Slowly he sips his wine, savoring its delicate balance of peach, apple, and oak as he looks across the valley below from the window of his den. He never tires from watching the setting sun turn the sky a mix of pinks and purples as it makes way for the first full moon of spring.
Turning towards the journalist sitting on the couch behind him, he considers the question he was just asked. It was an easy question to answer, but one that took him too long to realize. It wasn’t until later in life, after he had lost everything, his wife included, that he learned the valuable lesson of what finding happiness means.
“The art of true happiness is wanting what you already have,” he said as he slowly sat down in the chair across from his guest, wincing as he did so. Age comes for us all, he thought to himself.
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Slightly taken back by his response, the journalist took a look around the room with its high ceilings, walls of glass, large fireplace, and African blackwood furniture. He looked as if he wanted to say more but instead put pen to pad and made a note of what was said.
Laughing, the old man said, “go ahead, say what you’re thinking. I have an idea of what it is anyway.”
A little uncomfortable the journalist squirmed in the too-soft leather couch, scratched the stubble on his chin, and said, “I don’t want to come across as a critic because the sentiment is nice, but wanting what you already have looks like a pretty easy thing for you to do,” as he gestured with his hand around the room.
“True.” The older man said. “It does look that way.” He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts and then raised his wine glass. “It took a lot of convincing, but I learned that to be happy, and I mean truly happy that you have to learn to love who you are no matter where you’re at. True happiness comes from being grateful for what you have. Take this wine as an example. It costs me $5.95 a bottle and is the only wine I drink.”
The journalist began to interrupt, but the old man put his hand up to quiet him. “Yes, I can afford to buy the most expensive bottles of wine, but they fail to bring me the level of happiness that this no-name wine vineyard does. Why? Because it connects me to the exact moment that I had my epiphany. At that moment, I learned the true meaning of happiness. It’s something we all chase, but few find. We falsy believe that happiness is something that we create. It’s not. It’s something that we discover. It’s not out there in the wider world. It’s right here, in the internal one.” He says while tapping his chest with one finger.
“That’s a story that I’d love to hear.” Says the journalist. “Tell me more about how a $6 bottle of wine brings you happiness.”
“It’s not the bottle of wine that brings me happiness; it’s the reminder that it brings along with it. That reminder was my reawakening. Too bad it took the first half of my life to find it, but once I did, it was as if I found a lamp, rubbed it, and a wish-granting genii popped out and granted my deepest desires.” The old man paused, took a sip of wine, and smiled as if contemplating where to start.
In The Beginning
Like any good story, mine starts at the beginning. Not a metaphorical beginning mind you, but my actual beginning.
I was born in Detroit during the summer of 1932, during the great depression. We kept a small garden in the back yard where we grew squash, potatoes, and a few other vegetables. We ate stew most nights and nothing at all on the others. My dad worked at the tenement building where we lived, as a handyman. My mom would pick up work where she could hem dresses and patching pants. After all, the motto during the great depression was: use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.
That meant there was plenty of work for my mom to do but not a whole lot of money to go along with it. My dad wasn’t a good man. He would often come home and yell at my mom and I. He would hit both of us and then hide in his workroom until the late hours of the night.
I could hear him crying and cursing God while he knocked things around in there more often than not. Angry at himself for not being a good provider and for taking it out on us, he hung himself on my 7th birthday. His only explanation was a four-word note that read, I release you, both.
The super of the building we lived in evicted us the very next day, saying that he had repairs that needed doing. We had nowhere to go, no family, and nobody willing to take us in. We stayed in a shantytown, close to the soup kitchen, where a few residents helped my mom build a lean too out of old scrap wood and plastic sheeting. It kept us dry, mostly, but not warm.
I remember being hungry all the time and angry. Angry at my dad for leaving us. Mad at my mom for always crying. She withdrew into herself during the day and would fix herself up the best she could before leaving for work during the night.
It wasn’t till years later that I figured out what she was doing, but by then, I hadn’t seen her in about eight months. She just didn’t come home one night. I feared the worst and never saw her again. I started to steal all that I could to feed myself. I fought other kids a lot and soon got a reputation for not fighting fair. I was always angry and lashed out at everyone around me.
When I was 13, in the Fall of 1945, I was picked up by the police and placed into a group home. I wasn’t happy about that at all, but one of the leaders there took a liking to me. He convinced me that I didn’t have to keep fighting and enrolled me in school for the first time. Seeing my way out, hating how I always felt, I put everything I had into learning.
I saw how the wealthy lived, and that’s what I wanted. I chased that dream and became a lawyer. At the top of my class, I had my choice of law firms, so I joined the most prestigious law firm in Detroit at the time. I continued to fight. I needed to make more money, live in the biggest houses, and have the most beautiful women. I got married at 30 and didn’t slow down. I worked 80 hours a week, brought home a lot of money, and still I felt empty.
I fought with my wife about how much I worked. Depressed, I would fill in the gaps with more work. If only I could afford a bigger house. Then, I would be happy. My wife would be happy.
When I had nothing, I fought to feed my belly. When I had everything, I fought to feed my ego. Neither one brought me happiness. But still, I pressed on, searching for happiness. I’d look for it everywhere, but it alluded me. I could afford to buy whatever I wanted but couldn’t buy the one thing I needed. Happiness.
