A lot’s being written about how to find happiness these days. Perhaps that’s because happiness feels more elusive than ever. There are mornings when I wake up in a bad mood and can only attribute my foul disposition to an expectation the world will greet me with a contemptuous glare. I’m far from alone in feeling this way. Just scan social media and you feel an almost palpable presence of unhappiness or disaffection. One recent article I tweeted noted an alarming rise in mental illness in “happy” countries like the US. What we once extolled as the “land of the free” now feels like the “home of the bummed out.”
Whenever I need a reminder there is happiness—even joy—to be extracted from the sour fruit of 21st-century life, I turn to conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu as recounted in The Book of Joy. A couple years ago, my wife and I listened to the audio version of the book on a 16-hour drive from Tennessee to New York. When we popped in the CD, I half-expected some pleasant bromides about maintaining a sunny disposition. Instead, what I received was a sagacious but unforgiving reminder that life, like it or not, involves a lot of suffering. Joy isn’t about insulating oneself from that suffering. Rather, it means accepting suffering as integral to the human condition and finding joy in the interconnectedness and compassion of others who suffer. The Dalai Lama provides wisdom from a Buddhist perspective, while Tutu presents a Christian outlook. The two old friends—who on video are seen constantly grasping hands or patting each other affectionately—don’t always agree on the exact path to joy; but they are steadfast in their commitment to embracing and finding joy in our shared humanity.
Joy in the Age of Homo Ferox
This bit of wisdom from two of my favorite thinkers is a potent reminder of where joy resides and how to find it. It is also, ironically, at the source of my persistent unease in our culture. Never before has this country seemed so dis-united, so oblivious to the importance of finding common ground. Forgiving or compromising aren’t just unfashionable, they’re anathema to our new brand of homo ferox smash-them-in-the-face politics.
Still, I choose to believe our nation is just having a moment—that we’ll snap out of this like the guy who storms around all morning because he didn’t get his latte. In the meantime, I figure I’ll binge-watch videos of Tutu and the Dalai Lama talking about joy and forgiveness and compassion. I’ll look on, with the jealousy of a kid barred from playing in the dodgeball game, as they smile, grasp each other’s hands, and show us what happiness looks like.