12 min read

The Question of Happiness in an Age of Extinction, The Purpose of Sorrow, and Transforming Ourselves and Our Civilization

The Question of Happiness in an Age of Extinction, The Purpose of Sorrow, and Transforming Ourselves and Our Civilization

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. “I could not feel greater despair”: World’s top climate scientists expect global heating to blast past 1.5C target (The Guardian)
  2. Hopeless and broken: why top climate scientists are terrified (The Guardian)
  3. Truth Social is relatively small. But Trump’s posts find huge audiences, thanks to an army of amplifiers. (WaPo)
  4. Biden Looks to Thwart Surge of Chinese Imports (NYT)
  5. A Strong Dollar Is Rattling Asia. It Isn’t Just the Yen. (Barron's)
  6. Americans Can No Longer Afford Their Pets (Newsweek)

Hi! How’s everyone? Thanks for joining me, welcome new readers, and I hope you’re all doing very well. Here’s a big hug from me and Snowy—thanks for all your kind messages and comments about my last post or two. Today we’re going to talk a little bit about…happiness. How failing has made me feel. This sort of thing of being, in an age of extinction.

What Failure’s Doing to Me

I’m the walking wounded these days. It’s sort of so bad it’s funny in a way. I feel the depths of my failure. The world's failure. And the depths seem bottomless, pitiless. I don’t know how to handle it, accept it, “deal with it,” as we say these days. It just feels like a tide in which I drown.

This failure of mine. All these warnings I gave. The way we ended up here, as a world, anyways. How it shredded my reputation for…what? How people I knew and loved turned their backs on me, even as my warnings came true. I talked about all that already. Here I am, and I feel…alone.

Maybe you share this feeling, this sense, too. What are we to do with it? Shouldn’t we feel it, this deep, in our bones? Shall we just pretend it away? So there I am, wounded, paralyzed by grief.

Then Snowy boops me. Hey, Dad. Hey, big guy. Ape. It’s time for a walk! I’m hungry and I wanna see my friends. I sort of come back to reality. 

But the grief remains with me. I’m haunted by the ghost of the future we never made, and I look it. 

The Question of Happiness in an Age of Extinction

It’s etched on my face, I suppose. I stand outside the back of my building, having a coffee and a cigarette. Strangers stop, look concerned, and exhort me to cheer up. Tell me it’ll all be OK. I smile, and thank them. And I wonder how bad I must look, if they can see it even through my pitch-black sunglasses.

I go to the little store, and my friend, who works there, asks, worried: “are you OK?” I nod and smile. What am I supposed to say? It it…that obvious?

And as I walk away, I reflect. I go home, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s an article—in the New York Times, where else—which proclaims, cheerily, that conservatives are happier. And it sort of makes me chuckle, because…suddenly…a lot of things snap into focus.

What about it, anyways, this thing called happiness? I understand, at last, the thought that’s been eluding me. Cheer up. Smile! It’ll all be OK. Don’t worry so much! What are you so worried about, anyways? Hey, conservatives are happier—why don’t you try that, it’s the Ultimate Form of Therapy! I kid, a little, to make a point, a lethal and difficult one.

I’m just going to say it out loud. It’s the kind of thing that makes everyone hate me, but…sigh. I think it needs to be said.

Maybe it’s a little bit obscene to be happy in times like these. 

Now. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy your grandkids playing, or your family, or your dog, or going clubbing, or whatever. But…happiness? If we’re going to take that most beautiful of ideas seriously, as we should, then there are moments, it’s true, where we don’t—contrary to popular opinion—deserve to be happy.

And this is one of those moments, for me, at least, in a sort of true and terrible and fearsome way. I don’t believe that happiness is some kind of form of resistance. To what? For what? I think that in the end, and I’m going to talk about it, despair, grief, and sorrow are where transformation come from, and we’re suffocating ourselves that way as a civilization, by not creating space for them, for failure, for the immensity of it all. Me? I don’t want to do that to… myself

Should we be happy? Watching democracy die? Fascism and authoritarianism surge? We’re at the point where within five years or so, democracy could be well on its way to becoming extinct in even its last bastions. How about…watching the economy sputter? Americans can’t feed their pets

Whales, we’ve just discovered, share in the gift which we thought made us human—they appear to have language, too. Descartes was wrong. Think of how much that one discovery upends about our knowledge. Our position. Our condition.

Because here we are, killing off life on the planet.

