We live in a society obsessed with the concept of happiness. We’re constantly prodded with questions: Are you happy? Why not? Why don’t you do something to make yourself happy?
Happiness seems almost to have become a product. Our highly industrialised and celebrity culture has taken lifestyle branding to a level where many of us have internalised the images we see to the point of viewing our lives and experiences through a media filter. As one character in the movie The Joneses explains, “If people want you, they’ll want what you’ve got.” This mediated view of our lives then begins to define our concept of happiness.
The consequence of this is a disconnect. The media-fuelled ideal of happiness leaves little room for exploring our other emotions and truly connecting with others and the world around us. Sadness and other “negative” emotions are perceived as unnatural and malignant. The melancholy are often treated as ‘abnormal’ and encouraged to do whatever it takes to stop them feeling that way. Sometimes this means using anti-depressant drugs or other substances to physically change their mood.
True, we all want to achieve our ideal of happiness. True, also, there are those with genuine emotional problems who need clinical help and even medication. But what about those people who embrace and experience the full spectrum of emotion? Do their life experiences — which may provide joy but also supply pain and suffering — make them better people? Do all our emotions not have equal validity? If so, why are we so down on being down?
Some years ago, I was lent a book called Swallowed by the Snake. It compared dealing with sadness to an old Indian story of a village that was being terrorised by an enormous snake that continued to carry off its inhabitants and eat them. A young man went into the jungle with just a knife and a bag of rice. He was swallowed by the snake but rather than fight it, he allowed himself to get accustomed to the darkness and confinement of the snake’s belly — and slowly cut off pieces of the snake from the inside until he had worked his way through and into the light.
What I gained from the story was that there is no real quick fix, no way to fight sadness. All we can do is work through it. Only then are we truly able to appreciate the beauty and treasures of those moments of happiness that came before and since. The French poet Louis Aragon expressed it thus:
Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness, and truth presupposes error. It is these mingled opposites which people our life, which make it pungent, intoxicating. We only exist in terms of this conflict, in the zone where black and white clash.
So it’s not merely the moments of sadness or happiness that define our lives: it’s the conflict and opposition that does so, and how we respond is what brings out our real character. Sadness, after all, is an unavoidable part of the human experience. We all taste it — relationships turn sour, possessions get stolen or lost, loved ones die. Loss is the inevitable consequence of attachment, so if we are unwilling to feel the extent of our emotions we build walls around ourselves. Subconsciously, we know that forming a new attachment could bring us future grief, so we avoid real connection. Instead, we accumulate wealth and possessions or learn to be impressive in other ways to attract false friends, but it doesn’t address the problem.
Living consciously through sadness and finding its beauty gives us the courage to be open to the world and all its hidden dangers. It’s the fear of uncomfortable feelings that causes so much anxiety and depression. Embracing our emotions and learning not to resist them or judge them allows us to process the events of our lives.
This often gives us the opportunity to recognise our inner strength. Out of sadness we can be inspired to be better. Not that we should actively seek it out, of course, or revel in being morose. In fact, it’s understandable to recoil. But when the low moments of our lives do come, we could also grit our teeth, bear the trauma and say, “Yes, I will grieve. Life is unfair. Now let me figure out what I can do to ease the pain.” That may involve reaching out and connecting with others. As we do so, we encourage and fit into each other’s lives. Thus, in adversity, satisfaction can be found in relating to and serving one another, building relationships either temporary or lasting, and finding a useful role to perform. We dig the trenches together.
Some of the worst experiences of my life have always been made into fonder memories when I think back to those with whom I shared those moments. Maybe it’s the Shackleton phenomena (the British explorer stranded with his men on the South Pole) — even in seemingly hopeless scenarios, there can be beauty and heroism in a shared struggle.
The thing is, we’ve been taught to hide our sadness from others, and eventually we learn to hide it from ourselves. So we never learn the skill of simply experiencing it for what it is and letting it take its natural course — it pulls at us all our lives, driving us to try harder to achieve our media-driven ideals of happiness, when all the time the sadness is there, waiting for us, offering us an alternative path which allows us to go with the flow of our emotions, instead of resisting all the time.
