The Impossible Pursuit of Happiness – Lessons from Shtisel

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

With all this time I’ve carved out in my life because I quit Facebook, I can now indulge in the pleasure of diving into an engrossing show. My next step will be to simply sit and enjoy the show for the pause it gives me, but in the meantime, I’m using entertainment to expand my self-awareness. It’s so worth the $13.99 a month, this heightened awareness! Thanks to Netflix, there’s a plethora of really quality programming out there now, and it’s available on demand. So this cold, snowy Friday morning I chose to sit a take in a couple of episodes of Shtisel.

Have you heard of this one? It profiles an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in a community in a suburb of Jerusalem called Geula.

Have I ever mentioned that I’m a closet Buddhist? No, I haven’t studied any of the teachings, formally, because they are REALLY hard to read, but life is showing me a thing or two about how those ancient Eastern religions really do have it all figured out. Over time, I find myself more and more aligned to many of the existential sets of truth. I’m thinking a lot about this North American concept of happiness and the implications of the belief that happiness is a birthright. Some of the key messages from the first few episodes of Shtisel are providing me with some really good food for thought this morning. I’d like to share them with you, as maybe you’re ready for the same kinds of messages that I am?

I’m a product of a clash of cultures – Judaism, with its prescriptions and proscriptions, and North America, with its freedom of choice. Despite my excellent Jewish education (thank you, parents and grandparents – the lessons have served me well in my life, and will continue to serve), I rejected most of the tenets of the religion that limit the definition of my worth as a person to that which is inclusive of my community, and exclusive of The Other (this is my takeaway, though I know many from within the community will not appreciate my perspective). But the idea that I’m here to serve is likely as a result of my education and the influence of my culture of birth.

I consider myself pro-human, spiritual, and identify culturally as Jewish because I take pride in the history of my people. My overarching sense that I belong no matter what most likely comes from having grown up in a somewhat insular experience. My definition of what being Jewish is is extremely personal and non-conformist, and I have always been SO appreciative of the fact that I can make these choices. I trust my judgement. I trust in my own resilience. I feel a strong sense of belonging to a community that I created. I feel driven by my internal values to find and fulfill my purpose in this world. I am part of something bigger than me, and I can define it – community.

But not everyone arrives in the world with such a strong sense of self, such a powerful inner compass, and with so much strength of conviction. While some of these characteristics are culturally imbued, some are innate. Not everyone is given the benefit of an education with singular beliefs about our purpose on this planet. One without the other serves, but what if an individual has neither supporting education, nor innate sense of purpose? This is a question I’m staring down the barrel of, having chosen to raise children outside of my culture. I don’t think I’ll be able to come to any conclusions until my children have flown the nest, and it’s not really the purpose of this piece, anyways. Let’s bookmark this discussion for another time.

For many people, the bounds of religious and communal law give them their sense of purpose, and the checking off of the boxes provides a sense of fulfilment. There is a lot to be said for not thinking so much, for doing what is expected of you, for pulling your head out of your own ass and getting out of your own way, and simply doing the things you have chosen to do, or been told you have to do. This is called structure. But lots of us North Americans find it restrictive as adults because of the nature of our individualistic conditioning, because we are each so SPECIAL, with a unique purpose, and we grow up entitled to our misery (check out the idea of Generation Snowflake). And I don’t think that most people who choose to follow a prescribed path are inherently miserable. In fact, in a lot of ways, those lives look like lives that makes way more sense than the rest of ours, where every single step we take is preceded by hours of self-serving THINKING. There’s a fine line between productive thinking and ruminating.

Here’s what I’m learning, and here is where I look at older systems of belief and understand why these concepts have endured the test of time, and why it takes so long for us North Americans to grasp them, if we ever do. They so deeply challenge the deeply ingrained belief that happiness is a state in and of itself, independent of our choices, and that we can do whatever the heck we want and still expect to be happy:

Happiness is not a state in and of itself. It’s not a destination. It’s a by-product of a life that is purpose-driven, and, subsequently, fulfilling. 

Watching Shtisel has reminded me of the words of Viktor Frankl quoted above. I’m only four episodes in, but the rhetoric spouted by the senior Rabbi Shtisel in episode 3 triggered an awareness moment, so I whipped out my laptop to get my thoughts organized.

When asked by his companion if his son is happy about his engagement, he responds, in typical Jewish fashion:

“What kind of a question is that? Are you happy? Are we here to be happy? He did what he had to do, and God willing, he’ll be happy too.”

I took a photo from Netflix with my phone because you can’t screenshot on Netflix, so please don’t report my article for any copyright violations. This image belongs to Netflix, not to me!

