Recently, I wrote both here and for Get Born about my philosophies on parenting and happiness. In the summer of 1995, I took a humanities class and it changed my life. Truly, I stole most of my approach to life and parenting from Aristotle.
Here is my happiness philosophy in a nutshell:
“Happiness is to know oneself well enough to choose both one’s path and speed with wisdom. Wisdom is the state of graceful humility wherein one relinquishes illusions of controlling anything beyond one’s own actions, and then chooses those actions with the moral clarity and ethical astuteness of one atoned with one’s place in the human collective. Happiness and wisdom cannot be bought, gifted, sold, or stolen. “
This is how I apply my happiness philosophy into my role as a human parent:
“My obligation as a parent is to provide comfort, safety, nurturing, and nourishment. I am obligated to attend to my children, but I am not obligated to provide their happiness or wisdom. Happiness and wisdom are, by their very nature, only obtained by the individual who hopes to possess them. No human being can be held accountable for the happiness of another human being any more than one can raise the dead.”
This recent news clip left me feeling validated in my approach to parenting. My thoughts coalesced after reading this article. Yes, a mother gives birth and is a vehicle of life for her child, but no child is an extension either parent. I gave birth to two very different, distinctive human beings. I am obligated to raise them, educate them, and serve as a moral and ethical example while setting appropriate expectations for them. I am neither obligated nor capable of meeting those expectations for them. Only they can pursue and achieve happiness for themselves. I can set only an example and a bar for them. This is the limitation of being an autonomous individual human being. It is the privilege, right, and responsibility of every human to set that bar and pursue one’s own happiness.”
I believe these things as surely as I believe the sky is blue. I feel obligated to setting a sound example for my children and all people who must suffer my existence. Because this is the philosophy I embrace, I would be delusional to think I could make my children happy.
I’m not saying that the stimuli and impediments of life do not impact us in our pursuit of happiness. Truly, those living under oppressive regimes or in war or famine have little time to contemplate their choices and deliberate on their options in the pursuit of happiness. Yes, other people can stimulate us in ways that cause us to suffer and in ways that give us pleasure. Pleasure is not happiness. Suffering is not the opposite of happiness. One can suffer the indignities of life and loss and still “know oneself well enough to choose both one’s path and speed with wisdom.” We often learn more about ourselves and foster greater wisdom through pain than through pleasure.
I believe one of the greatest and most fundamental failings of our culture is that we lost the ability to distinguish pleasure from happiness, and we equate pain with the absence of happiness. Pleasure is ephemeral and sensual experience of touch, taste, texture, sight, smell, etc. Happiness is the graceful and collective appreciation that both pleasure and pain are natural parts of our existence. We cannot always be pleased, but we can enhance our happiness when we claim some wisdom and self-knowledge from our displeasure as well as our pleasure.
The article in the last link I posted implies that young people have not acquired the insight or aptitude to accomplish their own happiness. I would counter that most living people of all ages lack that insight. Ergo, expecting children to entertain themselves and hold themselves accountable for their actions should be part of the life-curriculum and one that does not end until life itself concludes. If one’s chases pleasure, one is not pursuing actual happiness. Of course I’m not saying anything that wasn’t covered by a few Greek philosophers a few thousand years ago.