self-transcendence

"The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity." – Graham Green, The End of the Affair

When I first read this, I readily agreed. hasn’t sadness often driven me to "monstrous egotism," to focusing on my self, my feelings, my circumstances, my relations with other people, and being oblivious to things outside of the distinct boundaries of me, me, me? It has often driven me to the strange solace of loneliness, and the conviction that solitude is not only something I can handle very well, but also something I actually prefer, something I must seek. And I agree that unhappiness is easier to communicate. I even think it is in melancholy tones that I find my voice, especially in writing.

Whereas happiness—mindless, spirited, caught-in-the-present happiness—loosens me from the  hold of self-consciousness, the monitoring and fashioning of it, and allows me to forget the  performance that I, like an actress who has her lines down pat and has recited them so many times the words tumble out of her mouth without having to detour through her brain, almost automatically put on; and I find myself saying and doing things that I—and other people—would usually strike off the "about me" list if there was one.

So I guess happiness is more liberating—for doesn’t it feel so much lighter to be free of the self, with the definitions, limitations, and vexations that come with it, the past that it carries, and the future that it worries about? In happiness we often transcend the boundaries of the self. And transcending the self—sacrificing for the good of others, for example, or celebrating with someone we care for—makes us happy too, even if we did not benefit directly. This thought modifies my old idea that we are basically selfish creatures, and that even "self-sacrifice" is selfish in a way, for we do it because it lets us taste some flavor of satisfaction—thus, the self is not really denied, but rather, gratified. Perhaps that satisfaction arises not from self-denial, but self-transcendence. We do not become happy by destroying the self—what reason would there be for happiness then, if our needs, our wants, our dreams are annihilated? But when the concept of self expands to include others and identifies with something bigger than the individual, the pleasure we experience also becomes greater. When we cause somebody else happiness, and if that somebody is included in our concept of self, we do not only make him/her happy, we make ourselves happy too, and the happiness, if it could be quantified, doubles. And this, I suppose is not selfishness—not in the narrow sense of the self, anyway.

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