Friday, June 13, 2014

Compasses, Choices, and Happiness

“To secure one’s own happiness is a duty,” are about the only words I remember liking from Emmanuel Kant’s Groundings for the Metaphysics of Morals.

Skimming through the furiously highlighted copy I’ve saved from my first philosophy class, I am trying to remember what it was that rubbed me so far the wrong way about Kant. I think that it was, probably, all the talk of duty and law. At least, that is my gut reaction when I hold the thin volume between my thumb and forefinger, like I do a horn worm in the tomato patch.

It seems that I have long taken issue with authority, with any attempt for an outside force to dictate my moral compass or how to be in the world. Granted, there is a great deal of Kant that takes the golden rule and transposes it onto society—and I’m completely on board with that and wish mightily and try a little to live more kindly and treat the world more as I would like to be treated—but he has a preachy tone of what one “should” do that just sets unsettles my stomach and clenches my fists.

And yet, lately, as I weigh and balance the choices I am making in how I live, the steps I take as steps themselves and as steps along a path towards something always better and kinder and cleaner, I have been thinking of Kant and securing one’s own happiness as an ultimate duty.

My friend and fellow rabble-writer, Laura, posted a sweet response to the previous Granite Bunny ramble. I think her words are brilliant, and made me see so sharply how all of our lives are built out of our choices and priorities. She’d love to farm, but does not, in part, because of her rich community in the city and moral stance against cars. And so, she does paid work that doesn’t satisfy, yet leads a life that is rich in different ways than my own. She is jealous of my farm work, I am jealous of her centralized and rooted community—my glorious people are scattered like a wonderful and expansive constellation but I never have quorum of my dearest ones all in one place, and I wander a lot looking for the right fit—geographically, socially, personally—to root and grow with.

The grass isn’t greener on the other side of anything—it’s all green, all the time. And it is important to remember that, I think. That the choices of your life are because of the loves and quests and answers you’ve currently got.

For example, my need to put hands in dirt and body in service to something tangibly greater than myself so that my heart and brains and fingers can pound out these words to offer what I can to the world trumps all other priorities at present. There have been times when I have needed to wrap myself up in the people I love above all other needs, and times when I have shunted myself as far off a grid as I could find. Like all things, these choices and balances will shift, and I am coming to expect changes and not try to anticipate what they will be. I do not know where I will be one year from today, what adventure the priorities of my heart will have sent me on. To me, today at least, this is more exciting than frightening. 

To be poetic, I say these things are matters of my heart, my soul, my moral compass. However, it is my graceless stomach that is the real ethical barometer. There is a certain feeling of unbalance and sickness when I am doing the wrong thing, my wrong thing, when I cannot put my daily actions in context of my deep beliefs of how to be in and a part of the world. When I “secure my own happiness,” as Kant would say, my stomach is calm. When I am off my course, I feel it deeply, physically. In this way, I don’t always feel like I make my own choices, so much as my choices make me. If I made my own choices, if the compass of my guts didn’t drive me, there are a host of things I would likely have done differently. If I didn’t listen and adhere as carefully to my guts, chances are my life would be more secure and predictable and perhaps less overwhelming. I can hope that I would be happy with that, but there seems to be something I inescapably love about being kitty-corner to whatever normal milestones and benchmarks are for our society.

I don’t think I could be me if I did anything other than obey my moral compass and choices of my heart, soul, and stomach.

And so, I follow my instincts, because at all costs, the priceless joy and satisfaction is worth the struggle, and the worry and pain I may—with extreme regret—cause anyone else. It is worth my own dark times, bouts of loneliness, sleepless nights and scrounging months. And, I know the smack of selfishness that rings through this—if anyone other than my dog were dependent on me, my life would need to be different. But sustaining anyone that close would have become the right thing for my love and energies, I suspect.

My dear friend Shannon advised me recently to “treat everyone as if they have Asperger’s, and a broken heart.” As a somewhat tactless person with bleeding hearts pinned all over my sleeves, I do love this—it helps to swath interactions with a gentleness that is often lost and always needed. Too, I would add to assume that everyone is doing the best they can by whatever compass their morals abide by, that they are making choices, and being made by choices, in ways which make intricate sense to their soul, but perhaps not to the outside world.

I recognize that my efforts at farming—where I drive about an hour a day, alone, time which could be spent nurturing relationships closer—run afoul of my desire to rid the world of the scourge of fossil fuel dependence. I am not trying to justify or balance this: 120 CSA members at the farm times X pounds of carbon kept out of the atmosphere due to people shopping local and organic divided by 5 hours of driving plus 37 kinds of sunlight on 1,038.2 shades of green in the fields…there is no equation. Joy does not compute.

What I am doing, though, for now, is reminding me that I am an active part of something greater than myself. There are so many ways to do this. I believe it is the sweetest duty and happiness one can attain, however the effort manifests itself in your own life. As long as my daily life can be placed in context of, in compliment to, the demands of my soul, I think that happiness is present. I will likely not farm forever, but I will forever seek this sense of being in and of and engaged with the world. This is the happiness that is my duty to secure. And I am happier still to share it.


  1. I read your entire post. Well- written and thoughtful, so I shared it on FB.