things that I can’t influence here on Earth will be recognized to be like morning showers—then happiness will arise like afternoon sunshine. However, as I imagine this hypothetical transformation, I see an old evasion at work. I am putting off an experience that is never exclusively–or even primarily—an act of preparation.

If it’s worthwhile being happy, why would I put it off to some time that may never come? If abundant joy does come later–as so many people who have returned from Near Death Experiences attest—and a wonderful surprise awaits; everything I have learned in this life tells me that I should be practicing happiness now. Otherwise, how will I even recognize that I am finally happy? Practicing happiness doesn’t mean that I should be cramming in a few experiences now at the last moment–like I used to do for final exams—but more a settling into an honest appreciation of love and loss, sharing and sorrow.

There is an ancient teaching: that we can’t find happiness by wishing for it just for ourselves. I suspect this is true now, in this lifetime, and also will be on the stairway of eternity. Surely, happiness is meant to fall over the landscape of shared being, like a spring shower falling over the land. And what better way to seed those showers than through a heartfelt wish that any good we experience will spill over into the lives of everyone around us.

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