I stumbled across this poem during my weekly trip to Zen Pencils:
by Jessie B. Rittenhouse
I bargained with life for a penny,
And life would pay no more,
However I begged at evening
When I counted my scanty store;
For life is a just employer,
He gives you what you ask,
But once you have set the wages,
Why, you must bear the task.
I worked for a menial's hire,
Only to learn, dismayed,
That any wage I had asked of life,
Life would have paid.
It stuck with me like gum in your hair. Haunted me on the way home from work. I scribbled it down into my sketchbook as a reminder. Once in a while, you come across a quote or a poem that you feel is speaking directly to you, where you are, in the time you're experiencing. I got that feeling when I came across this poem; a poet I'd never heard of was trying to teach me something.
In typical me fashion, I failed to attach it to anything having to do with career or work, even though apparently most people do (at least if Google seach results are to be believed). I attached it to what I always do: a search for meaning, love, community, and peace of mind.
I started thinking about the last three months, during which, let's just say, Life and I have been in negotiations over what my wage is to be. I've had to decide: am I going to bargain to be happy now, or later? Am I going to strive to be merely satisfied? Or genuinely happy? Is 'good enough' good enough? Can I bear to set the wages at a penny?
This duality of satisfaction versus happiness reminds me very much of Jeff Smith's awesome comic-book epic, Bone (if you haven't read it, go read it now). In one scene, the Bone cousins Fone Bone and Smiley are captured by the giant puma Roque Ja, the self-proclaimed "master of the eastern border," who demands that the cousins pick a side in the ongoing war between the valley folk and rat creatures. The cat claims that a side and a leader must be followed in order for one people to gain power. And power, he reasons, is the secret to satisfaction.
"A person can be satisfied and still not be happy," the cousins respond.
"I see the problem," Roque Ja replies, "You believe that a person truly can be happy."
I've always loved this scene, mostly because once you get to know these characters, you realize what courage this exchange requires of the Bone cousins (that's how good this book is. You're actually proud of the characters when they do something right). But it also brings to light a question I've had for a long time. Should I content myself with being satisfied, or should I work hard and keep hoping that in the end, there is even the possibility of being happy?
I'm not naive enough to suppose that being happy is a goal to be reached and a state that will just be achieved. But I do believe in an eventual goal of living truly happy with your decisions, and that's when you live a life that's meaningful, within your moral standards... one you've worked hard for, and thought of something bigger, higher, and better than just you. A life you can look back on and say, this was a good life. I did a good job. And it meant something. For me, this is a life where I feel I've found meaning, and where I've done the very best I can, and where I didn't throw myself away to despair, convenience, or denial, and where if I made mistakes or did something self-destructive, I didn't drag others down with me.
So can I stand to bargain with life for a penny?
My answer is heck no. I will not settle for satisfaction. I will strive to be happy. And it's true that this means a few inconveniences, annoyances, and frustrations right now. I've been writing and rewriting the same paper for the last week and a half, and with its hyper-vague instructions, I could just as well have churned out a single draft of crap. But I'm doing it so that I'll get the good grade at semester's end. I've been exploring new communities and meeting new people, trying out new experiences, and visiting old friends when sometimes all I want to do is confine myself to the bubble of the same six or seven people who live within a three block radius of my apartment. But that's convenience, not taking action.
I guess what I'm saying is, I can find a penny any old day on the subway platform, in a gutter, left behind on the counter at Starbucks. I'm looking for something of greater value. If I've learned anything in the past three months, it's that the lowest common denominator comes too easily. It's anywhere you happen to look. Something that's worthwhile takes some work. Happiness takes work. Someone who is satisfied isn't necessarily happy, and heck, their satisfaction is often fleeting. Someone who is happy, I'd say is pretty darn satisfied.