I’m not at all a cynical person, but I find it hard not to interrogate the concept of happiness, at least in the form that’s generally presented to us. I do want to live well, with meaning and with joy, as far as that’s possible in a world that’s in so many ways unjust. But the most common understanding of what makes for a meaningful life feels both at odds with my preferences and values and increasingly impossible to realise under current social and political conditions — particularly if you don’t want your comfort to come at the expense of other living beings.
So how does one carry on?
A little over year ago, an unexpected act of kindness brought me a sense of hope and possibility that ripples to this day. The specifics are important, as is the wider context in which this happened, but at the moment I don’t feel up to elaborating on them. I apologise for being vague and speaking in generalities, which is something I increasingly mistrust, but hopefully just saying “something happened, and it was important” will be enough for the rest of what I’m saying to make sense. I don’t want to make this sound like a simple story about a transformative moment, because I’m also suspicious of those. And yet this suspicion coexists with a deep belief in the ability of certain moments to sustain us, and with a desire to embrace and cherish that without fear or shame. This is the first of many ambivalences I hope to be able to express.
I’ve been reading Ann Cvetkovich lately, and a lot of what she has to say about cultivating everyday habits that work as a counterbalance to political despair resonates with me. When describing a trip she took during a dark period of her life, she says, “One moment of relief lifted the seamless web of anxiety and allowed me to get outside of myself enough to remember that things could be different.” This has been important to me too: enjoying moments of interruption that nudge me away from my only half articulated belief that a constant low-level despair is inevitable and inescapable. At its core, this is also not too different from what Laurie Penny says regarding the cultural legacy of Occupy five years on: “Such moments of intensity give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life. You can’t stay up on the roof forever—but things have changed, shifts and integrations have occurred—a difference is made.”
How do you sustain that sense of meaning, though, especially when you’re sceptical about instant and permanent transformation? I suppose it all depends on what we mean when we say “things have changed” and “a difference is made”. Cvetkovich defines transformation as “a slow and painstaking process, open-ended and marked by struggle, not by magic bullet solutions or happy endings”. The everyday habits of living she finds helpful are “not the stuff of heroic or instantaneous transformation”, “but instead must be integrated through the ongoing activity that forms a life story”. These words are of use to me, but of course one vital question remains: what does this translate into, when it comes to my own everyday habits of living?
I know what I want, more or less. I want to be in the world more, and to form and sustain ties of community and love. I want to live according to my values, or at least in ways that are not unbearably at odds with them. But that’s putting it too abstractly — the question of how to realise this in more concrete terms remains unresolved. It’s difficult for so many reasons: because of winter, because of life’s precarity, because of the limits of the everyday, which are also the limits of existence under capitalism. At least I’ve learned to manage, I think, the half-punitive, half-defeatist streak that sometimes comes with inertia; with the gravitational pull of sadness. To give you one small but telling example, last winter I went through a few weeks when, at the height of my Hamilton obsession, I stopped listening to it completely and deliberately cut myself off from the joy it brought into my life.
I don’t want to do that anymore. But I also don’t want to be punitive about my own need to live with bad feelings whenever they seem proportionate to my reality, which is a lot of the time. I want to be better at ambivalence, and to spend less time feeling bad about feeling bad. Lately I’ve found it helpful to think of hope and despair as phases, as cycles with value rather than as a simplistic narrative of progress where I transition from one to the other once and for all. Whatever I learn about living well during those moments of heightened intensity isn’t wasted if I don’t manage to sustain it forever. It comes and goes, and it leaves something behind.
When I say I need hope, then, I think what I mean I that need a feeling that embraces both ambiguity and possibility — a hope capacious enough to accommodate bad feelings without them negating the good. I mean an “embrace of the unknown”, as Rebecca Solnit puts it. I mean a hope that’s not facile or relentlessly optimistic, but is reparative all the same. I mean a hope that is both about the possibility of change and about making everyday existence not only bearable but joyful. This is what I’m struggling to sustain, both personally and politically, and perhaps it helps to be armed with the knowledge that these two facets are one and the same.