Smile Politely

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of property

Tao Te Ching, Verse 44. excerpt

If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

Tell it to the unemployed.

No matter how much lip service we give to the Sermon on the Mount or verse 44 of the Tao Te Ching, happiness in America means being able to buy things. Just ask any kid at Christmas. He wants stuff.

Buying your happiness is as American as huckleberry pie. It’s a concept built right into the Declaration of Independence. (See below.)

But, at the same time, it doesn’t seem to be a universal truth. Not all countries drill this ideological mindset into their babies from birth. France, as one example, has universal health care, weeks and weeks of mandatory vacation time, meals that last for hours, wine, and the average person sleeps nine hours a night.

Lately, I can’t turn around without hearing about Bhutan. I’m reading The Geography of Bliss, where grumpy author Eric Weiner travels to Bhutan, the world center of happiness. Bhutan officially measures the country’s Gross National Happiness, rather than a Gross National Product. And last week there was Michael J. Fox on a television special, visiting Bhutan, recounting the same anecdotes, sleeping in huts, alleviating his Parkinson’s symptoms, and being the all-around cup-half-full kind of guy.

Maybe I’d be happy too if I could trek off to the Himalayas and observe the sunrise from the back of a yak.

I missed the movie about the homeless stripper at Ebertfest, but I did mange to finally catch up with Wendy and Lucy, the film by Kelly Reichardt that the top film critics called the best movie of 2008 in Film Comment’s annual poll.

This neo-realist depiction of a homeless woman, played bravely by Michelle Williams, and her dog in the Pacific Northwest didn’t have the kind of budget or get the kind of audience that was enjoyed by last year’s movie starring Williams’ late boyfriend, Heath Ledger.

But it seems more relevant today than The Dark Knight. Wendy and Lucy pictures the stark effects of unemployment, a very tough look at hard times. In fact, what struck me most was how similar it is to William Wellman’s 1933 Depression movie, Wild Boys of the Road. Both movies show people riding rails and shoplifting and not knowing how they’re going to scrape by.

I’m agnostic about happiness myself. I can’t say I really believe in its existence one way or another. It’s like God. Whatever God is, it’s not something any two people can agree on by definition.

Scottish philosopher John Stuart Mill said if you ask yourself if you are happy, you cease to be so.

“Don’t I deserve to be happy?” a woman asked me years ago as she was deciding to leave her husband and batch of kids.

Had I known what to say, I’d have recommended Bhutan.

The phrase “the pursuit of happiness” originally was “property.” The 18th century English writer John Locke wrote in Two Treatises of Government about the inalienable rights of man being life, liberty, and possessions. Later, the Founding Fathers borrowed the phrase and somewhere along the way decided “the pursuit of happiness” sounded better than “commercial junk.”

I didn’t see Will Smith’s movie The Pursuit of Happyness because it seemed to have that very notion of materialism, his rise from homelessness to wealth on Wall Street. Happyness = property.

Small is Beautiful author E.F.Schumacher wrote that we often speak of countries that are underdeveloped, but we need countries willing to say, we have enough.

Unfortunately, from birth, we are put in a cage surrounded by advertisements for floral scented air freshener. The drone of capitalist hypnosis never ends. It doesn’t even matter what you spend your money on. It is the act of spending that matters, the pursuit of 30 day money back guarantee happiness.

If you listen to the people protesting at the Republican tea parties or the anti-immigrant zealots on TV, you know they are serious about getting and keeping property. A woman writing to the News-Gazette recently expressed that “some of us still believe in privatizing Social Security,” because – as she put it – she’s been paying into the system all these years and getting NOTHING from it.

Well, it was not exactly nothing, since it was helping other people.

But none of this socialistic sharing stuff for us. We’re Americans. We believe in the pursuit of property of us, by us, and for us.

A close and long-time friend – someone who would be embarrassed if I referred to him as a philosopher – told me years ago that he had never played the lottery.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied, and I’ve never forgotten, “I was afraid I might win.”

You might think he is anti-American. He may not be particularly happy. But he’s a man after my own heart.

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