(Opinion Page column in Khaleej Times dated 2 Jan, 2022)
From where I am sitting and typing this piece, I am looking out at the ocean. The sea and the sky are a smudgy blur under a rain infused weekend. The horizon that separates the two blue expanses is practically invisible. It reminds me of a question I was recently asked by my sibling – what is the difference between joy and happiness? Or is there a difference at all? The question looms in front of me like the ashen view rolled out there.
I segue back into reflection, a state I have been dwelling in for some days now. This transitioning year has demanded a lot more of quiet introspection than the previous years. This time, I am determined not to let my reflections remain a distant, fogged out phenomenon. It is not enough to make vague estimations and iterations that lose steam as soon as life’s pressing concerns take charge. I need to make a blueprint, and for that, I must inspect the grey areas inside and clear the brain fog. I need to know what the new year, although symbolic in terms of time, should mean to me. ‘Finding meaning’ cannot remain a cliched prospect that I postpone to the future.
There is nothing more daunting than dissecting oneself: laying bare fears and frustrations, yanking out truths that for long I had pushed under the carpet, denuding falsehoods and examining myself in the mirror. The process is something we often talk about, but seldom know how to undertake in earnest. It is at this point that I train my sibling’s question about joy and happiness at me. To find an answer, I must go back to the drawing board and determine my basic values.
What would I put my pennies on in life? Much as simple as it might sound, ascertaining our values is an onerous task, one that will churn our guts and challenge our present ways. The question, ‘what matters to me?’ can throw us into a vortex of answers that will whip us hard. It will take a long time for us to look past the surface and get a glimpse of what truly matters to us deep inside. It is not an exercise that can be done in a hurry. If done with honesty, this can be a deeply moving experience. When done repeatedly, it can be life changing.
Of the myriad things that we hanker after, what do we covet the most? I am settling for ‘inner peace’.
I am going over the past year in my head and listing up the things that made me happy. While doing this, I am utterly surprised to note that the moments when I hit the high notes apparently did not last long nor did they bring me lasting peace. In certain cases, the feeling was contrived, and they weren’t even things that belonged to my original value chart. It injected some dopamine that created a warped version of happiness in my mind. Yet, I had exulted only because they were significant in the eyes of a fastidious world.
I am now beginning to eliminate things labelled under ‘not necessary for inner peace’ and striving to find new deliverables. It takes a lot of courage to admit that things I had considered invaluable did not eventually contribute to my tranquility and that they deserve to be categorically chucked out. We are used to glamorizing transient pleasures, you see.
Next, I am creating an inventory of things that made me discontented deep within. It is taking more effort than I presumed, for unhappiness has changed forms and disguised as fulfilments. It has taken a long while for me to realize that not everything I see around me and want to accomplish might be good for me. I refer back to my value chart and discover the massive mismatch between the two things.
The constant referencing to my value chart puts me in touch with what I essentially am. It guides me towards what I inherently want and steers me away from what is dispensable in life. As I go through this self-assessment drill, I clearly see the line between happiness and joy. It is a virtual line, like the one that divides the sea and the sky; one that remains hidden by haze on a cloudy day, but when the sun shines through, the difference becomes apparent.
Joy is the constant that surfaces when we touch base with the innate; it is what we call lasting peace. And happiness, like ice-cream, is felt only till it is still in the mouth. What I want more of will determine what I do in the years ahead.