'Unhappy Happiness,' Or What Rabbi Nachman And Pharell Have in Common

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Presaging the hit song of Summer 2014 , Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav famously taught, “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.”

In fact, Rabbi Nachman further observed, a century ahead of his time, sadness can lead to illness; poetically, he explained that this was because the body needs ten different kinds of music to survive, and all are threatened by gloom.

Yet Rabbi Nachman himself could not uphold this mitzvah. Throughout his entire short life, he struggled with depression – latter-day diagnoses have ranged from bipolar disorder to more serious mental illness – as well as with physical ailments. It is an impossibility to be happy always.

Nor is it morally desirable to be so. Be happy in the face of death, plague, devastation, cruelty, and injustice? Are we supposed to be happy at funerals, or when our loved ones are suffering? Should we be happy with the violence in Israel?

Clearly, either Rabbi Nachman’s ideal is unreachable, or it is more subtle than it first appears. I don’t have a stake in which is right – only in reclaiming a specific, and specifically Jewish, form of unhappiness from the glee-obsessed yet malaise-filled present cultural moment.

I call it “unhappy happiness,” a kind of happiness that lies beneath the surface, beneath, that is, what we ordinarily understand to be sadness or joy. I want to suggest that it offers a middle path between two unsatisfactory alternatives: the Botox-smiling cheer of the American Dream on the one hand (in which unrelenting peppiness coexists with some of the world’s highest levels of depression and dissatisfaction), and the self-defeating Oy Vey of Jewish irascibility.

I have taught about this deeper happiness for several years, but with challenging times in my family and in the Jewish community, I am relearning these lessons myself. If I am honest, I have to admit that I have been quite sad for most of the last year, with challenges in many aspects of my private and public lives. Those who know me well know of these challenges. It feels reasonable to feel sad in the face of them.

Of course, there have also been fun times, and a few rewarding ones: some honors and accolades, rabbinic ordination, hopeful moments in my family’s health struggles. But on balance, 5774 has been awful and I’m glad to see it go.

Beneath all of that, though, is a very subtle contentment, close to equanimity. This is the simcha, the Joy, that I can comprehend in Rabbi Nachman’s otherwise absurd prescription: what Ken Wilber called “the simple feeling of being.” Just this – just showing up, as open as I can be, so that I can say each day that I lived honestly. Probably I didn’t enjoy it. Definitely I didn’t “win” any of the games of life in it. But I also didn’t kvetch about it, lash out at others too much, take it for granted, numb it with alcohol or drugs, delude myself with religious fantasies (traditional or New Age), or otherwise refuse to show up.

I’ve learned four things about it this year.

First, I prefer unhappy happiness to simple mirth. Call me a killjoy, but my personal and spiritual values are actualized a lot more when I’m being truthful, intimate, and wounded with people. I hate the corporate model of successful behavior, even if I recognize its necessity. I don’t like being two-faced. I hate the closet. The relationships in which I’m willing to be broken feel far more authentic than those in which I pretend to be whole.

Oh, and I can pretend with the best of them. And have. And will. I just feel hollow at the end of the day.

Second, there’s a real beauty in unhappy happiness. Think of Ashkenazi Jewish music, most of it in minor key, like the glass breaking at a wedding. It’s as if a single clarinet can capture 2,500 years of exile, longing, and memory. There’s the understanding that all of this is transitory: that life is short, and suffering is real (the Jews and the Buddhists agree on that), and we humans really have no idea what we’re doing.

And yet – there are also beauty, and love, and the capacity for kindness. I think, if I were as tough and cynical as conservatives tell us we have to be, that I would rather not be alive. The same openness that enables me to cast off another pointless inhibition also enables me to cry. If I don’t “man up” enough, that’s just too bad.

These are two reasons why opening to sadness, grief, and loss have been profoundly enriching for me. I feel real, broken, connected – and at peace with something beautiful. There are two more reasons, though, why ending at sadness is not enough.

A well-known ecstatic poet friend of mine (I love that phrase) once told me that he loves his suffering, because he can trust it, because it’s real. This was before he and his wife had two children, of course, but the statement stuck with me – because I disagree with it so completely.

It seems like he is in the majority throughout much of American Jewish culture. We argue, complain, haggle, and rant. Rudeness is acceptable social behavior in much of the Jewish community, particularly in large institutions, particularly if you’re rich. To me, that bespeaks a deep unhappiness, as well as low emotional intelligence. I wish we as a community could do something about it.

Maybe here, we could learn from contemplative communities – Buddhist, Jewish, and otherwise. What can we learn? Simply that it is possible to cultivate contentment, equanimity, ‘presence.’ You can upgrade your brain. You can build up your pre-frontal cortex so your amygdala doesn’t run your life. You can be happier without being a fool.

It’s fine to laugh at spirituality, but many “spiritual” people are emotional superstar athletes (or supermodels, if you prefer), able to remain in difficult situations longer, to be of more help to others, to experience a kind of bliss with a simple exhalation of breath. By comparison, many of our celebrities, politicians, and one-percenters are like 98-pound weaklings. To them, spirituality is about blissing out and ignoring the bad stuff.

The opposite is the case. Precisely by not blissing out, by showing up, by allowing even the grief to overwhelm me, I’ve been able to be unhappy-happy. Sometimes I’ve failed. A lot of times. But usually it’s the resistance, not the pain, that is unbearable.

Finally, I’ve learned something about the word ‘God.’ I don’t know what God is – but increasingly I understand what the word means. It means ‘Not Me.’ I can’t control the important stuff in my life. I leave that up to ‘God.’ Or ‘The Universe.’ Or ‘The Laws of Nature.’ Or ‘Chance.’

I hope that ‘God,’ unlike these other terms, is in some way connected to the benevolent sense I get when my ego stops trying to control things. But maybe not; maybe that’s just a relaxation response. But this has nothing to do with chattering atheists attacking a phenomenon they don’t understand (I just read yet another of their idiotic books; sometimes I think I, as a PhD in religion, should write a book on genomics or physics so they can understand how stupid they seem). This is not about cosmology. This is about surrender.

In twelve-step programs, participants are asked to turn over control of their lives to God, or a Higher Power, or whatever. The theology doesn’t matter; the yielding does. What’s important is not whether God exists, but whether I can stop pretending that I’m in control. Some things, of course I can control. But others, as the serenity prayer teachers, are things I cannot change.

Whatever is in charge of those – God or Nobody or Who Really Cares – is what we ought to mean by God. Don’t-Know-Who-But-Definitely-Not-Me.

I’m not happy in the Pharrell sense of the word. But in another sense, I am.

Written by

Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

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'Unhappy Happiness,' Or What Rabbi Nachman And Pharell Have in Common

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