There once was a young prince who had everything his heart could desire, but he wasn’t happy. And then one day an evil witch came into the castle and, through her dark magic, took it all away and left him with nothing.
What are his options, you reckon?
Three options: he could fall into depression, or he could find the witch and persuade her to restore his possessions, or he could find a way to be happy without anything.
If this were a legitimate fairy tale, then the prince would undoubtedly charge into the unknown with nothing but a horse and a sword, and he would kill the witch and reverse her evil curse. But if this were real life, he would probably fall into a postmodern depression.
What about the third option?
Can anyone truly be happy with nothing?
Let’s start from the top.
First, we know happiness is an American value: Thomas Jefferson wrote it in the Declaration of Independence.
Second, we know that happiness evades us: prophets and pundits have seen that, all the way back to De Tocqueville.
Third, it is hard to define happiness. Freud maybe gave the best definition: “[We] are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from the state of things."
So the question remains, can we truly be happy with nothing?
It may be that is the only way to be happy — to have nothing … or at least to seem to have nothing. The secret to happiness, that we all know, is contentment (and potentially killing the evil witch, but that’s another story).
And yet contentment is not a doomsayer strategy. It’s not just useful when everything is gone; on the contrary, it’s actually more useful when everything is here. The best thing that could happen to the prince is if, losing everything, he learns he never needed it anyway.
Contentment is not like an ascetic thing, you know, a monk-ish forced moderation.
Contentment is freedom, an open and honest freedom from the dictatorship of desire. It’s a decision and discipline to believe that you are enough, you have enough, and that nothing you can get or do will alter your actual position in the world.
Contentment is not the super-ambitious uncle at family reunions, it’s the quiet grandma, driving up in her Buick from the '90s.
So let’s go a step further. What if the prince learns contentment, experiences true happiness for the first time, and then goes outside his castle to share that happiness? Now that’s a fairy-tale ending!
Once we have died to our desires — once we have let our selfish ambitions and wishes go — our life turns outward instead of inward. Contentment is no longer the struggle. It's the foundation, but the house to be built is the house of happy, rewarding and fulfilling service.
It may be that prince was a great guy, totally content and happy even with all his stuff, but since it’s our story anyway, let’s make it end like this.
And so the prince chased the witch into the forest for 40 days and 40 nights, but he never caught her. Legend has it he opened up his castle for the poor and needy, and all the vacancies the witch left were filled with people, children and actual happiness.
(And the witch’s mind was blown so she gave all his stuff back and came to live with them, using her powers for good. [Hey it’s our story, we can end it however we want. This ending is happier.])
Adam Setser is a financial advisor with Kerrigan Capital and Risk Management, 3543 N. Crossing Circle, Valdosta.
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