My sister’s getting the health care she needs and my mother’s no longer living on the streets. Bitte? Please? Excuse me, I know. That could have been a little more graceful. It could have used some padding between the clauses, some form of explanation. But as I sat on a park bench on Fasanenplatz, glowing, I was oblivious to any incredulity except, of course, I wasn’t. The man sitting next to me had asked about my family, hadn’t he? And I had tried to explain the changes America was undergoing with experiences I knew, right? It wasn’t my intention to shock him. Like I said, I was happy. I was happy they were both being taken care of. I did say I was happy, didn’t I? Excuse me, I … But after this outburst, he didn’t want to hear any more. He was staring at me as if I were a madman. And… What could be more depressing? That he didn’t believe me? Or that now, in 2017, my reasons to be happy could be threatened by the new administration? Or even worse: that happiness and luck are practically indistinguishable? You don’t believe me? Look it up in the dictionary. Even if they’re used differently, Glück, which was the word hovering over both of our heads, means both happiness and luck. And this isn’t some German perversion. The cognate for happiness is luck in every Indo-European language. The heur in bonheur is salvaged the Old French for luck, and English happiness comes from the Old Norse hap for—you guessed it—luck. Chaucer: “Thus kan Fortune hir wheel governe and gye, / And out of joye brynge men to sorwe.” Translation: our happenstance and hence our happiness are dictated by the wheel of fortune. Translation: we forfeit our joy, which is only an extreme form of happiness, to the casino floor, the roulette wheel or craps table, and that inalienable right of the American Constitution for the pursuit of happiness has bad odds, high stakes, and payment in steak dinners at a restaurant you’d never want to eat at anyway. Please?
Modern English has made its Old Norse origins subterranean in comparison to German’s birch-like surface roots snaking along the mossy floor of the forest but we still live as if happiness is conditional in English; that it hinges on whatever follows the relative pronoun or preposition: I am happy that … or I am happy for … etc. And long before I spoke about my happiness to this complete stranger in Wilmersdorf, I had learned to believe that joy was nothing more than a category of snapshots to be bought from Shutterstock or a morsel sold with a jingle. Although both subscribed to effervescent forms of happiness, this belief didn’t come from my culture or upbringing but from my studies of ‘the most noble discipline,’ where I learned that philosophy’s principle goal is to learn how to perish – or, as Freud once put it, philosophy’s real question is: why not suicide? My cumbersome, life-sapping student debt may be evidence for my investment in this pursuit but I confess I never found an answer to these fundamental questions in analytic philosophy’s acrobatics of necessary and sufficient conditions for things as simple as going to the bathroom. More discouraging than investing years in these squabbles was that analytic philosophy never offered alternatives to intricate rabbit holes of modal logic and JTB+ (don’t look it up), insisting even that once we die we’re only dust and bones. If this was life and there was no beyond, I began to wonder: where did we go wrong? Did we misread the directions? Shouldn’t we prepare ourselves to die by living? And whatever happened to happiness? Did the lake dry up? Was it drained? I thought this was a protected forest!
It wasn’t. We had cleared it away. When? Sometime after Aristotle had said, “happiness is a life lived according to virtue.” Now we were dodging between the stumps of Adorno’s “there is no right life in the wrong.” If that was true, then it wasn’t ever much better – slavery has permeated every ancient culture. As such, it seemed easy to give in to evil. It seemed as inevitable as a black hole. So, I dyed my hair black and succumbed to a strand of Dostoevskian thought exemplified by Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov. I listened to the Cure’s Pornography, repeated its “it doesn’t matter if we all die,” and dreamed of smoking cloves. I concluded: it was not wrong to live wrongly; it would be unjust of a deity, should there be one, to punish me, a fallible being, for acting terribly down here in the muck. How can I be blamed for what I could never know? And as for happiness? A total bluff. But as my mistakes and regrets began to add up in this world like another Karamazov brother, Dimitri, I began to feel like this wasn’t the answer and I wished I had an operating manual for life on planet Earth. I hoped that there would be an appendix in this booklet with instructions for what to do in case of a crash landing, a burn the body would not return from. I turned back to what philosophy denied, looking to see if the road was any better before. I read the Bible but couldn’t get past the begetting. But I still needed to get rid of that sick feeling. And most of all I needed to cut my hair. Everyone together: Please!
But wait: there was that other brother, Alyosha Karamazov, what about him? How’d he do? What was it again that he learned from Father Zossima about the Pascalian wager with God? Oh right: why not believe? You’ve got nothing to lose if you do and everything if you don’t and you’re wrong! Ha! How rational! And what about happiness? Next question!
But I refused to give up. Even all these years later, beyond it being absurd. What was that definition of insanity again? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Perhaps happiness needs different tactics then. Yesterday I read: “joy is itself an insurrectionary force against the dreariness and dullness and isolation of everyday life.” And Rebecca Solnit is right, it is almost criminal to be happy and it occurred to me then: Perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong direction? But I was still stubborn. I picked up the phone and called my old department to give it one last try. After catching up, my old professor laughed at me. ‘Some things never change,’ he said. Fine then. Perhaps I should get a second opinion, I said. From an alternative practitioner? Long drawn out sigh from said professor. I guess philosophy is no help then, I dare. More laughter. Good luck and goodbye. Fine. The next morning, I got a number from a friend. 172 by Emily Dickinson:
‘T is so much joy! ‘T is so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I
Have ventured all upon a throw;
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so –
This side the victory!
Life is but Life! And Death, but Death!
Bliss is, but Bliss, and Breath but Breath!
And if I indeed fail,
At least, to know the worst, is sweet!
