A year ago today, I found out that I was, in fact, happy.
Not that I suddenly became happy. It’s just that, at that moment, I realized that I had reverted back to my happy self. After about twelve years of forgetting how to be happy.
Here’s the backstory before the story itself…
In the summer of 1987 began the first period of intense happiness. At age 15, I became happy. Not joyous, pleased, chirpy… Profoundly happy. Happiness as a process in which I was able to cope with almost anything. Every second of my life, I felt good. Even when I was sad or hurt. There was an underlying feeling of well-being. Serenity. Then.
It started very simply, but the start of that process was the end of another one. For a few years prior to that moment, I was having something that others might have considered a somewhat typical “adolescence crisis” but which was, in my mind, a full-fledged existential crisis. I was literally digging into existential issues through tools like philosophy classics and existentialist literature. As I was reading, say, de Beauvoir, Heidegger, Vian, Maupassant, Camus, Descartes, Sartre, Nietzsche, and Freud, my own approach to Life, the Universe, and Everything began to emerge. It may seem that my reading was necessarily naïve and superficial, since I was a teen at the time. But, to this day, I feel awed at how profound the process was. Nowadays, I can’t read as deeply as I did then. I understand most of what I read, of course, and it’s much easier for me to read stuff which is deemed difficult. But my “comprehension” isn’t nearly as thorough as it was then.
I didn’t necessarily feel unhappy, at the time. But I was going through a specific kind of crisis. I felt troubled by the fact that I was unable to make sense of the many things about which I cared, including such “trivial” things as the meaning of life.
Then, things changed rather radically. It all made sense. In the sense that life not making sense suddenly made a lot of sense.
This, to me, was a lesson from one of the least-acknowledged existentialists: Boris Vian. Vian, who died almost fifty years ago, isn’t usually considered a philosopher. But I read him as one. I gained as much insight through Vian’s work as others might through Foucault’s œuvre. To me, there was (and still is) deep wisdom in quotes like this one, my favourite:
«Doué d’une naïveté maladive, il vivait plus que les autres.»
“Compulsively naive, he was living more than others were.”
Not sure I read this quote before or after that 1987 moment, but Vian was clearly at the back of my mind as I first found out my happiness, on that fateful day.
Here’s how it happened.
I had been spending some time in Switzerland with my father, his companion, and her daughter. The first part of that trip was mostly devoted to social activities which were somewhat dismissed as «mondanités» (“fashionable gatherings,” “niceties”…). To me, these were a period of fascinating discovery, especially in terms of food and drinks. As a proto-hedonist, I was “tasting” life in a new way. We were also having an intense social life, which suited my sense of social well-being. As a child, I was often ostracized, despite my sociocentrism. This period, during the summer of 1987, was an occasion for me to feel accepted.
The second phase of our Swiss stay was devoted to hard work. My father and I were collaborating on setting up some things for my grandmother. My father’s mother is one of my rolemodels and the notion that I was contributing to her well-being certainly played a part.
So is the fact that I discovered coffee at that time. This one may seem, again, trivial. But it clearly had an impact on my life. I can live without coffee (I’ve done so, for extended periods of time), but being a coffee lover is an important part of my life. That summer, coffee was a way to get a “boost” so that we could work efficiently after waking up at dawn, my father and I. But it also became a part of me: my hedonism, my social life, my intellectual stimulation, my personality.
Something I haven’t thought about much until today but which was probably significant as the onset of my first happy phase is the fact that I was able to spend some quality time with my father. In the US, the stereotypical equivalent would be the father-son baseball session. In a Swiss context, it’s fitting that it had to do with work.
So, the time I spent in Switzerland had prepared me for something. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but it was there.
Switzerland helped me be happy. And I have the t-shirt to prove it.
What’s funny is that, at the time, I was suffering from a series of ailments which were later diagnosed as hepatitis A. A few years prior to this, I got mononucleosis. My memories from that time have more to do with the comfort of sleeping all the time than with any malaise. My hepatitis was fairly similar.
And, as I got back from Switzerland, I got what I tend to call an “airplane cold,” a common cold which comes from the closed environment associated with air travel. Though I know it makes no sense in terms of epidemiology, I tend to think of “airplane cold” as if it were a specific type of virus.
But I digress…
I got back to Laval, Qc, with this benign cold. And I felt, generally, really tired. Possibly because of the hepatitis, jetlag, and the hard work I had been doing over the latter part of my Swiss summer.
So I slept for something like 28 hours over the course of two days. Seriously. I don’t remember the specifics but I remember waking up after something like 16 hours to do a few things before going back to sleep for another twelve hours or so.
When I finally got up, I felt very rested, obviously. But I still had that cold.
While I was in Switzerland, my mother was in Greece. From there, she had brought back a blue and white striped cotton sweater that I tend to associate with mariners. It’s quite possible that those sweaters aren’t typically worn by mariners, in Greece. But it was my «pull de marin grec».
This was during the dog days of summer and I had a cold. Based on an idea that sweating is a way to get rid of some symptoms of the cold, I decided to wear my sweater as I went out of the house to run a few errands in downtown Montreal. Though it was made out of cotton, that sweater looked much warmer than it actually was.
So, there I was, in downtown Montreal, wearing a sweater on a very hot day. As I was walking on Crescent toward St. Catherine, I remember thinking that others might find it strange to see someone in this attire. Maybe someone even looked at me in a strange way. That, I don’t remember.
But I do remember my realization: I simply didn’t care about people thinking about me as strange. After all, this notion wasn’t hurtful to them. The only their opinion might affect me is if I let it affect me. And I really didn’t mind it if their opinion of me were based on how strange I looked. My empathy for humankind was even enhanced in this whole notion that I was allowed to be strange. I wouldn’t try very actively to be as strange as possible, but it was then possible for me to take people’s opinion of me with “philosophy.”
Which made me realize that I was happy. I felt “good in my skin” («bien dans ma peau»).
And I remained happy until the summer of 1996.
This 1987-1996 backstory I’ve been telling on several occasions. In a way, this is almost the “canonical” version, even though I don’t care for canons.
But there’s more.
Briefly on the 1996-2008 period….
I didn’t really become unhappy. At least, it didn’t feel as if I were unhappy because I was “too busy being happy all the time.” But I forgot how to be happy. For twelve years. From the period surrounding my 24th birthday to a few months after my 36th.
Which gets us back to September 23rd, 2008, at 10:24. The point at which I broadcast the fact that I got my groove back.
What’s the story for that one? Come to think of it, I’m not sure this is the right time to expand on it much. But it does involve a sense of purpose, despite all signs to the contrary. It also involves coffee. And a set of social relations. Contrary to the “Greek sweater” episode, the triggering event wasn’t that straightforward. It was actually a set of circumstances including a colloquium on intersubjectivity in ethnographic disciplines, contacts at Café Myriade and at Brasserie Benelux, the Podcamp Montreal unconference, a teaching workshop, and a bunch of amazing people.
The awesome thing is that I found my soulmate almost exactly four months after finding my personal happiness. Which means that, in the same week, I get to celebrate our eight months “anniversary” (I call it “mensuversary,” because it’s in months) and my happiness anniversary.
Who could ask for anything more?