Saying all this out loud…is the kind of thing that makes everyone hate me. Makes old friends turn their backs on me. But what am I supposed to do with it all? Pretend it’s not happening? Ignore it? Talk about the weather? I failed, at the biggest thing of all, and of course I’m not just going to sort of be happy

And as I reflect on that, I think something else, too. I think that being happy in times like these is maybe even a little bit obscene. That’s not me judging you, it’s just me confessing to you. And I don’t mean don’t enjoy your dog or kid or whatever, but I do mean…how should any of us feel about all this? You don’t have to feel bereft with failure like I do, but…happiness…now? It’s a complicated question.

Now, let me shade that in, before you guillotine me for breaking the Taboo of Positivity, yet again. Umair’s so negative! Kill him!! Burn him!!

Happiness in Subjugation and Happiness as Liberation

Happiness. What does it teach us that “conservatives are happier”? Quite a lot, actually, about what happiness is, when we deserve it, and when we should absolutely not settle for it—when it’s noble, right, correct, and just to hold ourselves and shake with despair, grief, and sorrow, instead.

Let’s imagine that the theory’s correct. We could all magically be happier by turning ultra-conservative. What would happen next? The world would melt down even faster, wouldn’t it? Our economies would go in the tank even faster, our societies would come undone, culture wars would consume what’s left of that, scapegoating would replace any form of positive or constructive progress, and demagogues would pick over the bones of democracy. 

We’re on that path already.

But…is anyone happy? When I look at the stats, and they don’t lie, they say that the world has gotten vastly, vastly unhappier over the last decade or two. Does that path lead to a…happier world? Of course not. So the idea itself is problematic.

What’s the answer to that problem? So far, in contemporary thinking, we’re presented with three choices. One, we deserve to be happy, all the time, and we should just “choose” it—this is the endpoint of too much therapy, and the superficial kind won’t admit: despair and sorrow and grief exist for constructive reasons, deep and profound ones, but I’ll come back to that. Two, we should buy our way into happiness, with stuff, which gives us a place on the ladder of status. And three, we should just ignore it all, and that way, learn to be happy.

But is any of that happiness at all? Let’s go back to the example of “conservatives are happier.” Sure, I’d be “happier”, too, if I thought that the answer to everything was blood and soil, knowing your place in the hierarchy, and that my kind were superhumans, and everyone else a subhuman. That’s not really happiness, in the true sense, though. It’s a lot of things—superiority, a false sense of security, the willingness to accept and impose subjugation, a lack of agency and freedom. 

And in that, it’s true, you can ignore all the Bad Feelings. Daddy will save me! Papa Trump’s all-powerful! Hey, let me bully those people—ha-ha! The kids who picked on me at school were “happy”, too. Or were they? Now we all know that they went home, and they probably had parents who abused them.

Me taking something from you—agency, dignity, personhood—that’s not happiness.

So happiness, the true kind, comes from another place. 

Thin and Thick Happiness, or The Purpose of Sorrow, Grief, and Despair

Now we’re at a point where we can discuss a few kind of happiness. Let me distinguish between two. There’s thin happiness, which is “being a conservative will make you happier,” aka, you don’t have to care about much of anything beyond yourself and blood and soil and whatnot. But as we’ve discussed, that’s flimsy: it doesn’t last, just ask, say, the Nazis, it isn’t deeply felt, and in the end, if we all adopt that posture, we go nowhere, but right back into conflict, chaos, and regress. 

Should we accept a definition of “happiness” whose endpoint is self-destruction? Of course not: that’s sort of childish and foolish. So thin happiness is sort of not the real thing.

Then there’s thick happiness. That’s about…becoming yourself. The expansion of your powers. The unfurling of agency. Liberating, and being liberated, from domination, control, conflict, violence, hatred, spite. And doing something constructive and positive and beautiful and true with your one brief life.

Now. Maybe you caught the wrinkle already. Life, lived like that, with that intensity, that purity, that uncompromising sense of purpose, isn’t always going to be happy, is it?

In fact, if we accept the truer definition of happiness, thick happiness, then life is going to be…punctuated…by moments of intense grief. Absolute despair. Deep sorrow. In those moments, we will realize: we haven’t liberated ourselves, yet, or liberated those around us. Our quest to be free of domination and hatred and spite hasn’t gone the way we hoped it would. The fruition that seemed so tantalizingly within reach—we missed it, somehow. 

There is always further to go on this journey of loving and being loved. That is the tragedy. The impossibility and futility. And the nobility. Of the human condition.

And in that knowing, there’s a deep, shattering truth. Life lived this way, echoing with purpose, resounding with grace, arching towards meaning—it isn’t always going to be happy.

Because there are going to be moments when we fail. And the more meaningful the act we hoped to accomplish, so too, the more painful, absolute, and devastating the failure will be. Sometimes, it will rip right through our bones, and sort of make us question everything, right down to who we are, and why we’re here, and whether we…

Exist the way we need to. 