I was tired. I didn’t want to fight anymore. My wife ended up leaving me, and I was fired from the firm. I quit everything. I lost my house and my bank account. I was broke once again and living on the street… Again.
When a person has had enough, when the desire to stagnate is more powerful than the will to forge ahead, that’s when the dark thoughts start to emerge. You fight them at first by pushing them back into the recesses of your mind, but they are still there, scratching to be set free. Every day is a battle against stopping the pain for good. My father had it right. Life isn’t for everybody.
So I got to it. I found an old razor blade, still sharp enough to cut, and sat down behind an old building to get the job done.
“I release you,” I said out loud. Just as I was about to put the razor to wrist, an old smiling fool sat down next to me.
He held a bottle out to me and said, “It looks like you can use a drink.”
“Go away, ” I said in return. “I’ve tried drowning my sorrows, and they can swim.”
Laughing hysterically, he says, “that’s a good one!” He continues to smile, still holding the bottle out. “Go ahead, drink some.”
“No, thank you.”
“I’m not leaving till you do.”
“Fine, if it will make you leave.” I take the bottle of wine and take a sip. It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever put in my mouth.
“So, how was it?”
Laughing again, he says, “then you are doing it wrong.”
He paused for a moment and then added, “life is a lot like that bottle of wine. It gets better the more you learn to appreciate it.”
I sigh but say nothing. I take another sip. “Nope, still awful.”
More hysterical laughter.
I tried to hand it back, but the fool refused it. “You know, I tried giving that very same bottle of wine to a man with no arms, but he couldn’t lift the bottle to his lips.” He smiled the biggest toothless smile he could and continued. “I then found a man with arms but no lips! Imagine having no lips and wanting to take a sip of wine. You can’t do it!” He held his belly and laughed as if trying to hold onto his sanity.
“He could just tip his head back and dump it in,” I said.
The smile faded from his face as he looked past me, a tear forming at the corner of his eye. He seemed to focus on something in the distance and said, “You’re right, he could have. However, he was so focused on what he didn’t have that he forgot to be thankful for what he did. He had arms afterall.”
His eyes focused back on me, “but you, you have both of your arms and both of your lips. Hell, you even have a bottle of wine in your hands! What’s stopping you from taking another drink?”
“Well, the taste for one, ” I said. But it sounded ridiculous as I said it.
“Taste! Have you not been listing to me? Take another drink. Only this time, be thankful that you have arms.”
I did as I was told, although to this day I’m not sure why. “I’m thankful that I have arms, ” I said. Then, I took a drink. As I pulled the bottle away from my mouth, I no longer felt that it was the worst bottle of wine that I’d ever had, just close to it.
“And another one. Only this time, be thankful that you have lips.”
Again, I did as I was told. “I’m thankful that I have lips.” I took another drink. The wine tasted even better.
“Good. Good. Again. What else are you thankful for?”
Laughing, I said, “I’m thankful that I have a tongue to taste this swill!” I took another sip and laughed hysterically.
“There is plenty of wine left, keep going!”
“I’m thankful for my fingers.” Sip.
“I’m thankful for my eyesight.” Sip.
“I’m thankful for my life!” Sip.
I kept going like that until I had exhausted the wine. I must have passed out at some point because when I woke up, the sun was stabbing me in the eye. A note was lying next to me, written in a shaky hand it said:
“I didn’t have the heart to wake you, so I borrowed the $2 that was in your pocket. I hear there is a man with no teeth that needs some wine.” -Jasper
That was my very last $2, but I couldn’t help but be thankful that I still had my life. All I had at that moment were the clothes on my back, an empty bottle of wine, and my future. But, somehow, I knew that everything was going to be okay. My entire outlook had changed over a bottle of wine of all things.
That was the moment that I adopted the first principle of my new life: happiness is wanting what you already have.
We are all born wanting. Some take it further than others, but most of us go through life trying to plug an empty hole within us. We grasp for anything we can to fill it up — money, sex, fast cars, houses, clothes, and even other people. However, we fail to realize that internal holes filled with external desires are fleeting. Those things never truly satisfy us as we push for more and more. That can only lead to one of two things. The first is learning to co-exist with the emptiness, and the second requires the gluttonous pursuit of external dependencies that never fill us up.
Both lead to the same place. Both lead to wasted potential and wasted years. True happiness comes from the inside. It’s a decision we make towards wanting what we already have. We’re not a culmination of the things that happen to us; instead, we’re built upon how we react to those things. We build our lives by deciding to be happy with what we already have.
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“Like most things, there can be a downside to discovering the true meaning of happiness. This is why, throughout my life, I’ve adopted a few principles that I live my life by. Laws that govern my decisions and back my drive.”
The old man sat back in his chair, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. The journalist waited patiently, his pen just above his pad, ready to take more notes.
A few more moments passed and it was the journalist who broke the silence. “What drawback can there possibly be to finding the true meaning of happiness?”
“That’s an excellent question, ” the old man replied. “But one who’s answer will have to wait till another day. My time isn’t my own today, my granddaughter should be here at any moment, and I promised her that we’d go grab some dinner and go see a movie.”
After saying their goodbyes and setting up an appointment to talk in a few days, the journalist left with a lot to think about.
Read part two here.