Keeping Track of the Good Things

happinessjar

The “Happiness Jar”

Happiness Jars have been a thing for years now, and I really wish I had made one for 2015.

This was just…not my year. 2015 was the year that nothing happened; or, at least, nothing good. I had declared 2015 a failure as early as mid-September, dragging myself for all the wasted days and failed attempts/missed opportunities to make it better. Because I enjoy making myself suffer oh-so-much, I decided to write a list of all the things I didn’t do this year, all the things I tried and failed, and all the things that just went flat-out wrong.

I didn’t feel too great by the end of this little exercise, to say the least. In fact, I was livid. Angry at myself for all the things that went wrong this year, sure, but also suddenly angry at the very notion that my 2015 was a total and complete disaster. Seeing all of my failures and shortcomings down on paper made me oddly defensive, and perhaps a bit desperate to prove to myself that 2015 wasn’t all bad…after all, only a Sith deals in absolutes.

I didn’t have a Happiness Jar to fall back on, so I went back through my memories of 2015 to see if I could come up with any Good Things to pit against my list of crap.

Here’s what I came up with:

Took a really scary writing workshop that became much less scary by the end. It was taught by a Nebula nominee and the other students gave incredibly…thorough…feedback. But I pushed through and it was worth it in the end because…

…I finally began drafting the fantasy novel I’ve been sitting on for years. I brought in really rough drafts of the first two chapters, and it was surprisingly (to me, at least) well received. I was given plenty of notes on things to improve upon, of course, but for now I’m just happy having introduced a group of people to characters I’ve known and loved for so long, and knowing that they loved them, too.

Wrote a review of a book I really enjoyed and the book’s author found it, read it, and Tweeted it

Introduced myself to one of my favorite authors at BookCon. I was shaking and terribly awkward but for a fleeting moment her attention was on me, which is plenty to feel good about.

Landed a job I had wanted for awhile, then had the courage to quit when I realized it wasn’t what I wanted, after all. I wrote about it here.

Asked another employer (who I have been with for three years) for a raise and have since received TWO. Ask and you shall receive. Seriously.

Completely reworked how I thought about my day job, and it has made a world of difference. I work from home as a web content writer. It’s not a particularly fun job and it can get lonely and underwhelming not having an office outside the house to go to every day. This was the year I really began to understand that this job is my income, not my profession, and that working from home gives me the freedom to schedule in time to work on other writing projects…my writing projects.

Saw MISERY on Broadway as a “Halloween present” from my sister. I am 100% in favor of Halloween presents becoming a thing, especially when they consist of seeing Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in a play based on one of your favorite books by one of your favorite authors.

Discovered new means of managing anxiety…through baking.

Saw my name in print as an editorial assistant of a lit mag for the first time.

Was invited to participate in my first literary reading. I have since been told the event has been pushed back to December 2016, but it feels nice to have been asked (and now I have a whole year to write an awesome story to read).

Quit smoking. !

Got a puppy. !!!

 

Of course I would like to see things improve for me in 2016. Of course I have goals for the coming year and hope they don’t go up in flames like so many of the goals I made in 2015. But things are going to go wrong, and I’m going to get discouraged and it’s going to feel like my own personal apocalypse all over again…I’ll just have to remember to keep track of the Good Things, too.

I’m going out tomorrow to find myself a big, fat Happiness Jar. Here’s to filling it to the brim with Good Things in 2016.

The Giver: On “Nice” Dystopias and the Dangers of Bliss

the-giver

Lois Lowry’s The Giver was my first introduction to the genre of dystopian fiction, and for that, it holds a particularly special place in my heart. I am thrilled with the recent resurgence of conversation surrounding the story, which is largely due to the long-awaited release of the movie, and my eager-to-eavesdrop ears perk up at the mere mention of it. Not long ago, I overheard an especially interesting comment on The Giver, between two young women who were sitting near me at a coffee shop.

One of the women said to her friend: “Am I wrong to think it wouldn’t be so bad to live in The Giver? I mean, there’s no war, no prejudice, and everyone gets a job and a house; it sounds pretty nice to me.”

However much of a joke the comment was intended to be, there was a telling honesty to it. The Giver presents a world vastly different than the worlds of many other well-known dystopias, in that it is, for all intents and purposes, conceptually “nice”. The Giver takes place in a society, referred to only as “the community”, where an order of ‘Sameness’ has existed for countless generations. Under Sameness, everyone is inherently equal, as there are no social or economic disparities, no hunger, no war, no pain, and yes – everyone is guaranteed a job and a house.

