On Loss, Identity and Joy…
Oh my mornings coming back
The whole world’s waking up
This city bus is swimming past
I’m happy just because
I found out that I am really no one
//Bright Eyes, At the Bottom of Everything//
Conor Oberst wrote the song above, and really a fair bit of his early 00’s masterpiece I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, from the perspective for a heroin addict coming clean.
At the Bottom of Everything is a raucous song that begins deliberately, telling the story of a plane that’s about to crash into “the largest ocean on planet earth.”
Quickly, though, when a jangling rhythm on an acoustic guitar launches alongside a melodic banjo and thrumming bassline, the song appears to be a celebration. All the while, Oberst details a sardonic and conflicted view of the world, in his search for peace in modern life.
We must talk on every telephone
Get eaten off the web
We must rip out all the epilogues
From the books that we have read
And to the face of every criminal
Strapped firmly to a chair
We must stare, we must stare, we must stare
A lot of the song is that raw and aggressive… But that line, “I’m happy just because/I found out I am really no one,” it has always stumped me.
How could someone be happy by being just like everybody else?
I’ve turned it around in my mind, convinced that there’s wisdom there, as I angle it to fit my circumstances. Perhaps it means that lack of effort is happiness. (This didn’t feel right, and in practice certainly isn’t true.) Perhaps it’s the loss of self, as the Buddha promises, that leads to happiness. (This seems closer to the truth, but still not quite right.) No, to understand what he was talking about took having a son and listening to David Brooks.
I’ll start with David Brooks. Brooks defined joy as separate from happiness. He put words to something that I have recently begun to understand — joy, he said, is selfless and its transcendent, it raises you above your circumstances into something higher than yourself. Happiness, in contrast, is something that one gets through an achievement. David Brooks provides a wonderful example in a college graduate. A graduate is full of happiness; his or her family is full of joy.
Of course, the Buddha was right. Both of these things are ephemeral. But while happiness comes through continuous, constant, and ever increasingly difficult achievements, joy comes through the celebration of others — through being selfless for others.
For so long, I was focused on the former, instead of the latter. Then I had a son. Today, he gives me the occasional frustration, annoyance or concern, but also more than occasional true, complete and transcendent joy. It’s wonderful to be with him, see him learn, hear him sing, explain the sometimes strange aspects of life (even though his response is often cars), race him around the yard, and so much more. It’s heart-lifting, instead of anxiety-inducing. It, as with so much of anything, is deeply challenging and a ton of work. But it’s also amazing to be a part of.
But, joy is symptomatic, not axiomatic. You can’t prescribe joy as an attitude and have it come through. Instead, in my experience, it comes from having a healthy, productive environment, one where someone feels comfortable and safe. It is achieved by feeling love and giving love. From that trust, comes shared selflessness, and by extension joy.
I don’t know anyone, except perhaps a Buddhist monk or equally selfless spiritual leader, who could be in a toxic environment and keep peace of mind and selflessness. I know a lot of people who behave selfishly and focus solely on their own achievements, even when things are going well. The key, to me, seems to be the loss of one’s identity — being willing to eliminate one’s ego, one’s self in the face of anger or toxicity or what have you.
It is in this that we can find the true wisdom of the Bright Eyes lyric, “I’m happy just because/I found that I am truly no one,” though perhaps it would be best put as “I’m joyous just because/I found that I am truly no one.” I don’t think it works as well...
And this is why I’m not a poet.