Happiness and the meaning of life

For as long as I can remember, there has always been this dichotomous desire for two opposite types of lifestyle: simple, quiet, peaceful / extraordinary, revolutionary, accomplished. I know that these traits can all coexist within the same life, but the way that I picture them sometimes they don’t.

When I was little, I dreamt of being a superhero. Despite the media’s best effort (though Disney has come a long way with their female heroines these days) to convince me that I should be the damsel in distress, the princess searching for her prince, etc., etc. I self-identified as the one with the cape, the one with the magic, the one with the superpowers.

My parents fostered this sense of empowerment routinely telling me that I could do anything that I wanted in life (“with the exception of being a dad”, my dad liked to say). My dad taught me to shoot a gun, throw a punch, and also to show affection and emotion. My mom was an intellectual, and the third generation of women in my family to be educated beyond the secondary level (which is pretty impressive given the sociocultural context for her mom and grandmother). She applauded my success in academics and sports and encouraged me to pursue these activities.

So, I viewed myself as a person. A whole person. My parents helped foster a sense of autonomy and individualism. I didn’t feel squashed into one gendered social script; I didn’t feel limited at all by the fact that I was a girl. I loved being a girl, and I took pleasure in redefining what that meant to people. I figured that I, not society, was the authority on the matter of what it meant to be me.

This type of individualism, autonomy, and self determination has helped me all through my life. I think that people can get confused when they think of themselves more in terms of roles than in terms of just who they are as a person. Roles tend to conjure up all sorts of stereotypes and categorical limitations. I think that relationships and the commitments we have in those relationships are more important than roles. Like Søren (we are only on a first name basis because I love that Scandinavian letter in his name), I tend to think that the meaning of life is individually and subjectively determined to a large extent and that normalizing institutions can produce pseudo-selves versus authentic, autonomous individuals.

Now, I am not saying that society is horrible or that normative roles and social expectations are completely destructive. Nonsense. I do think they serve many valuable, stabilizing purposes, not the least of which is securing our self concept by presenting it to others, lest we forget who we are momentarily. When others know us, or at least a projection of us, it commits us to that projection to some extent. I have felt vaporous in my self concept–in my early years of college. My childhood confidence and self security was challenged during adolescence. My self concept was so elusive for a few years that I wished I could take a needle and thread and sew it onto my soul or the very core of “me.”  But I found my way after some anguish and sufficient searching. And I guess, that’s my point; it’s good to do some healthy soul searching without letting society dictate who you are before you actually know.

I will always love deconstructing ideas and thoughts and analyzing the phenomena of life; I have come to not just accept but love this about myself. This is a stable trait, and after years of practice I have learned how to not get lost in all that fascinating thought wandering. I will surely change and grow, but my internal compass is working. And if it stops working, I still know how to find my way. You know, like Collin can in the external world outside my mind…with stars and the sun and streams and the winds and things (not my area of expertise).

Sometimes I need to set aside my extrinsic life goals (career, success, wealth, etc.) to realize that what matters to me most are my intrinsic aspirations such as personal growth & the pursuit of truth, close relationships, community contribution (here and in Kenya) and physical health.

There is no way to adequately describe how felicitous I feel when I get kisses from Senya or how the sound of her laughter affects my heart. Collin and I can talk for hours–especially when hiking or backpacking–deconstructing ideas and thoughts. I have climbed very large mountains and many miles just as much for the conversation as for the views. How do I measure the happiness that I feel when I have turned a sticky, floury mess into the smell of freshly baking bread wafting through our home? Our home that is good, rugged, safe, and a bit dirty mostly because we live with an exuberant spirit of joy indwelling a furry dog. There is something so pure, so therapeutic about running miles and feeling my heart and breath celebrating that I am alive…these simple life elements are also profound and I love them. This sense of internal peace and self integrity that I have has come with work, with time, with searching, with relationships, with seeking truth. And I am fulfilled with this eudaimonia.


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