This is the “nice” part, no doubt, but it comes with a price: for the community’s widespread lack of conflict, prejudice, and poverty, there also exists a profound lack of choice and individual agency. Every decision – from a child’s name to a person’s spouse and occupation – is made by a Council of Elders. There are no individual birthdays, no privacy (not even in dreams), and all behavior is tightly surveilled and policed, lest it sparks a deviation from the established Sameness. Such control and surveillance are more familiar elements of the dystopian genre, but what the young woman in the coffee shop’s comment showcased – and what I really want to talk about here – is the disturbing quickness with which people are willing to surrender all agency and control if it means living in a world that feels “nice” to them.

Not unlike other popular dystopian stories, the world of The Giver is wholly dependent on the censorship of knowledge in order to maintain itself. What is different here, however, is that the people in the community, including the Council of Elders, have no knowledge of anything before or beyond Sameness. Only the ‘Receiver of Memory’ holds this knowledge, and it is through 12-year-old Jonas’s training sessions to become the new Receiver (a position chosen for him by the Elders) that we become aware of all the knowledge the community has given up for the sake of its Sameness. It is in these sessions that the current Receiver (the “Giver”) transmits to Jonas memories of everything from war, blood, hunger, and pain, to sunlight, snow, color, and music. None of the other members of the community have these memories, and so they live at peace with what they do have, purely on the virtue of not knowing anything else.

It is the epitome of what we mean when we say “ignorance is bliss”, and there is no doubt that the people in the community do live blissfully. But they also, by extension, live in ignorance, and it forces them to be content with their own brand of dystopia because they have no idea that anything else is possible. It is a comfortable life, but not very exhilarating, or even happy.

While the philosophical nature of “bliss” versus “happiness” is up for neverending debate, “bliss” is often understood as a divine state of being, a perpetual state of having nothing else left to want or crave. “Happiness”, on the other hand, refers more to what is felt when a particular want or craving is met. The person who is happy achieves this feeling only after a period of wanting, while the person who is blissful wants nothing at allBased on these definitions, many could argue that we should strive to become “blissful” over becoming “happy”, but I disagree. There is tremendous value in wanting – it is what drives ambition, training, and endless exploration of all the world has to offer. Bliss, or not wanting, can breed only more of the same, as there is no desire for things to be any different. While the security of being content is appealing, not much ever really comes from it.

This is why the community in The Giver has been able to exist for longer than anyone who lives in it can remember – if there is no desire for things to be any different, they never will be. A blissful world is a most dangerous dystopia because there is no desire to question or change it. Such desire can only come from the knowledge that another way of living is possible, and we see this happen in The Giver only as Jonas continues to receive the memories of the time before Sameness.

The desire for change is fueled as the memories quickly tear apart Jonas’s world of bliss and, in turn, begin to isolate him from his family and childhood friends. This is shown in an especially pivotal passage in the book, leading up to the novel’s climax:

His childhood, his friendships, his carefree sense of security–all of these things seemed to be slipping away. With his new, heightened feelings, he was overwhelmed by sadness at the way the others had laughed and shouted, playing at war. But he knew that they could not understand why, without the memories. He felt such love for Asher and for Fiona. But they could not feel it back, without the memories. And he could not give them those. Jonas knew with certainty that he could change nothing (pg. 135).

Of course, Jonas does find a way to change things, but if not for the memories, the knowledge, and his bubble of bliss being destroyed, he would have never realized there was space for things to change, and certainly would not have realized the need. 

This is exactly what the promise of “bliss” does – the idea of living in a world so effortlessly perfect and shielded from sadness is so attractive, so comfortable, that not only do we not realize there are other ways of being to strive for, we begin to not want to engage with or challenge the world around us for fear that it may not feel “nice”. It is actually a brilliant tactic of social control – to make people feel so comfortable that they don’t care to ask for more – but as we see through Jonas’s growth and revelations, such pristine bliss makes for a really awful way to live in the long-run.

The characters in The Giver had no choice but to live in a bubble of bliss, but we do, and that is why the young woman in the coffee shop’s comment disturbed me in the way that it did. For all the pain and confusion caused by the memories, Jonas comes to see that eliminating the knowledge of the bad will also eliminate the knowledge of the good, and ultimately concludes that without our ability to know, feel, and even want, we really do not have much at all.