My day job supports children living in food insecurity, provides housing for homeless youth, and promotes mental health services and job training. So, I am fully aware of how blessed I am compared to many others.
In fact, my life is wonderfully blessed. I have a beautiful home, two wonderful kids, a talented wife, and enough discretionary income that I can buy an absurd amount of comic books and other nerdy collectibles. So, why doesn’t my life always feel wonderfully blessed?
Well, emotional satisfaction is the sum of a lot of little things, like trips to the gas station. It “hurts” to go to the gas station and see the price per gallon. It doesn’t “feel” good and it’s an experience most folks have weekly, like the accumulation of paper cuts.
Other economic interactions are even worse. Is it in stock? Is it backordered? Will it be a surprising $90 in shipping fees like a recent Kickstarter that I backed? Is the dining room closed so I’ll need to eat lunch in a car like a lonely weirdo? Travel sucks. School is patchy. Again, these are daily experiences, so the paper cuts start adding up.
That’s why Americans are rating their personal finances highly, yet they rate the national buying experience poorly. In short, many are feeling good about their finances, yet bad about the economy simultaneously.
We have money but nothing feels fun anymore.
And it’s not just economic, it’s emotional and social as well. There was an expression of excitement about returning to conventions some day in our Nerds on Earth Discord several weeks ago. A poor Nerd, whose only sin was to express enthusiasm to one day gather in physical community, was immediately shamed for not expressing what was thought to be adequate concern for COVID.
Memes were shared, of course, obviously meant as a shorthand to enlighten this poor enthusiast, like he or any of us are unaware COVID exists. But maybe this Nerd did want to forget for the briefest of moments in order to dream a bit, hoping for the day when we all can return to the nerdy things we love, like attending conventions.
Battle lines were drawn. Everyone is too masked, or maybe not masked enough, according to each individual’s perspective. We’re exhausted, cynical, and tetchy. But I have more comic books than ever, so yay?
The line from disheartened to hopeless to cynical isn’t very long and I worry these feelings are way more pervasive than we think. Psychoanalyst Erica Komisar says this: “Nihilism is fertilizer for anxiety and depression.” Yet the media us nerds consume each and every day is awash in negativity, cynicism, violence, mistrust, isolation, deconstruction, and moral relativism.
We’re looking at our friends and they’re like a campfire whose heat has gone out, leaving nothing but a few fading embers. Sure, we try to blow oxygen onto the embers, cheering them up, hoping to relight the flame and spark a little heat in our friends.
We want to see each other’s vibrancy return. But a stoked flame doesn’t stay warm for long in this environment and we’re all missing the warmth of friendship and community, instead feeling the cold joylessness of loneliness and isolation.
Great. We’ve identified we have a mustard stain on our jacket. Now, how do we get it out?
The philosophers of old believed deeply that we become good people through practice. You know, treat others the way you want to be treated. Practice what you preach. That sort of thing.
Modern philosophers like Patrick J. Deneen say the same thing. Deneen observes that as society has slowly and surely progressed, humanity has lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of joy than the earthly desires of a Kallax unit full of board games and a whole shelf of Star Wars Black Series action figures.
In our present culture, meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants. But we are losing the concept of human flourishing or virtue apart from materialism, and that is driving us toward isolation.
And that was the dumb thing during the pandemic, wasn’t it? The wealthiest civilization ever to exist on planet Earth was brought to a screeching halt by a minuscule menace. For all our prosperity and progress, our streets were empty while we sat at home alone, numbing ourselves to the grief and emotion of having our life upended by a microscopic speck.
We socially distanced to save ourselves, but the reality was we had been slowly distancing socially for decades. The tiny town I grew up in happily has crumbled. Institutions are less trusted than ever. Neighborhoods have had their shutters drawn for years.
Our society has been preaching the shallow things of consumerism for decades now, avoiding the deep examinations of virtue, service, selflessness, honestly, and a deep-felt sense that we are better together than we are alone. In that way this calamity has been clarifying to those truths. We have gained stuff, yet lost joy.
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have survived more than fifty years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships—or, as they would say, because of them—they are two of the most joyful people on the planet. So they looked back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?
What they then offered to us are the Eight Pillars of Joy, which provide the foundation for lasting happiness, provided we put them into practice:
- Perspective – “For every event in life,” says the Dali Lama, “there are many different angles.” And taking a “God’s-eye perspective,” says Archbishop Tutu, allows for the birth of empathy—the trait that creates joy not only in the one, but in the many.
- Humility – Considering yourself greater than your fellows only serves to rob you of happiness, they say. It separates you, makes you feel as if you must act a certain way, forces you to strive ever harder to maintain this air of superiority. So, practice humility.
- Humor – Don’t take yourself so seriously that you lose the ability to laugh, not only at life’s troubles, but at yourself and your very human foibles.
- Acceptance – This is not resignation. It is not defeat. It is accepting that we must necessarily pass through the storm. It is facing suffering and asking the question, “How can we use this as something positive?”
- Forgiveness – The monk and bishop teach that holding on to grievances is our way of wishing the past could be different. When we hang on to those negative emotions, that anger and grief and the desire for vengeance, we entertain the possibility of using those emotions to strike back and cause harm, which only invites a cycle of retribution.
- Gratitude – Our minds have a naturally negative bias, so we need to be conscious of this and be purposeful in our gratitude.
- Compassion – Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we see others suffer, and wish to see that suffering relieved. It is the bridge between empathy and kindness.
- Generosity – Giving to others does not subtract from ourselves, but adds to us.
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu didn’t offer any suggestions for fixing Kickstarter or managing gas prices, but the did provide a foundation for lasting happiness. Let’s start practicing.