W.S. George
writer composer

On the Question of Happiness

I always find it hard to start something like this. I have no idea what I want to write, how long and in-depth it should be. I don't know what point I mean to make. The only things that fill my head right now are fragments of philosophy, some music, my own contorted convictions all woven together with a theme of happiness. My thoughts aren't as coherent as I want them to be. Opening words must strike something in a reader's mind, I believe yet, as we speak, I am fumbling with them. I don't have the wealth of experience that comes with living a life which truly matters. Neither do I have the clarity of mind that comes with a spiritual epiphany. Despite these impediments, I must carry on or my night will go wasted. Let me begin by declaring quite triumphantly that right now I am happy.

Happiness has eluded me for a long time. In the last six months or so I forced myself to live under a spell as potent as only a desperate mind can cast. I convinced myself that entirely on my own I could be happy. Some four months ago I was overcome with depression that lasted a week. This was right after completing a one month internship that kept me so busy I had little time to reflect on my life. Idleness afforded me the luxury to dwell on the past (I do this a lot) and with it, memories of people and places, things I had done, things I had failed to do, my general situation gradually drew the life out of my spirit. In a matter of days I was completely down.

In that pit of despair some of you may know, I found solace in Brad Bollenbach's words. I don't recall his exact words but he put one truth so bluntly I was jolted out of my dark mood. Nobody cares. Nobody cares about me, what I did with my life, my thoughts. Nobody paid any attention to them. Everyone has something to worry about. The less the better. My being absent did not matter to anyone, no matter how close we were. Nobody cared, so why fret about that? If no one knew I existed, if no one wanted to know me, what business did I have worrying about that? I can't explain what it felt like to be charged again. In minutes – yes, minutes I swung from Gollum to a happy, optimistic Sam with a dash of wisdom from being there and back again.

I should take a moment to point out the irony that I found strength in what's essentially a personal development blog. Few people may know how I've come to despise the very idea of “personal development”, life pro-tips to keep you ahead of the game, etc. I have never dreamed of falling prey to the sleazy quick fixes life coaches pander. Brad had me on the first article. From this experience I picked up what was left of my life and moved on, determined to find fulfillment in myself and the things I loved. Which meant poetry, software and serious music. But mostly poetry and music.

From that first week of August I indulged in some of the best writing accomplished with English. I spent long, lonely nights in bed reading Plath and Kafka, Carroll, Rowling. I passed my time with writers living and dead in some sort of make-belief Paradise. Storytellers call this suspension of disbelief. It is meant to last the length of whatever work of fiction is in question. Mine lasted weeks, only ever punctuated by brief episodes of anxiety from work and the usual drama I orchestrate with some of my antics.

For these months I was in control of my spirit. I believed I could make happiness happen to me. I proved it with my life too. When work was not there to distract me from sinking into needless reflection, I immersed myself in the things I loved. I was free to pursue my timid animosity towards God and most things sacred. I also started a writing routine that saw me draft at least a thousand words of prose every Monday and Thursday night without exception. I discovered the depth of sadness and beauty Mozart worked into his Requiem when I joined the parish choir at the University of Ghana to rehearse and sing this mass. I wrote poetry too. Not much. I spent far more time reading poets I'd only paid cursory attention to. I was a happy lad.

Like all enchantment, the magic does not last forever. It fades, it gracefully degrades until there is so little of it left it might as well be gone entirely. Mine fell off like a veil. It lifted in a single night.

That night which was my undoing was maybe two or three weeks ago. I don't want to remember it. It was a Friday evening. I closed early from work to join some of my mates at the opening of a restaurant at the A&C Mall. The event was sloppy. With half the night gone, we moved to Eddy's Pizza to make the best of the night. We returned quite late and spent. I lay in bed, alone. I took stock of the night, expecting that sleep will take me soon.

