“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.” ~James Openheim
December 19, 2001: this will forever be written in history as the day I was pitied by a 90 year-old.
I was holiday shopping at the mall, grimacing in pain with each step I took. “One… two… three…” I counted my steps, hoping to distract myself from the painful task before me: reaching the Bath and Body Works store roughly 300 yards ahead.
After several torturous minutes, I looked up. The store was still an oasis in the distance—perhaps a mirage in this vast desert-of-a-mall.
Had I even made any progress at all?
Just then I noticed a 90 year old man—stooped, shaky, and walking slowly as a turtle, like old men often do. To my absolute horror, the old man passed me with ease.
He turned around and spoke to me: “You OK? You aren’t looking so good.”
Tears of desperation welled up in my eyes.
“No,” I said. “No, not really.”
The reason for the old man’s pity? In a strange stroke of fate, I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis during my sophomore year of high school.
“You have a severe case,” the doctor had told me without a hint of empathy. She explained the science behind it: for unknown reasons, my immune system was recognizing my joints as foreign bodies and attacking them full-force.
I had always imagined that arthritis was some mildly annoying affliction that only affected old people. I unwillingly discovered that in my case, it was much more than just annoying— in fact, it was devastating. It felt as if I had a constant and never-ending war raging in my joints, as if I had badly sprained my knees, my wrists, and my elbows all at once, and all I could do was endure it.
“What did you do to your knees?” people would ask me with concern. I didn’t blame them for asking— my knees were inflamed and swollen to the size of ripe watermelons ready to burst.
“Nothing,” I answered truthfully.
My classmates were worried about getting their homework done or about who would ask them to homecoming. I was worried about whether I could walk down the halls without wincing in pain or whether I would even have the energy to get out of bed for the day. Things that were supposed to be easy became nearly impossible. Even tasks as simple as stepping into the shower and getting out of my desk after class were excruciating.
With tears in my eyes, I lamented in my never-ending misery. “If only I could feel normal again,” I cried, “I would be so unbelievably happy.”
Fast forward seven years, and my dream had somehow become a reality. As the years passed, my symptoms slowly decreased in severity until one day, for no apparent reason, they became nearly imperceptible.
For the first time in years, I could go to sleep each night without dreading the day that lay ahead. I could bounce up and down flights of stairs without a thought. I felt like a normal person again.
So here’s the big question: did I suddenly become ridiculously, enormously, unbelievably happy? The sad truth is, I didn’t.
After I started feeling better physically, new concerns arrived. “If only I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” I lamented, “then I would be so unbelievably happy.”“If only I could find the right guy,” I cried, “then I would be so unbelievably happy.”
In the meantime, my health was vibrant and my joints were pain free.
The lesson I’ve come to learn is this: the things that we think will bring us happiness never actually do—at least, not for long.
“When I have ______ or _______ or _______, then I will be happy,” we say.
But in reality, it doesn’t matter if we win the lottery or are freed from feeling like a 16 year-old trapped in a 90-year old’s body or [insert burning desire].
No matter what we get or achieve, our happiness from these events will be short-lived, soon to be replaced with another future condition.
I call this temporary happiness: the short-lived and “never enough” type of happiness that comes to us as a result of external events or situations. Most often, temporary happiness rests in the future and is just out of reach. Although we imagine we’ll get there one day, we never quite arrive.
But true happiness, that happiness that never fades, is much different than this. True happiness can never come to us from any condition, person, or situation.
In fact, true happiness can never come to us at all, because it is already right here.
If only we can learn to stop looking for it everywhere else— in the horizon, in the distance, in someone or somewhere or something else, then we can begin to feel that soft summer grass that is already growing right beneath our feet.
After a few years of being almost symptom free, my arthritis returned. It’s not as painful or debilitating as it was before— still, though, it is enough that I struggle.
Of course I hope for the pain to go away. Of course I would be elated if I could run, or if I could water ski, or if I could hike up a mountain for hours on end.
But at the same time, I have learned that feeling better is not my salvation. I’ve learned that if I can’t find peace and stillness in challenging times, then I certainly won’t find it in unchallenged times, either.
And so I sit. Sometimes I am sad; sometimes I am in pain; sometimes I struggle. Even so, I am at peace.
True happiness, I’ve learned, exists no matter what. No matter how much you think it cannot be here—not here, not now, not when the baby is crying, or when your heart is breaking, or when the sky is falling down— you have it all wrong.
It is already here, in your best times and in your very worst times alike. It can coexist with even the strongest feelings of sadness, numbness, or elation.
It is not a fleeting feeling; it is not something that you must “catch” or chase; it is not something that wavers.
No matter what else is here, true happiness is here, too.
After all, you should ask yourself— if it’s not here right now, then when will it ever be?