Freud notes that emotional unhappiness is at the root of contradictions in a culture that in turn fuels the human craving for fame, power and money. The cruelty of war stems from a morbid need to deprive the world of what one is deprived of. Thus Gloucester will say in some of the most famous opening lines from Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of Richard the Third “since I cannot prove a lover,/ To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/ I am determined to prove a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
People will do anything to conceal the unhappiness in their private lives. Logic and morality are the masks that reason will wear to disguise what at heart is passion. The hurt ego will go to any extent to prove a point that it is not hurt. The disturbed mind longs to give the look of sanity and normalcy. More and more we must realize that this argument applies to politics and public life as well. I don’t mean to say that happy people don’t enter politics or don’t wish to be seen as serving in public positions. But when unhappiness becomes the ground for politics and the unhappy refuse to see that they are guided by a sense of personal loss, rather than any morally superior position they espouse on public platforms, that’s when we have serious problems.
My experience in teaching at colleges and universities is long enough to make observations about students at higher levels and to know what awaits them in the choices they make for themselves. The part I love the best is when opportunism deludes itself with the mask of fighting for political causes. The boys and girls that enter the collective mode of thinking after having sacrificed their individuality to the herd are the ones that amuse me the most. Their internalized rejection of the self is clear as daylight. Their memory for clichés meets the eye with the force of the midday tropical sun. Their disdain for the truth and their passionate attachment to action is a revelation of their refusal to go beyond narcissism. They always have their unhappy teachers to drench them in the poison of meaningless hatred. They also have the narcissism that comes with faces in the media, Facebook and Twitter, the narcissism of those who find nothing worth loving about themselves and therefore ironically the self-love.
I don’t think people are either good or bad. They are just unhappy or happy. To be happy does not mean being naïve or complacent while the world around you is going to pieces. Happiness means being creative for its own sake, without any immediate expectation of a reward. To also seek love and friendship and be worthy of both friendship and love is also happiness. The unhappy want the whole world for themselves. Their fears breed lies and the lies need those fears to generate more lies and fears.
We live in a situation where the majority of people have no interest in words. They want to know how these words relate to your life. In the absence of a serious relationship between your words and your life you can be sure that even you don’t take yourself seriously let alone the rest of humanity. We live in a world where the leadership is full of words and no action. We inhabit a time-space where writers produce words which have no bearing on the lives of the masses. We occupy a domain where the private is at war with the public self.
James Baldwin dramatically notes: “In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified, and the accusing finder there is not legend, but consequence, not fantasy, but the truth. People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply by the lives they lead.” People live their lives as if they were carrying out a prison sentence and hence they carry prisons in their souls. This applies to everyone whose lives are centered on the need for power in one way or the other. The life you lead—at the end of the day, there is no greater punishment or reward than that. You don’t need God and religion for that to happen. You just know it when your life has turned into a sentence whereby you’ve condemned yourself to perpetual confinement.
“Fools!” said the Buddha before he went into noble silence. Needless to say he was referring to those whose lives are enmeshed with contradictions. Those lives condemned to a private vacuum because they are incapable of rising beyond their hatred and suspicion. Those lives motivated by emotional unhappiness to acts of unforgivable cruelty. Those lives that think they can make demands from a world they have not created for themselves. Those lives that have failed to live and in the process have become anti-life.
Portia in A Merchant of Venice is my ideal of someone who combines justice and compassion, along with a sense of her own selfhood. Shylock is perfectly logical and like all perfectly logical people cannot transcend his preoccupation with his own past. Richard the Third is what most of humanity is in its pathetic condition taking upon itself the need to punish, because it knows that no matter what it cannot be happy. A deprived body creates a depraved mind and soul. I’m not talking about the helpless poor who are deprived by chance. I feel with them. I’m talking about the “fools” who treat power as an end in itself and who have got there merely because they couldn’t be anything else in their private lives.
“Too many are socialistic because they hate the rich instead of loving the poor,” is a line from A. S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing that haunted me for years and continues to do so. If people are fools in the sense that the Buddha sees them, it’s because they conceal their motives in order to appear what they are not. To believe in change is to love and care for something. If you’re merely filled with hatred of a personal kind, that in no way is proof of a moral position even if it appears to be like one.
Anti-Semitism that Freud being a Jew knew only too well was another word for deep-seated unhappiness and incapacity to be either fair-minded or compassionate. In a similar vein, A. S. Neill notes: “No happy man ever disturbed a meeting or preached a war, or lynched a Negro. No happy woman ever nagged her husband or her children. No happy man ever committed a murder or a theft. No happy employer ever frightened his employees. All crimes, all hatred, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness.”
I’ve sensitized myself over a period of time to be observant of my own moments of unhappiness. Those are the moments when I am looking for emotional crutches. I need someone to bear the weight of a self that is me and myself alone. I need to find an outlet for feelings I’ve generated without any basis in reality. I need to make someone feel terrible about him or herself because that is the only way I could be who I am. Those are the moments when the mind will come up with the most intricate of disguises to appear noble to itself. It won’t accept defeat without a fight and anger, hatred and suspicion will prevail over everything that is decent and humane within us.
I don’t believe that happiness comes from within. If happiness only came from within then we wouldn’t need other people. Happiness in the real sense comes from how we relate to those around us. Happiness is in the realization that we’ve to stand up for others without losing our own sense of selfhood. There is no happiness in either being victim or victimizer. Happiness comes from not being guided by motives other than those that arise from a spirit of justice and compassion. As a character from The Merchant of Venice says: “they are as sick that surfeit/ with too much as they that starve with nothing.” The Buddha would have seen this as an example of the Middle Way and a solution to the foolishness of those obsessed with power, money and fame.
Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently working as an Associate Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.