Before I knew it, I fell into sober reflection on not only that night, but all the nights I'd spent pursuing happiness for myself. With this reflection came the memories of people I had almost completely set aside, of places, things I have done, things I had failed to do...things I was doing at that moment, things I was struggling to believe in. In less than two hours I saw how empty everything was. I felt I had gone astray, that I had to find something I'd lost. The night was hot and restless. The music had stopped. The show was over. The magic had lifted and all that remained was the boy I left behind six months ago; that scrawny chap who sits alone in a dark corner, contemplating wild things that fill his mind. I was once more the haunted child of dead dreams. I faced the world alone. I was scared.

The week that followed will be remembered as one of my most dramatic. I woke up late and weary on Saturday, tried to make sense of my world for a couple of hours and drugged myself back to sleep. I woke up late that night and, with no one to talk to, I took a long walk outside. I remember looking at the sky. It was empty. There were no clouds, I could not make out the stars. Perhaps my vision was clouded, perhaps I was still dazed. It was only the moon that stared back at me, proud, beautiful, thoughtless as I have ever known it. My life made no sense and I didn't have the strength to confront it.

I made one feeble attempt to find solace in someone other than myself. That proved my undoing. I crawled back into bed and somehow I slept, somehow I dreamed that all the people I'd hoped will be there for me were faceless. They were present in my life by absent. I remember this dream as though I woke from it just this morning. I called but no one answered. Everyone seemed content to ignore me. They had no faces. Nobody cared. There was no comfort in those words.

On Sunday night I panicked. Monday saw me at home, in bed, crippled by depression. I had some professional responsibilities and, in an attempt to avoid some painful mistakes I've made with teams past, I had to tell one teammate what was happening to me. I don't know how coherent I was. I explained to him how from Friday night things had just gone down the gutter. I was losing control. Life was happening to me. It shouldn't be that way but I had no power over myself. Everything I'd carefully orchestrated was unraveling. I was scared. I told him that and then I reached my tipping point.

For the first time in two dry years I wept like a mad, mad child.

I spent Tuesday at home, mostly in bed. For a few hours in the morning I sat in the adoration chapel at my parish. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed in the quiet room. My dad sat in front to pray, I sat at the back and threw God a challenge. On Wednesday I died.

Tonight I am alone in my room. I've just finished two short documentaries on two rather interesting philosophers. Epicurus was the first, a man I'd only learned of last week. The second is Montaigne, a French man who might have been the most down-to-earth gentleman the world had seen in his day. There'll be more on him later. Right now, Epicurus is most relevant to this essay.

Again, I do not recollect what exactly was said but, one blogger I found from Reddit summed up the Greek philosopher's teaching about how to live with a really apt metaphor. He described life as a party and admonished his readers to learn to enjoy it. Through several images he illustrated some charming points about life. The one that sticks with me now (because it had a lot to do with my present predicament and the drama that came with it) was one must learn to dance with the people that come his way in this party called life. When our partners find other interesting dancers, let them go and then, find another partner to dance with before the music stops.

In my poetry, I use “dance” to represent the relationships we build with people. One poem that is still a favourite begins:

If we could,
let us dance just once
as graceful birds,

In this, I beg another person for a short dance before “night runs out” and we are discovered to be the fleeting desires that we are. It is no surprise this image remains with me. It is in my own language. From then I was curious about Epicurus.

I could not let this short documentary pass, knowing how the man's wisdom touched me. In my guts I knew Epicurus was legit. I trusted him. The object of the documentary however was a warning against today's consumerist society. I wasn't the audience Alain de Botton was after. This occurred to me minutes into the doccie. If there's one thing I know about myself, I am not so overcome by the desire for material things that I look for happiness in them. I am above that kind of life because I truly have very little interest in the great many cravings of the world. I am not afflicted with the need to shop until I drop dead and happy. My ailments are of a very different sort.

Epicurus' teaching on happiness was summarized in three fundamental needs of every human. Alain revealed them with the air of someone who has come across some bit of ancient wisdom so simple it escapes the complicated masses. He began by saying that the first thing people actually need to be happy is also the easiest to find because it is all around us; Friendship.

