I spoke the other day with someone who reads my blog entries with some regularity (which, I explained to her, is reason enough to question her judgment). But she said that she enjoys reading the occasional news of Nicaragua and also the reflections that I make from having traveled there periodically. She did offer one concern, however. She observed that for every mention I make about something positive or inspirational that’s happening with our partners, there might be two stories that are seemingly full of discouraging news, even bordering on despair. And she asked the question, as if I could even possibly have the answer: “I just wonder, sometimes, whether it’s even OK to feel happy when all these difficulties go on in places like Nicaragua.”
Whether she really intended for me to offer a response or not, I wasn’t sure. But I had one in mind, whether she wanted it or not. It’s the response I’ve arrived at many times over the years to my own contemplation of the question.
Concepts of happiness or hunger or poverty are relative, of course. One family’s wealth might well represent another family’s poverty; one family’s good fortune might be another family’s plight. We’re all on a giant continuum, where everyone’s position is relative to everyone else’s position. When I gaze up to the top of that continuum and wonder what it must be like for Bill Gates to have all that he has, someone else along that continuum is looking up at me, and asking the same question. And our realities can change at any given moment in time. If circumstances suddenly line up just wrong, any of us might experience a very sudden shift of position along that continuum, our feelings shifting from happiness to hurt. Simply reflect upon the changed circumstances of many people in the U.S. over the past several years to affirm such possible reverses of fortune.
Since we are all on this continuum somewhere, of course it’s natural and healthy to feel happiness. We take from our lives the good things that we find and celebrate them, both for the gratitude we feel and the recognition that things could be a whole lot worse! We can readily see what it’s like for many others who are not so fortunate. Every day contains elements for which we have cause for happiness, and we’re well-served when we take the time to look for them.
What I suggested to my friend was that in the midst of our happiness, our celebrations, we not lose sight of another reality. It’s that continuum I mentioned above. It’s sort of like when I traveled to Budapest, Hungary some years ago. I was delighted by my surroundings and the wonderful people I met. But I recognized that my enjoyment would have been that much greater had my wife, Katie, been able to accompany me. Likewise, during a stunning visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks earlier this summer, our amazement was only tempered by realization of how much our children would have enjoyed the experience had they accompanied us. It’s not that we can’t feel happiness or contentment. It’s that we recognize that there could be so much more.
In whatever ways we are blessed, in whatever ways we feel affirmed and fortunate and healthy, we are never quite as happy as we could be “if only….” If only the rest of the world was “in synch,” or fully present, or not so unhealthy, so needful, so much in despair, then we might experience even greater happiness or contentment ourselves. Simply, it is not possible for any of us to reach our full well-being as long as others around us- both literally and figuratively- are absent, in distress or otherwise not well.
So is it OK to feel happy about anything? I say yes, and without hesitation. But in the midst of my joy, it’s also OK to recognize the limitations on my happiness that stem from the people all around me. How ironic that, in order for me to achieve maximum happiness in my own life, I must take into account the well-being of others….