“Why was I so much happier twenty years ago?” asked one of our members this week. “I was happier before I acquired the big house, fancy cars, and private lessons for the kids. Where did the happiness go? It seems to have leaked out, while we were busy accumulating things.”
We agreed unanimously with this observation. Each of us could look back on the past decade or two and see the correlation between increasing material success and decreasing contentment. The Gita talks about the danger of desiring material things. The danger it appears, is not so much in the things themselves, they are inanimate objects after all, but in the continuous cravings they create for even more things. But do these cravings occur in a vacuum, or are they spurred on by the social need to keep up?
We talked about how we are driven to keep up appearances, to maintain a certain social status, to live in the right neighborhood, send our kids to the right schools, drive the right car and wear the latest fashions. Sickened as some of us were by the extravagant exhibitionism displayed by some of our acquaintances, we had to admit that we were to some extent controlled by the need to keep up with them or be shunned as somehow inferior.
One group member voiced her frustration. “It’s one thing if you are trying and can’t keep up. But to know that you are perfectly capable and simply choose not to enter the rat race, and to then be condemned for it by those around you as somehow not being up to the mark, that is what is unbearable.”
While it’s easy to suggest ignoring public opinion and living your life in peace, the reality is that none of us live in a vacuum. The Gita directs us to choose the path of spiritual progress without acknowledging this very important fact. As members of society, we are subject to continuous social pressure. Even if we don’t care what others think, we have our children to worry about. As mothers, we cannot bear to see our children treated as somehow inferior because they don’t live in the right place or go to the right school. As wives, we cannot tolerate our husbands being disrespected because they don’t have the right job or a high enough income. As women, we cannot abide being looked down upon for not having the right career or the perfect look. So we suffer in silence, or grit our teeth and keep up appearances to get by. In the process, we become unhappy, pushing ourselves to work harder and harder, forcing ourselves to acquire more and more, saddling ourselves with debt, and sacrificing our peace and happiness.
I happen to know firsthand what it’s like to be both poor and a social outcast. I went from being a well established married woman with a strong circle of friends to being a social pariah after my divorce from an abusive husband.
I remember struggling to pay the bills. I was determined to send my son to the very best public schools and paid criminally high rents to stay in the right school district so he could compete later on with his peers for college admission.
I remember how I was treated as a single mother, as a threat to married women everywhere. I remember being excluded from social events, and how my son was considered a bad influence on other children since he was the product of a broken home.
I remember when my husband was a struggling musician, playing at every cocktail hour and wedding expo for a pittance just to get his name out there. How we were treated as the hired help and had to use the back entrance of the palatial mansions he would perform at.
All that’s changed now. I’m a respected married woman again, a professor worthy of acquaintance. My son is in medical school, earning a badge of merit among friends and strangers alike. My husband is doing well in his music career, focusing on stage performances and no longer scrambling for private gigs. Still, all these achievements came at great cost and after great humiliation. I can choose now to be bitter, having learned firsthand the cruelty of society when you are down. Or I can use this knowledge to take to heart the idea that fulfilling social expectations does not buy happiness.
If the focus is on lasting peace, then it follows that such a peace cannot be based on fickle social approval. For those of us who have lived long enough and scrambled hard enough, this becomes quite apparent. The Gita says to look within for our source of joy. I think life’s vicissitudes help nudge us in the same direction. The hard part is to do so without resentment, to release the bitterness and the need for approval, and to revel in the newfound sense of freedom that such a release can bring.
Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons