I am sometimes accused of being an unhappy person by people who presumably feel happy. (Otherwise why accuse?) The odd thing is that I never feel the least bit envious of my accusers, which makes me think I don’t relate to the concept of happiness at all. Indeed, I accept that a heavy burden that defies happiness is built into human life. This burden manifests in many ways, but one could say its root is human consciousness itself, particularly consciousness of death, or identity aware of its dissolution. The only people who I feel are really happy are those who shallowly deny this gift/burden (whistling past the graveyard) or those who have not quite reached human identity (like a retarded person) or those who have passed beyond it (like a Christ).
My most satisfying moments are quite painful (and only satisfying in retrospect) in that I am fulfilling my potential to the point I am stretching it (i.e., going beyond a previous limitation). This always involves facing a fear and thus feeling pain and confusion and thus appearing to be unhappy. At the point of stretching limits, the burden of life feels the greatest, and yet these times are clearly the best for me. In this sense, Christ’s “happiest” moment must have been inexorably involved in the burden of dying on the cross, facing in action the final fear consciously, awake.
In the wonderful movie, Twenty-six Days of Dostoyevsky, Dostoyevsky’s young, idealistic stenographer (later to be his wife) asks him if he was ever happy. He says, ponderously, no, he has never known happiness. Then he stops himself and remembers: once he did. He was one of fifteen political prisoners lined up in three rows of five in front of the firing squad. He was in the third row, and as he witnessed the first two rows shot to death, he wanted desperately to live, to have another chance to do it right, to make life work. Then his row came forth, hoods in place, and suddenly an officer stepped in and read the reprieve: four years in Siberia at hard labor. That was the one moment, he confesses, that he knew what happiness was.
Happiness is the pearl of great cost. It has nothing to do with drifting pleasantly through life. In its highest forms, it is a frightful prospect.