observations and opinion
If you ask someone if they are happy, their answer will depend on what they think you are asking. Having found new shoes which go smartly with a dress, the shopper will say confidently that she is “happy” with her purchase. If you ask her if she is happy with the feet that go into the shoes, unless she is most uncommon the same person will say “no” because there appear to be no women, anywhere, who admire their own feet. If you ask her if she is happy with the body she pulls the dress over she will likely identify one or more faults with it, either because she sees the faults or because it seems impolite to revel in one’s own shape.
If reflecting on an experience or an object or another person, the measure of happiness – satisfaction, enjoyment, serenity, however one judges it – seems readily possible. She is happy with her best friend; she is happy that her boss has not recently scolded her; she is happy to have the boyfriend but not happy that he doesn’t listen to her enough; she is happy with her time on the 10K; she is happy not to live with her mother anymore, although she misses her mother so much. If there is something right before the eyes, or the mind’s eye, the measure of happiness does not seem difficult.
But if you ask her if she is “happy” in any other sense – in a sense that requires a judgment of one’s overall satisfaction level in life – she will most certainly hesitate or hedge. To declare oneself “happy” is a very big thing and has the aroma of arrogance or delusion. And to declare oneself “unhappy” seems even bigger and socially hazardous – who the hell wants to admit to being unhappy?
The difficulty we experience deciding on this question – “am I happy?” – is so sharp that we usually skip over it altogether. First of all, who’s asking? Second, how do I decide? Third and most fatal to the inquiry, why bother asking the question when the answer won’t change anything, either way?
The third of those objections is the easiest to dispense with: presuming that “happiness” is a good (however one defines it) then measuring one’s allotment at the very least tells us something about our lives and ourselves. The “why” is actually the easy part. Why not, unless you’re afraid of the answer?
But knowing “how” to judge one’s own happiness, that is a different and more difficult endeavour. It means making a conscious decision about your values. That demands an honest look at oneself, at what pleases and pleasures and displeases and torments us. And that means staring down the well at one’s fears, frailties, flaws and failures. In short, to decide if you are “happy” on any level grander than liking what you see in the mirror or on the bank statement, you must know who you are. Very often that’s a good enough reason not to think about it at all.
But if the question of “are you happy” hinges on the answer to “who are you?” and if we are prepared to bite the bullet, how do we begin to know? I think we should start this question from the ground up – quite literally, by staring at our shoes. What do those shoes tell you about the woman or man inside them? Just exactly who is wearing your shoes?
This may seem silly – what a ridiculous way to know “who you are” – but we have to start somewhere and frankly, it is the things we don’t think about which often have the most to teach us. Shoes enable us to walk upon different ground; shoes protect us from injury; shoes decorate a most undecorative body part. Shoes tell people what our immediate plans are. Shoes very often reflect how much money we have, or at least, how much we are willing to spend on ourselves. Shoes are messengers: they say what you want the world to hear, and they say what you’re thinking but do not speak.
So I begin with the “am I happy?” test by addressing the “who am I?” question by, um, listening to my shoes. This is not an obvious or self-serving approach for me. I do not like what my footwear has to say. Because they do, in fact, tell a story about the person wearing them.
A generous interpretation of what my shoes are saying, is that I am not much concerned with the material world. That’s so generous as to be kind of laughable, actually. I approach shoes the way I do sandwiches: I have them until I have consumed them. They have to be comfortable but they do not have to be pretty. They have to be narrow because the feet are; they ought to have arch supports because the feet do not have arches. They don’t usually have arch support because some major part of my brain still thinks I am 16 years of age and don’t have to take care of myself. Which would be incorrect.
Today I’m wearing “boat shoes”. This makes some sense because I happen to own some boats (too many damned boats, actually) but at present, I am nowhere near a boat, but rather an office building and a coffee shop. These were the shoes nearest the front door of my house, that did not require me to go back upstairs to get socks. That, I fear, says something too.
I have no idea what brand these shoes are. I did not choose these shoes (another message from below – I delegate many life decisions) but I paid for them. I have no idea what I paid for them, although it is very likely they were on sale. I have no idea if these shoes are fashionable or not. If they are, that is a pleasant surprise; if they are not, that pleases me because I am all too often a contrary soul. The very worst reason I have ever heard for doing anything is that someone else is doing it. This makes me a difficult consumer, methinks.
The boat shoes are in decent shape. That’s because I don’t wear them too often. Most often my dress shoes are not shiny, but somewhat dusty and scuffed – I say this with some shame, as it seems to me a poor character trait to neglect these things. As I think about my footwear, my too-tall lawn and my too-messy desk come to mind. I am reminded of my capacity not to see what is in front of me, a trait which is obviously hazardous (look out, pothole ahead) but also rewarding (the “big picture” is almost always in front of my eyes and that proves useful to me, and to others, most days of the week).
In truth, the experience of examining these shoes – and thinking about the ones in the closet at home – tells me a great deal about the man in my shoes. He does not like to shop. He does not like to think about the appearance of things. He trusts other people to take care of small details, and in all likelihood, he burdens those people with too many small details. This tells me that he is somewhat selfish, somewhat oblivious, somewhat preoccupied, perhaps arrogant. He is also obviously lucky, and maybe even wise enough, to have constructed a world around himself which relieves him of chores he does not much enjoy. But he may also be kidding himself, because what exactly is he learning (or teaching) that way?
As you can see, one’s shoes can be very talkative indeed. Look down and listen up: what are yours saying?
Probably, “thank God this blog is over” or “oh goodie, Nancy Sinatra!”