Monday, August 03, 2009

How Language Can Befuddle Us

New York Times cartoonist Tim Kreider laments the difficulties of "finding happiness" in a recent post on his NYT Averted Vision - Happy Days Blog

While I understand the complaint, I don't relate with the evaluation. Language has befuddled us by allowing us to make "happiness" a NOUN, as if a thing, as if "it" "exists" and can be "found". And because we feel happy doing many different, disparate things, the noun "happiness" becomes muddy and complicated--do we "find" "happiness" when we love (another process that we have mistakenly made into a noun) "or" when we work? Does that mean love=work? If we sometimes feel sad when we love someone, have we "lost" "happiness"? What if we see a beautiful painting in an ugly place? Have we "found" "happiness" or "sadness"? How confusing!

Imagine if our language only allowed verbs and adverbs. Then we might "read happily" or "interact happily" or "work happily" but we could not fool ourselves into "seeking" "happiness"--no noun, no thing, just process.

As a thing, "happiness" seems to fill up the whole room and push every"thing" else aside when you "find" it, while its "lack" seems to leaves an unfillable hole. But do you imagine or hope to ever "find" "hunger"? No--you feel a sensation, hungry, at some times and not at others, regardless of what else you happen to be doing.

As a sensation, feeling happy resembles feeling hungry, or relaxed, or sleepy, or focused--all ongoing states that do not exclude other potentially contradictory sensations. In that light, we can start to see that we can feel happy right alongside feeling sad, or frustrated, or fulfilled, or accomplished, or lonely, etc. It's only a nasty trick of language that makes us think we can "find" it, rather than just feeling it here and now, or then and there, or not.

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