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023 - On Finding Joy In The Right Places - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Life is meant for living, and joy is a sign your life has found meaning, provided its source comes from within.
Reeds in foreground before a lake and mountains under cloudy sky - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

You may expect from others that they write of the latest celebrity romance making the rounds in Hollywood, or perhaps the latest politician “flamed” by a late night comedian for being caught in another lie. Perhaps they shall compare notes on the sports teams currently in season, and describe who has chased after a ball most adroitly. Not me, and not today. Instead, I write something of lasting value, that will accrue to your benefit as well as mine.

And what is this thing of “lasting value” I hold out before you? It is this simple advice: to seek joy in the right places. You do this first by fostering a sound mind. A well-ordered mind is both the pre-condition for all your further philosophical progress, as well as the ultimate outcome. When you are self-sufficient, you know that your satisfaction cannot come from strangers bearing gifts. Though you believe you are likely to always be on the receiving end of life’s bounty – through a combination of your talents, your hard work, and your prior successes – nothing external is guaranteed. Your happiness, Deuteros, is your highest aim, and you aim best when you direct your gaze within. Learn to be happy with who you are, where you are, and what you have, and you have learned the recipe for joy.

“Am I not to take pleasure in anything the world has to offer? Why else have we been gifted with our various senses if not to savor a fine meal, linger over a lovely sunset, or dwell in the delight of well-played music?” I do not counsel you to be a curmudgeon, taking pleasure only in denying others theirs. Nor should you take up the scourge of the ascetic. Life is meant for living, and joy is a sign your life has found meaning, provided its source comes from within. But do not mistake a passing pleasure for the joy that comes from deep reflection and a true understanding of where value is created. You enjoy eating, drinking, and dancing, and your heart is light. Joy is what remains when the things you enjoy are taken from you.

Finding joy in oneself will not happen by accident. It takes preparation, contemplation, and study. The business of being happy is a serious business. Have you trained your mind to being content with nothing or little? Have you curbed your passions to the extent that the words of others arouse neither your praise nor your ire? Though your body fails you in innumerable ways, adding insult to injury, does your mind rise above to remind you that the body is just a vessel and the container is not the content?

It is true, my dear Deuteros, that if you enjoy only superficial pleasures, then you will suffer from superficial worries. But many a person has drowned themselves in a puddle of concerns a mile wide but only an inch deep. If you can find the space for deep thinking, you can create the conditions for uncovering deep joy. If you do things for the right reasons, uncompelled by anyone and anything external, not needing luxuries or status or wealth for your happiness, then you are on the path of finding a wellspring of joy that will never cease flowing.

I return to Ralph Waldo Emerson to borrow from his fount of wisdom, for I know that his well cannot be run dry:

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

The temptations of modern life are unavoidable, and so are the voices whispering to you that your happiness lies in their hands. If only you had this car, that handbag, those shoes, and a promotion, then you would be satisfied. Never mind that in the time you spend longing, you are postponing living. And buying today’s must have items only puts you on the treadmill to be compelled to purchase tomorrow’s.

The only thing you truly control is what you think. Thus, the path to happiness is not built upon pavers of enjoyment, but from choices: you must decide what you want and stick with your decisions. If you make well-considered decisions, and are happy with your decisions, you will be on the way to lasting joy.

I will add two sayings to balance my accounts, and tip the scales in my favor. They come courtesy of India, and are proof that we need not look for glitters of gold to find treasure lying in plain view. Guru Paramhansa Yogananda directs:

Learn to be calm and you will always be happy.

He speaks of the well-ordered mind that is the pre-condition for joy. And the Buddha in his wisdom reminds us of what reward awaits us when we focus within:

When desires go, joy comes.

Though I myself do not desire to part from you, I take joy in knowing that you will come to understanding when my letter comes to you.

Be well.

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