“Happiness, not in another place, but this place…not for another hour, but this hour,” Walt Whitman assured us nearly two centuries ago. Yet how few of us truly appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the ecstasy of a deep, dream-dazed sleep after a dozen miserable nights of insomnia or the glorious freedom of a Sunday morning with no one to see and nothing to do? Do we rejoice at the sound of our lover’s key unlocking the door or the miracle of our lost dog finding his way home? No, instead we moan about our mortgage, gossip about the inconsequential lives of imbeciles, gripe about having to go to yet another pointless meeting, and impatiently tap our feet and let out an exasperated sigh when an elderly coupon-clipping lady holds up the line at the grocery store.
Why do we become so joyless? Is it because the glamorous lives of movie stars and social media influencers leave us perpetually unsatisfied and always wanting more? because as we get older, we simply lose our capacity for wonder and become superficial social climbers obsessed with impressive job titles, designer handbags, and flashy cars? Or is it because life almost never goes as planned and inevitably disappoints us?
According to Pema Chodron, the ordained Buddhist monk behind the much beloved Wisdom of No Escape, the great thief of joy is resentment. When we forget what we have and only focus on what we lack and what we want, we conclude contentment is not in this place but another place, not in this hour but another hour. We’ll be happy, we tell ourselves, when we get the hip mid-century living room or the stylish wardrobe befitting a Vogue cover.
But what does the attainment of our ambitions actually get us? Do we feel less melancholic/despondent/angsty/anxiety-ridden when we fulfill our desires? No, getting what we want only makes us want more: the vintage velvet coach doesn’t look quite as charming in real life as it did on our Pinterest board, the blouse and trousers don’t look as chic on us as they did on that perfectly-proportioned fashion model. So we seek satisfaction in yet something else: a 1950s gold lamp, a Prada handbag hoping these things will finally satiate us.
For Chodron, the only way to escape this hedonic treadmill is to delight in what we usually neglect or ignore. To be awake to the beauty of ordinary moments— the unparalleled pleasure of clean sheets fresh out the dryer or the delight of an impromptu picnic in a field of tulips or the delectable bliss of chocolate raspberry gelato— is to step beyond the smallness of our own experience, beyond our bottomless desires and endless “more, more, more,” and into a wider perspective that recognizes the preciousness of every fleeting instant of our finite time on Earth. As Proust once reminded us, beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths. In a similar sentiment, Chodron urges us to marvel at the overlooked miracles all around us:
“That sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, every movement of our own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it. The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.
Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are. Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses on your morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under. We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that somebody has put flowers on the table.”
For centuries, artists created “memento mori,” works meant to remind us of death’s inevitability. Latin for “remember that you have to die,” a memento mori often featured a skull or an hourglass, unsettling symbols of mortality. Though Jean Morin’s skull paintings or the elaborate crypts of friars’ bones beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church in Rome might seem morbid or disturbing, they communicate an important— perhaps the most important— fact of life: we will die. “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be,” reads a haunting inscription in the Santa Maria catacombs. Whether you’re a pitiful peasant or a great king, in a hundred years, you— too— will be skull and bones, forgotten beneath the sands of time and reduced to a few insignificant words on a tombstone.
When we’ll perish, we cannot know. We could die fifty years from now, an old woman who’s done everything she set out to do— won the Pulitzer Prize, beheld the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, seen Machu Picchu— or we could die unexpectedly on the way to work tomorrow. The grim reaper rarely announces his arrival: we die suddenly of a heart attack and collapse over our morning coffee, we say “I love you” to our mother like we have hundreds of times, wave goodbye and never return.
Some say death is the domain of melancholy emo kids and brooding philosophers, but it’s actually something we should all ponder. When we reckon with death— that we will most certainly die but we can never know how or when— we will finally live. No longer will we overlook the loneliness-lessening comfort of recognizing ourselves in a character from a book, nor will we take for granted simple pleasures like a good laugh or hot chocolate on a chilly autumn afternoon. We’ll no longer postpone visiting that quaint town in the English countryside or procrastinate on doing the things we’ve always wanted to. Life with its clean sheets and tulip fields and chocolate raspberry gelato, we realize, is too precious to squander.