Yesterday evening, I was sitting with a dear friend at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Café Degas. It’s a little french restaurant with killer french onion soup and a great bartender. Uncle Nick makes the best Sazerac in town, and gracious lords over a bar of just four stools — and it may be my favorite bar in town.
Chez Degas, as we call this little corner of Faubourg St. John, is host to the best character study in New Orleans. I have sat there many a night, whether with friends or alone, and met the most incredible residents and visitors and exchanged stories and always learned something. The first night I visited it was almost at closing: I had my first sazerac ever (and after many, many more, I stand by my prior endorsement) and met a horse trainer who makes his living at the track nearby and the Commodore of the Southern Yacht Club. I have sat in one of those few stools discussing crime in New Orleans with a staff photographer of the Times-Picayune, and the joys of dining alone with an art director in the burgeoning local film industry.
But last night, I sat with an old friend and a new friend, and we met Mohsen. A slight man, with wire-framed glasses that are always a little tinted, Mohsen has a palpable accent despite immigrating here from Iran 33 years ago. He came to the U.S. alone at the age of 17, and has created his own life, which now involves working seven days a week at a coffeeshop he owns, that I happen to love.
Mohsed overheard us talking to Uncle Nick about the recent catastrophe in Norway. We all hypothesized on why someone would kill 80 (or 90+, from varying reports) innocent young people — regardless of your political beliefs. The rumor is that he was afraid of an Islamic takeover of Europe. It was at this point Mohsed made an ironic comment about “those muslims – never trust them” – which is clearly a joke – and that set us out on a conversation about how many people are killed every day, every year, in every country in the world. He referred to hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq, I thought about Sudan and a missing generation.
He made an apt point: at least 16,000 are killed in the U.S. every year. He feels safer walking the streets of Tehran than the streets of New Orleans. He may be right. His underlying message – we all live in danger, and killing happens everywhere. We are not told about all of the fear-making things because they aren’t always good news (as in, news that interests people – not new that is good) – so it’s easy to have a skewed perspective on our own reality, let alone foreign reality.
My friend Erica changed the subject to Mohsed’s life – in the typical way I think that U.S.-born Americans are fascinated with the American Dream we have never really had to pursue. He is impressive – building his own business out of nothing, and now about to close for a month and travel to see family all over the country.
Erica asked the question: “Are you happy?”
Mohsed, without hesitation: “What is happiness?” It seemed a useless question to him, unnecessary. “Define Happiness. Tell me what this ‘happiness’ is?”
This has been a constant challenge for me, especially of late. How much happiness is about fulfillment? How much happiness comes from a decision to be happy? Is it about being content with what we have, and striving towards a Buddhist idea of non-attachment? Does our capitalist-commericialist society constantly telling us (via advertising) that we are missing something, do not have enough, and are not enough set us all up for constant discontent?
Is that discontent the secret to happiness? Is working to overcome challenges the secret to being happy?
Or, as Mohsed went on to imply, is Happiness a figment? Is it some imaginary concept we have all been promised to give us something to do?
There’s a lot of philosophy written about this, and I don’t pretend to be well read in all of it. But it is something we all constantly mull over, I believe.
As someone who manages her depression, this is a particularly fascinating question to me. I’ve talked some about my depression publicly, and would like to talk more about it. I am especially fascinated by the growing proportion of people who are diagnosed with some variety of mood disorder (depression, anxiety, and so forth) – and with the suggested reasons why.
Part of my depression comes from a feeling of paralysis about how to be happy. And that being happy is the “correct” state — so when one is unhappy, one is incorrect. Where did this come from? When did this start?
There is no easy way to wrap up this thought. I am thankful for Mohsed, for asking this question: “What is this ‘happiness’?”