In The Divine Comedy—a medieval vision of the afterlife completed in 1320—Dante (c. 1265-1321) wrote, “Tonight we fly over the chimney tops, skylights and slates. Looking into all your lives and wondering why happiness is so hard to find.”
Seven hundred years later we do the same, except with a drone—still wondering why happiness is hard to find (even with indoor plumbing). Like a peeping Peter Pan we fly over “all the lonely people” living in “quiet desperation.”
The quietly desperate are resigned to fate. They won’t speak up. They won’t cry out. They simply exist. Nothing means anything. And when nothing means anything, pleasure is everything. Pleasure initiates a process that learning sustains.
Pleasure releases dopamine into nerve cells underneath the cerebral cortex—the area for planning and executing tasks in the brain. Liking it becomes wanting it and then we’re driven to get it. It’s in the Human Brain Owners Manual. We might think we run our own show, but it’s really just chemistry.
How addicted we get to a drug or activity depends on the quickness, intensity and reliability of dopamine release (Harvard Medical School). Without self-understanding, the default is to become a non-self-aware robot-person following a program.
The comedian Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005) used to joke, “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.” People used to laugh. They still do, but they used to too. Mitch joked about addiction until it killed him. But he was onto something when he said, “I like to play blackjack. I’m not addicted to gambling. I’m addicted to sitting in a semi-circle,” because it doesn’t matter if it’s sex, drugs, or Cocoa Puffs, human brains register all pleasures the same (Harvard Medical School).
But it’s funny (maybe it isn’t), the more we get what we want, the less we enjoy it. Psychologist Wendy Wood from the University of Southern California said, “With repetition, action tendencies become stronger. Feelings, however, become weaker with repetition. So, the more often you eat ice cream, the less pleasure you get from eating it” (“If you enjoy something, don’t make it a habit”).
The greatest single barrier to finding what you seek is the secret assumption that you already know. Thinking you know lends itself to barking up wrong trees.
Living quietly desperate means never knowing satisfaction and feeling happiness only rarely (possibly while dancing).
Thoreau’s quote about leading a life of quiet desperation is used as a reason to follow your passion and achieve a life that isn’t small and mediocre but big and successful but to Thoreau, “success” isn’t big: it’s small.
Success is in the small and ordinary—watching ducks, feeling cozy, wearing plaid.
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy,” writes Thoreau, “and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success” (Walden).
Seeing is beautiful when the “I” of criticism is gone.
When the comedian Steve Martin said, “Let’s get small,” he was practically Thoreauvian! To get small is to shift from a self-perspective to a kind of disappearing where you get smaller and smaller until at last you are free of fault-finding and a happy feeling of love for “Both Sides, Now” hits you in the face like a pillow.
It’s practically mystical—or is it mystically practical? Either way, it is beautiful. Take a break. Stop seeing the world through conditioned opinion as a programmed person and feel aware of reality and yourself in it.
Happiness happens. It’s happening right now but you might not see it because happiness is like finding money on the road. You look at the money but don’t see it. Your mind is elsewhere. The hypnosis of regularity obscures the profound.
If everybody really felt what it is to be alive in this minute counting up as we count down, it would be too much! Daily living puts us in an emotional coma. It’s easier to deaden our senses, but it isn’t better. If you don’t believe it, try this exercise in awareness:
Look up. Look around. Give your head a shake. Don’t just notice where you are, notice yourself in where you are. See yourself as if from above. Notice how as you were reading, you did not exist to yourself? Notice how you can listen to thoughts in a detached way? Watch your thoughts come and go like floats in a parade. Wave hello and good bye to trolling thoughts and your mind will start to relax.
It’s like there’s an annoying duck-person blathering inside. Who is this annoying self-centred duck-person? How’d he get in here? Make him leave. Listen without reaction. Eventually he’ll get tired and you’ll feel peace.
In the 1911 song “Life’s a funny proposition after all” George M. Cohan (1878-1942) sang-spoke, “Hurried and worried until we’re buried; there’s no curtain call.” Cohen puts it all together and shows us the pickle of our problem. Life may be funny but not everyone is laughing. People don’t necessarily live the way they do because they like it. They live the way they do because they don’t know what else to do!
If you sat on a beach and yelled at the ocean, “Stop waving!” It wouldn’t stop. It couldn’t stop. Oceans aren’t independent. There are natural processes beyond our control. There are two worlds: the living and not living. Neither knows the other.
Reality plays itself out from first to last. If you don’t believe it, ask Bo Diddley to “Bring it to Jerome”. Everything connects back to front. The back of you is the front of what’s behind. What’s inside has an outside inside something else and space holds it together.
There is but one answer to every question that’s ever been asked by every single man, woman or combination thereof. The question is: What is that one answer?
And there it is.
“There is what?”
There is what that one answer is.
“What is that one answer? I don’t get it.”
That’s because ‘what-is-that-one-answer’ is the answer.
To every question there is one answer but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many answers. It just means that the answer you give is your answer. It’s like on a test: The answer you put on the test is your answer. It might not be right. It might not be wrong. Either way: It’s your answer.
If the question is, “What path did I take?” The answer is the path taken. The path is where you are as you’re going. Your path is what’s done as you do it. Life is a warring of opposites. Understanding the pleasure-centre dopamine release game frees you from chemical bondage. To cry until you laugh and laugh until you cry is to enjoy a ripple in time, self-aware in happy awe and filled with love.