If we follow that path, the inevitable discovery we make is that our emotions dissipate and integrate as we allow them to be. From that follows peace of mind, which is the real reward, the real happiness we crave.
Many of us mistake the absence of sadness, or the presence of excitement and external stimulation, for happiness. But the real thing is a much deeper thrill — that of being truly alive to this cruel but beautiful world.
There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. – Carl Jung
I write about all sorts of things, but I’ve found one aspect of the human condition near impossible for me to write about: sex. I just can’t write a sentence about it without cracking a lame, backpedalling joke or hitting delete immediately before anyone has a chance to make fun of me.
I’m not sure why that is. I enjoy sex. Quite a bit, actually. I might even say, if I dare, that sex was something of a driving force behind some of my decisions in life.
I don’t consider myself a prude, far from it. It’s just… well… a bit hard writing about sex. What seems majestic and earth-shaking at the time comes across ridiculous in print. I can’t fathom how people write those Mills-and-Boon-type novels with a shirtless Fabio on the cover, with titles like Desire in the Desert. I mean, how could you type, “His brawny, sweating chest glistened as he ripped off her blouse and caressed her supple, ripe breasts. She found herself flush with desire,” with a straight face? I certainly can’t.
About eight months ago, as a practice session intended to help correct this writing deficiency, (and to ensure that, if I ever succeed as an author, I would never win the Bad Sex In Fiction Award) I sat down to write a 2,000-word piece about my most recent intense, powerful sexual experience. To make sure I got in the groove, I drank about a quart of Jack Daniels, shut off all the lights and cranked up Motley Crue’s Red White & Crue album (when writing about love, try Miles Davis; when tackling sex, it has to be the Crue). Adequately drunk, I dove in and hammered away for about three hours straight, pausing only for some sausages and to restart the iPod playlist. I didn’t read what I wrote until I woke up the next morning. It could not have been more embarrassing if it had been written by one of my exes with an axe to grind. In fact, it read like Alex Reid being anally raped by Katie Price. Here’s a tip: When trying to write sexy, avoid the words labyrinthine, perpendicular, snorkel and “mayonnaiseish”. I beg you to trust me on this one.
A market has sprung in recent years for sex columnists. People love reading sex columns, but I’m not sure I ever believe them. It’s one thing to be frank and matter-of-fact about sex; it’s another entirely to confess the weird shit you do in print, with your name attached. If most of these women (and, of course, they’re always women; a guy’s columns about sex would always have the same predictable, abrupt end, and they’d all run about 150 words) had sex as often as they claimed, I don’t know how they’d even have time to write their columns. And how real can it be when everyone you’re having sex with knows you’re a sex columnist? I would suspect, knowing most guys, that this would be more of a detriment to finding willing subjects than a benefit. (And, come to think of it, if you’re a sex columnist, is it OK to miss deadline because you’re having sex? Is it considered research? What kind of stuff can you get tax credits for? Do you ever have normal work hours?)
Sex is such a mystery it’s a wonder anyone even knows how to do it. You never know who will be into what. Who would have guessed that Max Moseley fancied a bit of spanking? I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, when Diane Keaton’s character tells Woody about her last lover, a ferocious hellion in bed who sent her to heights she’d never imagined. When we meet him, he’s played by Wallace Shawn, the short “inconceivable” bald guy from The Princess Bride. I suspect that’s always the way it works. The hottest girl is often the coldest fish, and the guy who boasts about sex all the time can’t get it up.
But two play this game, and it’s strange sometimes how two people simply cannot click. I’ve been with people in the past who have surely considered themselves skilful at intercourse, and they appear to know all the right moves. But for whatever reason, we were never quite on the same page. It wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t mine. (No! It wasn’t! Couldn’t be!) That thing just wasn’t there. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, no matter how perfectly matched people seem to be. And, as we all know, when the physical attraction goes, it’s all over. We can fake smiles at cocktail parties, but we can’t fake that (though we can’t help ourselves from trying). On the flipside, we’ve all had that person that we have crazy chemistry with even though they drive us nuts. Sex has a tendency to goad us into abandoning all reason and self-preservation. It’s either a not-that-funny joke played by the universe or God punishing us for having sex before marriage!