Sometimes, failing in this biggest sense, existentially? It will leave us battered and bleeding and weeping, for months, maybe longer, and we will never be the same again. This is transformation, and it’s the purpose of grief, sorrow, and despair, which, yes, hurt like hell.

Existential Failure, or What we Lose By Denying Despair, Grief, and Sorrow Their Purpose

And this is where I am. I understand that I failed existentially. Like I said to you, not at amassing Even More Followers or some dumb meaningless shit—but at actually averting, preventing, stopping these catastrophes from happening, which was the point of all the warnings. And like I also said to you, there’s some consolation in knowing that I helped change the paradigm around many things, from climate change to economics to politics and so on. But the failure at an existential level is absolute.

And if I’m honest with you, that’s where I am.

Don’t get me wrong. Everybody deserves to be happy. But. And there is a but. If you want to live a life of meaning and purpose, at least, then there are going to be moments where you don’t. Aren’t. Maybe not being “deserving of” happiness, whatever that means. But just having earned it, in your own terms. Moments of profound failure. That’s where I am.

And I think that you sort of have to sit with those feelings of grief and sorrow and despair and see where they take you. What they teach you. The meaning they carry. About tragedy, futility, grace, being, time, dust. I don’t know, is the answer to the question you’re already asking. I don’t know where they’ll take me. If there’s some sort of chink in the cave. I have to kind of just sit here, with the darkness, and try to hold it.

This is the work of the soul. We don’t think about happiness in this way anymore, but perhaps we should. Because our theory of happiness is what has also failed, by the way.

Look at our “side.” It exhorts people to be happy, happy, happy. They’re not. In rage and fury, they’re turning on everything civilization holds dear, as Emmanuel Macron said. Our theory of happiness is sort of ridiculous, to most people, at this point—just “choose to be happy” in a world going haywire. Is it any wonder our side doesn’t connect anymore?

In all that, there’s a profound failure to be human. We are the ones refusing to do the soul work of civilization. The wounded one in us is the only one who can heal and become stronger, wiser, and more humane. But rejecting all this to begin with, we fail at soul work, and we grow irrelevant, with a theory of happiness that isn’t working in a century of blight and troubles.

The Meaning of an Age of Extinction

So, no. I don’t think I “deserve to be” happy these days. Why would I be? At what? Shouldn’t I grieve for the world and what we’ve made of it? And how badly I failed at changing it, stopping it, and the sort of way we turned on each other precisely when we shouldn’t have? And so I think being happy at a time like this, like I said, is a little bit obscene. An injustice, if you like, of the self against history, futurity, time, and grace. You can judge that for yourself.

Let’s go back to thin and thick happiness. When we say that we’re happy, which one are we, really? Are we just settling for thin happiness? Looking around a world going backwards, reeling in chaos, it’s hard to say that many of us are happy in the the thick sense. Rather, we’re sort of being taught and told that thin happiness is enough.

And that’s the individualistic kind. Hey, you don’t have to care about the world, life, the future, the planet, democracy, society—any of it. Just ignore it! Just do you! What good does it do to care about any of that stuff, anyways? It’ll just make you unhappy. And that’s true. It will make you unhappy. But is the alternative really better? A kind of flimsy happiness which sort of borders on willful ignorance? It’s hard to say that’s a good choice.

I think there are moments when grief, despair, and sorrow are precisely the appropriate emotions. And we sort of have to wrestle with them, in dark nights of the soul, in order to go on at all. Maybe that way we find our ways to higher levels of meaning and purpose and truth and beauty. Through our failures, we grapple with the human condition, and that, too, is a form of being bonded to universality, which expands us and matures us, in the end. That way come higher expressions of love, truth, goodness, and beauty. And as we enact those, maybe, then, and only then, do things ever really change. Through that terrible grief, towards a higher love.

I don’t know if any of that made sense. Please don’t reduce it to: Umair’s telling me to be unhappy! Mom, I’m mad! That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying something more like: a life lived with meaning and purpose isn’t always going to be a happy one. It can’t be, by definition. Because of course we aren’t living just for ourselves, in that conception of life—and yet, how often do we fail others, and in that act, don’t we come to understand our limitations and fragility more, which is the beginning of all wisdom, grace, truth, and virtue?

So it’s sort of a subtle thing I’m saying. Me? I think I have to sit with it all. I don’t know for how long. The grief and despair and sorrow. But I do know that right now, anything less would be unfair of me, because this is the world we made, and it should have been so, so much better. And unless I reflect deeply on that, what can I change, beginning, as always with myself?

Please note, that’s not “advice” for you. It’s just…me talking. About how I feel.

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