Defeat means nothing but Defeat,
No drearier, can befall!
And if I gain! Oh Gun at Sea!
Oh Bells, that in the Steeples be!
At first, repeat it slow!
For Heaven is a different thing,
Conjectured, and waked sudden in –
And might extinguish me!
This was great! But wait! What about that stutter step in the definition of bliss? And the end seems to be no better than Chaucer’s wheel of fortune, which might not only brynge me to sorwe but also destroy me! I was back at contingency and gloom. It felt like I was very near to what I was trying to leave. It gave me the creeps.
Fast-forward for the sake of mercy; to not have to watch years of senseless repetition: today, I know I condemned every grape for the hangover it might contain. Through a slow process of anamnesis I was able to discover what every child knows. Joy is in the verb. And it wasn’t philosophy that taught this to me, it was my mother and a 6’3” reserve guard turned head coach, named Steve Kerr.
Sidelined from his team’s historic start to the 2015-16 season by a botched back surgery, Kerr visited the Golden State Warriors practice facilities to talk to the team and interim head coach Luke Walton. The Warriors had just won sixteen games in a row and Kerr wanted to tell them he was proud of their performance in his absence. Not because they were winning, which was great, of course, but because they were executing according to his four core values. The first of them? Joy. Please? You heard me. Kerr wants his team to be happy. He wants them to have fun and enjoy what they’re doing. Not only because they’re privileged to be earning more money than the average American, which they are (and even the superstar guard Steph Curry recently said that if he were to ever complain about making $11 million a year, then his problems would be bigger than money) but because they were able to do what they loved and they should love what they do. As already implied, the team had listened. They had adopted this value as their own. And the result was not only the best record ever for the start of the season but also that their joy created more joy. Not only for the team members but for all of us. It was something so remarkable that even news agencies like the British Guardian who had never consistently written about basketball began covering their games. No one could help but write about them in wonder and it became a feedback loop we could all tune into. When Steph Curry pulled up from half court against the Oklahoma City Thunder to win in overtime, for instance, I was ecstatic. The team was ecstatic. Even opposing fans in attendance in Oklahoma City were. I was very happy. Not only because my childhood team had finally pulled out of the doldrums of decades of losing but because these were people doing something that was unheard of and they were having a lot of fun doing it. And we all kept cycling through it. It was like cicadas waking up in the forest after years of staying subterranean, dormant. But it was even more than this preposition or conjunction. I realized what Donna Haraway, the feminist theorist and daughter of a sports writer, meant when she said joy is the “eternal suspension of time, a high of ‘getting it’ together in action.”
Which is where we reach the chicken and the egg. Cynicism about this value being implemented because the Warriors had won the championship the season before won’t do. The value of joy had already been instated the day Kerr took the job. Instead, it’s like what William James suggested, that there are “cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.” If we lived as if joy was already present and not contingent on basketball championships then the weird thing is the championship, “the ring” will come. The trophy is yours if you learn to have fun in the daily grind. The one catch is: you can’t trick yourself and pretend to believe. You actually have to. It’s so simple, insane even but it actually works. This doesn’t mean that by belief only everything is possible. It needs hard work too. And even then you might fail. Though the Warriors had an amazing 2015-16 season, they lost to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the final seconds of Game 7. But it is the first, most important step. And this belief seems applicable off the hardwood court as well.
At the same time I was following the start of the 2015-16 season, my mother was finalizing her paperwork for her disability claim. Although she was living on the streets of San Luis Obispo, she had high spirits every time we talked. Her back problems – which are inoperable, unlike mine or Steve Kerr’s – caused a lot of pain and limited her mobility. One morning when she was on the way to her social worker, I called her as she was getting on the bus. She greeted a couple of people and I said it sounds like you’ve got a lot of friends. ‘And some enemies,’ she said, ‘but whatever.’ She laughed and I laughed as well. I tried to picture who these enemies were and if they were the ones she had greeted. It was then that I noticed my mother had become much happier since she was homeless. It would be foolish to believe this cheer would have anything to do with luck. Her luck couldn’t have been any worse. She was at the bottom of society and had lost everything. Some might object here that they know this from somewhere. It’s a cliché, they’ll say. It’s in some film. And maybe it is. Maybe once you ‘lose it all,’ you realize there was nothing much to lose. Or maybe she had learned that everything depends on your attitude. Our family motto, inherited from our Molokan ancestors, has always been: “the only thing you can change is yourself.” It was our secret family wisdom, even if none of us listened to it. But whenever things got tough, we would repeat it. And on the streets of San Luis Obispo, my mom seemed to finally be getting it. Instead of seeing life as a challenge, even though it was challenging, she laughed as she went from homeless shelter to library to social worker to library to church to shelter. She was doing something. The only thing I hate is boredom, she once said to me. And this seemed right. My mom was relearning the joy of doing and I was relearning with and from her.
As Steve Kerr suggested in a recent interview with the Positive Coaching Alliance, “We’re all in the development business.” And we are. Now that my mom has a roof over her head, she wants to keep developing even though the focus is currently on my sister. My mom is lucky to have gotten the chance to get off the street in a culture that doesn’t see housing as an inalienable right and I am happy that I no longer have to worry about her walking on the streets all day in pain. This is what I was trying to tell the elder German man on the park bench. But as I am trying to suggest here, her happiness is not dependent on it and neither is mine. I am happy to be on this miserable planet, working however I can to get better and believing that this can be done together. I cross my fingers my sister will realize this. That she will find the high of getting it right. Together we will. But first she has to want to. And like I told her once and will tell you, now, dear reader: “not to get all Yoda on you but ‘there is no try, do.’”