I come from a country where self-sacrifice is a virtue of the highest order. Growing up, I saw extraordinary feats of sacrifice that bordered on self-deprivation which I never questioned as they were part of the fabric of society. This was particularly true of our women for whom the standards, now that I am older, more experienced and hopefully a bit wiser, appear unfairly skewed.
Is a woman ever born free, I wonder? Don't get me wrong -- a modern Indian woman enjoys much necessary freedom like education and free thought, and of course the more frivolous ones such as the freedom to express herself through much-needed indulgences, but at the end of the day the expectations are simple -- the wants and needs of those around her supersede those of hers. This mentality is deeply engrained in the culture, and therefore, her "happiness" takes on an altruistic connotation whether intentional or not.
As recently as the 19th century, the inhumane practice of "Sati" was prevalent in India. The life of a widow was considered to be such a worthless existence that she was expected to end it upon her husband's death by sacrificing herself on his funeral pyre. While Sati is a blood-curdling, unthinkable practice of the past, have expectations, particularly those secretly harbored toward women, changed all that much in the East and even here in the enlightened West, I seriously wonder?
No matter who we are or what we do or where we were born and raised, we cannot escape the expectations that society continues to place upon us. With all the advances that have been made in the realm of women's rights and gender issues, we are still expected to put everything else before ourselves, which really tempts me to study this inequity. Today, in honor of International Women's Day on March 8, I want to explore the simple but essential emotion of happiness that we women are entitled to but often feel guilty to embrace.
Let's look at the word "Happiness" for a minute. The word is a loaded one, one that the loftiest of minds have attempted to define through the ages. I particularly like Aristotle's view because he makes a clear distinction between happiness and instant gratification. In other words if Aristotle were around today, he would remind us that a "Happy Hour" does not really make us infinitely happy, "Ecstasy" is, at best, short-lived (and often, deadly), and material indulgences leave us (and our wallets) drained.
"For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man (or a woman, if I may add) blessed and happy."-- Aristotle.
I must mention here that I do slightly disagree with the brilliant Intellect and philosophize instead that we are women, not ascetics; small luxuries that bring momentary pleasure heal the worn body and mind, and therefore such fleeting indulgence, in moderation, is a necessary, soothing balm.
Now let's talk about what we women really want right here and right now but also long term and forever more. Real happiness is what makes the soul warm and leaves us fulfilled. It makes us say over and over again that life is worthwhile and I matter.
Kindness and compassion are virtues that we must practice but in this rat race to please everyone else around us we forget that we also need to be kind and virtuous to ourselves even if that makes us selfish. We need to nurture our souls instead of starving them. We need love -- the kind of love that makes our heart skip a beat, flusters our cheeks, leaves us weak in our knees and warms us all over, the kind of love that makes us want to close our eyes and sigh; yet we settle for comfort because we have been conditioned to be content. We secretly seek hot love and warm affection that fill the void that we are hiding inside of us.
How many of us have the gumption to seek more than what we have except in our reveries and dreams and then wake up guilty? How many of us have the audacity to seize and not just hope and cease? We are afraid of letting others down because we carry the weight of the world. We are the mythical Atlas who carries the celestial sphere on his shoulders. We are drained and exhausted yet must bear the burden that has been placed upon us, lest we let others down. We are what Atlas has often been described as durus, meaning hard and enduring. But tell me -- is "hard" or "enduring" happiness?
In the end, I resort to Dalai Lama's simple philosophy: "The purpose of life is to be happy; happiness is not something ready made; it comes from your own actions." So let's seek what makes us happy. Let's kiss guilt and sacrifice goodbye. Let's fulfill our purpose. Let's make life worthwhile for we were born to be happy. Let's not pretend but act, let's not just live but be alive.
Let's just be H-A-P-P-Y.