You should have seen me wince. Friendship. That was the easiest, Alain thought, and it is easy to see why from his point of view that should be the case. Everyone has friends, he might think. I am rather different. I have none.

Now, before you object let me be clear about what I mean. There are people in my life I communicate with daily. There's my roommate, my work mates. There's family. There's you, reader. All these people play important roles in my life. My roommate might be the first to notice when I die in my sleep, for instance. We also do bits of housekeeping and exchange words once in a while. But he is not my friend. I will not call him when something wonderful happens to me. I don't have to share my good news with him. When something is troubling me, I do not turn to him. He doesn't share is fears, his hopes, his anxieties with me. He's got a bunch of people he does that with. We're roommates. That is all.

Then there are the people I work with. The drama of recent weeks has estranged me from most of them. We are cordial and respectful, most of the time. When I have technical things to discuss, if there's something I need to understand, if there's some engineering problem I need solved, I have the people I go to. When it comes to my team I have responsibilities. I report to someone. We meet and discuss work. Sometimes jokes are shared. Old school memories but those are rare. And even if they weren't, they still have their place. With the exception of when, in my darkest hour I had to divulge certain things I'd rather keep away from work, I do not talk to my mates when I'm in trouble. I do not share the things that matter to me with them: my music and my poetry, my life. We do not talk for just the sake of talking. We work. Even when I broke the boundary and spoke about some very personal issues, it was in the name of reporting. We are not friends.

If there's one thing I'm grateful for, it's family. Had I been born in a broken home, you will not be reading this now. I will be dead. But I'm not, and my family is why. But you and I will know that family is not friendship. There are some things you tell your parents, your siblings, your cousins. There are some things you share with friends. No matter how important family is, they cannot play the role that friendship does. I have a family. I have no friends.

Upon reflection I find that I am surrounded by acquaintances, critics and sympathizers. There is not one friend in that mix.

Which is not to say I have never had the semblance of friendship in my life. That is a lie. In the last three years I can count two friendships and one – let's call it a partnership – that has held the fort. I am still cordial with my photobuddy. We have some history, the two of us. He seems to have found more company in Ghana's active photography community (they call themselves the Photogbeis) from which I have largely withdrawn. I've had some fruitful friendships with writers. One led me to this pseudonym. He called himself “The Limitour”. Those years with him were some of my sunniest. I quite remember one period when our friendship was on the rocks. We did not speak to each other for a few weeks. We only communicated through letters, most of which I kept. It's funny. We were in the same school, studied on the same block, ate in the same dining hall, but restricted ourselves to letters passed to and fro by one really annoyed mutual buddy.

The Limitour has found his way into animation and there, has made new friends. I tried to keep up but it became more evident that the days when we are we were dead. He is back into writing. He does some Spoken Word but that is another community I have withdrawn from. My most recent writer-related friendship burned like a star too briefly and died. It was special because I finally found someone I could talk to about music. Just music. There have been people. We've had our time but they have moved on. I am without a friend.

As I see it, I am lacking in one of Epicurus' fundamental human needs that guarantee happiness. The other two as Alain de Botton put it, are Freedom and Reflection. Of freedom I am glad I have to a greater degree than most. My career path (Software Entrepreneur) may be uncertain but my prospects are great. I am certain I can live and not lack the basic luxuries of life. I should make it clear that I don't live an expensive life. I don't even know how to. My stipend is more than enough to see me through. And then there's family and my own resourcefulness. I am well acquainted with enough people to give me the freedom to spend an evening like this writing about happiness. At least I have this luxury.

Of reflection I do a wonderful job at taking stock. I am not some blundering extrovert whose day is an incessant fanfare, who is only quiet when asleep or dead. I have enough reflection in my life thank you very much.