You know, it really is a bit nerve-wracking writing this! It makes me uncomfortable just putting it into words. But, driving on… Once, I had a brief fling with an associate of a few close friends of mine. The Monday after we went out, my friends cornered me and demanded some locker-room talk. I couldn’t do it. They peppered me with questions, digging for details, intricacies — they were just friends of hers, but she was pretty, and they had to have wondered — and I gave them nothing. Just stammered, babbled, and changed the subject. “Um, guys, did you see Rooney’s hattrick yesterday? Uh… did you read about those thieving MPs? Man, the weather… what is it with this weather?”
It didn’t feel right, reporting back details. It never does. People look at the sex other people have far more dispassionately than they do their own. Personally, we have this notion that sex is supposed to be this sacred, two-become-one experience that is deeply profound, and we hold out for that ideal, but when we imagine others having sex, it’s either repulsive or just a manipulation of genitals. And both views are right, of course. We never truly and irrationally surrender ourselves to sex — I hereby submit the condom as Exhibit A — but it’s supremely important to us nevertheless. Sex does change everything; it’s just that none of us are sure why.
After all, it’s only natural, right? The birds and the bees do it. (I’m thinking of the way the parents of a friend of mine explained sex to him: “It’s like a hug, only it takes longer and you’re tired afterwards.” Ladies, you have to agree: sometimes, that sums it up entirely!) That sex affects us the way it does is a uniquely human thought process, and sometimes I wonder if the rest of the animal kingdom has it right. I witnessed two flies having sex the other day. It went on for about five minutes, which in a fly’s lifespan is about four years. I doubt the male fly was bragging to his larvae friends the next day, and I seriously doubt the female fly was upset the male fly didn’t call her. (I, naturally, swatted them both. Why should they get to get some?)
Think of it this way: If you and your current mate had never had sex, had never even considered it, how would your relationship be? Is what you learn about your mate during sex worth knowing? I’ve tried to foster an image as a cultured and witty person, but I’m a sweaty, hulking mess when I have sex. It is us at our most open and unguarded, completely bare for another person — a whole, entirely different person! — to witness and comprehend. There is nowhere to hide. That we continue to have sex is a triumph of nature, not our brains. It is safer not to be close. It’s more comfortable keeping it inside.
But look at me. I’m saying too much. I knew this would happen. I’m giving away my secrets… The “sexiest” thing I’ve done? Let me think… Hmmm… Well, there was… Shit, David, you can’t write that! No, seriously, don’t… What if your parents read this? Your readers will lose all respect for you and people will mock you forever… OK, fine, fuck it: a girl and I once filmed ourselves. We were both drunk, there was a camcorder in the room, and we figured: What the hell; we’re young, footloose, fancy-free, and all that. It was a sexy, dangerous thing to do at the time, and whenever we talked about it afterwards — only with each other, of course — it never failed to titillate us both. It was exciting and reckless, and certainly worth the trouble. Or so we thought.
We eventually broke up, obviously, but the tape remained in my possession. Choose to believe me or don’t, I don’t care, but I swear, I never thought about watching it again. OK, that’s not quite true; I did once… but I had no choice.
Two mates on a tour of Europe came to visit me in London one summer. They stayed a day later than I thought they would, so on the last day of their sojourn, I had to work. They grabbed some drinks and hung out at my place while I was gone. I thought nothing of it. They returned about three months later, and the three of us sat around reminiscing and getting drunk. We were giggling through the alcoholic mist when one of them stopped abruptly.
“Um, Dave, we have to tell you something. You might be a little pissed off,” he spluttered, still laughing stupidly. “Remember when we were here a few months ago? Well, we got a little hammered and started watching some of your old tapes. We found one…”
The next morning, when I finally came out from under the bed, I took a cricket bat and destroyed the tape — admittedly, a bit late. When your friends have witnessed something that inspires the comment, “Interesting technique there, mate,” it’s best to destroy the evidence, and violently.
Wahey! Check it out… I think I’m finally writing frankly about sex.
Oh, and about that story I just told? I made it all up. Not true. Don’t believe it. You know what writers and journalists are like… always fabricating! Just pretend you didn’t read it… Um… what about that Arsenal – Newcastle draw, eh? And the weather! Don’t you think it’s getting a little bit warmer outside these days?