The pursuit of happiness

Happiness is easy. That’s the real slap in the face. How much angst and energy is poured into its pursuit? How many hours of therapy? For people working thankless twelve-hour days to make ends meet, for people putting themselves through school, for people living with addiction, trauma, grief, loneliness or hunger, happiness may seem like a near impossibility. Even without any discernible hardship, happiness can be totally elusive.

Yet depression isn’t just a lack of happiness. If this were the case, then a Netflix subscription and a few good friends would be a quick and reliable cure for even my most stubborn bouts. This doesn’t work, of course – one of the main symptoms of depression is loss of interest in previously relied upon sources of joy. Depression goes deeper; no amount of fun or distraction can touch it, because fun means nothing when nothing means anything.

I was seventeen and freshly reeling from Huxley’s Brave New World when I first considered that maybe happiness isn’t what I want. If suffering is the requisite cost of art, beauty, and all the things that make us human, then perhaps happiness is overrated. But college beat me down. Life became an endless competition for classes, housing, books, internships, friends, parking. Everything was a struggle. There was never enough time, and never enough sleep, even when sleep was all I could bring myself to do. Plain ‘ol happiness started looking pretty good after a while.

I started thinking, “Maybe all I really need is a clean space to myself, time to read, and a friend to ride bikes with. Maybe I don’t need to ‘change the world’ or do ‘something amazing.’” After all, people who change the world probably have a sink full of dishes. There’s just not enough time in the day for both.

It wasn’t until I found a respite of (admittedly fragile) happiness, a full year after graduation, that I revisited my adolescent wariness on the subject. From what I could tell, I was happy. I had finally gotten enough sleep. I made enough money to pay my debts with a job that didn’t eat away at my soul. I had cartoons and friends to keep me company. I was happy, and life was easy. But it all felt really pointless. That familiar emptiness kept gnawing at me, and I realized I was both happy and depressed at the same time.

I think what I really want is to feel like a whole person. I want to feel that my life has meaning. I want to feel safe, I want to feel challenged, and more than anything I want to feel like I belong in this space the universe has carved out for me.

From many, one

A common sentiment expressed in user comments is that one person’s experience doesn’t amount to a trend. Anecdotes are irrelevant and you’re probably a lesbian anyway. I’m more inclined to see it the other way around: for every one person relating a story of sexism or harassment, there are countless others with similar stories going untold.

Statistics are helpful, but only insofar as they are supporting or informing some other type of evidence. Neither statistics nor science tells the stories of people’s lives as they are actually experienced – we need people to do that.

I think the duality of individual and collective identities presents a challenge to modern feminism, especially when their reconciliation requires us to break certain tenets. We speak in “I” statements, we listen, we abuse disclaimers and avoid generalizations. There is a fear of losing the nuance that makes these stories uniquely ours, and for good reason. The nuance keeps us individually wrapped, sealed and shielded against the messy suppositional goo that comprises “everyone else.” To generalize is to absorb someone else’s story into one’s own, and strip it of the personal detail that made it real and meaningful, so we police such transgressions within our own circles.

The incessant threat of hostility from outside our circles intensifies this code. We sanctify identity ownership as a defensive measure against those aggressively oversimplified replies that turn our sediment to straw and leave us standing in the mud. So much energy is wasted cleaning that mud off our faces: “No, not all men are rapists.” We desperately want credibility – an ever more precious commodity – and credibility starts with accountability. So we place even more value on the delineations between ourselves.

But our identities are inextricable from our place in society. Our experiences are formed within the context of a larger whole, a whole that we continually create and shape simply by existing within it.

Your experiences inform my identity; this is why I call myself a young women.