If Epicurus is anything to go by, I have only one fundamental need to satisfy, and that is Friendship. As I sit here typing this essay, there is no one I can approach to share my deepest thoughts, besides you, reader. But you are anonymous. You are on the Internet, equal to that faceless multitude I interact with sometimes. We have no connection other than these cold words lit up on your screen.

Outside of family, I know of no one who cares. Nobody cares. Brad's words are haunting me. There's nobody to care for. The corollary is as dispiriting. Sometimes I laugh at the realisation that I know no one who will share their day with me. When things happen in my life, I tell them to myself. I pace about my room when no one's around and have that internal dialog with people who are only real in my head. Somehow, just somehow (and I should do well to chronicle all that has brought me this far) I have ended up marooned on an island with only the wind to talk to. Quite literally too.

You wouldn't be reading this if I had someone to tell this too. This should be a conversation between two people. Or three, or four. There should be some empathy going back and forth, some love, some caring, some humanity to carry the weight of these words. But there is none and, like some mad castaway, I feel like I am shouting to the wind, confessing things to shadows. Talking to an absent person.

I remember my sunniest years. They were in primary school. For six years I had a friend. Everyone knew we rolled together. We were a pair, two guys who had each other's backs. We stood up for each other, defended each other. Helped each other. I find it strange imagining how it all played out. For some reason we were just happy with our young selves. It seems absurd when I compare it to life as I see it now. It was some weird fantasy, my friendship with Kwabena. The last time I remembered being with him, it was a rainy afternoon. His parents had come to pick him up from school. He had no umbrella. The car park was some distance from our classroom block. I gave him my raincoat and walked with him to his parent's car. In the rain. I didn't mind being wet and muddy. Home was a short walk from school. I could just wash myself there.

The last time I heard from him, he was in Dartmouth College. I found him on Facebook. He couldn't remember who I was.

My circle of friendship has dwindled as I progressed through school. Now a graduate, I find myself submerged by several voices. Conversations fly above my head, this way and that. To use that image of life as a party, everyone is having a good time. Some people have taken the stage. The dance floor is rocking. Some folks are huddled in cushions laughing above the music. I'm leaning against the wall watching it unfold. Sometimes I try to step in to join the conversation. Sometimes I see someone I know and say hi. They respond politely and then continue with the chatter. Uninvolved, I pick up my phone and indulge myself in my little world of poems, music and magic. Sometimes someone bumps into me and apologizes halfheartedly. Once in a while. Mostly it is just me and my imaginary friends.

Social media was, for a while, an outlet. It gave me a way to belong to a group, to be part of a community outside of my mind. I've had my share of fun on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and WhatsApp. I don't remember when it started but, for a long time my online social life has been exactly as the party I illustrated above. I explained it to a friend (read: myself, I had no one else to tell this to) that it felt like walking into a crowded room, full of happy people each in exited conversation with someone else while all I did was watch them live. The frustration of lurking and its associated anxieties led me to withdraw from an online social life. The first to take the axe was Facebook. The only reason I still have a Twitter account is my username. I don't want to let that go. Yet. Recently I deleted all blogs I hosted on WordPress and Blogger. This withdrawal is significant as it represents for me a kind of destruction of the self in answer to an abrasive world. I erased my online identity in a similar way I've had the inclination to erase myself from existence from time to time.

This leads me to one point I think is clear from experience and reasoning: it is impossible for one to exist without friendship. As I claimed earlier I have no friends; I declared one evening to the only person who has showed some shade of concern for my wellbeing that I am dead. For the better part of this week I have felt dead. This caused some dramatic intervention that only brought more concern than was needed. But that point remains that I am, in most practical matters, a dead man.

Nobody cares.

There is some finality in those words, the way Brad put it. That certainty at least is comforting. What haunts me rather is a question that has driven me insane at times. It was the same question which, when I asked myself, I could only answer with tears like I had never shed before. Why did they all leave?

I still have no answer.

© 2017 William Saint George