So. Are we here to be happy?

Western culture is all about the individual’s rights – to autonomy, to self-governance (to an extent), to health, to belonging, to HAPPINESS. The implication is that happiness is something we shouldn’t have to work for, and we believe this, so our life feels hard and unrewarding all the time, because if we’re not always happy then we’re doing something wrong. What’s wrong with hard work, anyways? The thought goes that if you have all the things – money, friends, a spouse, kids – then you have no reason to be unhappy, so you’re really just ungrateful. Right? Kind of. But also, kind of wrong. It depends on the angle of approach.

We’ve gotten it all wrong.

Happiness has become an expectation. The work has become a means to an end, not THE defining purpose of our lives. And living by our expectations is the key to a life of unhappiness. You know this, and if you don’t, google expectation and unhappiness.

What I’m starting to really grasp is that, as Viktor Frankl states above, and as Rabbi Shtisel suggests, happiness is a side effect of a life of purpose and meaning. And the problem with growing up being told that we can do anything, be anything, marry anyone, live however we like, is that we have to find our own purpose, and for a lot of people, THAT is the hard work. But that’s worthwhile work. That’s meaningful work. That’s LIFE.

As much as I am a product of the West and the individualistic way of thinking that comes from growing up in Canada, I have never questioned my sense of purpose and I am motivated to pursue my goals by a strong need to serve the greater good. While I’ve spent a lot of my time and life complaining about my frustrations and disappointments, I haven’t spent much time thinking about my happiness. Because, if truth be told, when I’m actively pursuing my own betterment, it’s NOT just so that I can be “happy”. There are moments of suffering in which I can’t connect to the emotions associated with happiness (see Wiki quote below), but overall, if you ask me if I’m happy, I’ll say yes. I don’t do what I to do to arrive at happiness. I don’t expect to get there and live there. I do what I do so that I can help others detangle the truth of their own existence, to find their own purpose and meaning, to lead by example. When I am fulfilled, when I’m expanding, when I’m transmitting, when I’m receiving, I feel happy.

The second we can stop looking at our life choices as a means to an end, to stop tying ourselves to an outcome (when I make this amount of money, I’ll be happy. When I find the perfect match in a partner, I’ll be happy. When I get my promotion, I’ll be happy…), the second we can fully integrate the concept that having purpose and a sense of meaning is what we’re after – NOT this mercurial concept of happiness – that’s when happy shows up. When we can check off those “when” boxes listed above because they serve a larger purpose (when I make this amount of money, I’ll give X percent to a cause I really believe in. When I find a partnership that really challenges my own growth, I’ll work on owning the unowned parts of myself so I can become a kinder person. When I get my promotion, I’ll use the influence that comes with it to be heard in my key messages about something in my community that needs improving…)

I’m not kidding here, you know.

Rabbi Shtisel Jr. is in an interesting bind – he finds a spark of love that challenges his community’s message that he has a duty to fulfill. He’s an artist at heart, but his father wants him to follow in his footsteps and teach children Jewish law. Jr. wants to connect with a woman on an emotional level. He wants to follow the speaking of his heart, but his conditioning tells him to serve the callings of his intellectual mind, like he’s been taught. His father, in marrying to produce his heirs and served the future of his community, and incidentally found happiness (and love) in small moments, like the butter his wife left out for him every day for their 38 years together so it would be soft and spreadable when he returned from prayer in the morning. Rabbi Shtisel did not grow up thinking about his individual right to happiness, and he can’t connect with his son’s desire to respond to the calling of his heart. Sr. lived his life to serve the greater good, and his fulfillment, his contentment, his purpose resulted in an incidental state of happiness which he, apparently, has not spent any time ruminating on. And when asked if his son is happy, he finds the question ridiculous. Can you imagine his freedom? Can you imagine what it must feel like to not spend so much time thinking and worrying about yourself, to just live the life you’ve chosen?

What even IS happiness? Do you know? Does the below definition resonate with you?

“Happiness in its broad sense is the label for a family of pleasant emotional states, such as joy, amusement, satisfaction, gratification, euphoria, and triumph.”Wikipedia

Can you identify elements in your day to day that result in the emotional states detailed above? Do you recognize them as happiness? Do you recall the last time you felt yourself being able to align, in your emotional place, with your definition of what happiness is?

To be continued…

One Comment Add yours

  1. I have enjoyed Shtisel also. It has made me examine some of my cultural norms, mostly about how they live such a simple life and live in such small spaces. There is probably a better life out there and it does not involve so much electronic stimulation. Good post!


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