Russian President Vladimir Putin recently exhorted the United States, “Don’t worry, be happy!” I doubt he considers the expression purely modern. It is after all traditionally fraught with facetiousness. I am more inclined to suspect him of mocking the United States politicians. Yet the once catchy phrase has some quirky substance to it. Though the adage is principally associated with the popular worldwide hit song by musician Bobby McFerrin released in September, 1988, the song’s title is taken from a famous quotation by Meher Baba.
Meher Baba gave numerous teachings on the cause and purpose of life, including teaching “Reincarnation” and that the phenomenal world is an illusion. He taught that the Universe is imagination, that God is what really exists, and that each soul is really God passing through imagination to realize individually His own divinity. In addition he gave practical advice for the aspirant who wishes to attain Self-realization and thereby escape the wheel of births and deaths. He also taught about the concept of “Perfect Masters”, the “Avatar” and those on the various stages of the spiritual path that he called “Involution”. His teachings are most importantly recorded in his principal books “Discourses” and “God Speaks”.
As much as I value abstract thinking, Baba’s platform is largely indigestible. I am frankly reminded of the rhetorical enquiry of comedian Chris Rock, “What ever happened to crazy!” Yet for the sake of discussion and giving Baba the benefit of his advocacy credentials it seems plausible at least that he had some insight into what he was talking about. If I may be permitted the indulgence of an explanation it is my private opinion – one which I suspect is commonly held by others as well – that the proposition stands for nothing more than the blunt though constructive observation that all the worry in the world won’t change anything so we may as well try to be happy in the meantime. I take it that even the most cavalier among us knows something of worry and its inutility even though distancing ourselves from our immediate tribulations is always a challenge. Nor do I view the unadorned assertion as either supercilious or contemptuous; rather, resolute and determined. It requires a measure of conviction to rise above the swell of life’s regular assaults and not to lapse into overwhelming despair. Sometimes our concerns are highly legitimate; at others they are merely cumulative though nonetheless weighty by their very number. But importantly the advice to remain happy does nothing to erode either the very desirable resolution of the problem or the interim improvement of our temperament.
Lest I am unclear on that latter point (and unwilling as I am to gloss over its gravity) I emphasize that the search for a resolution to one’s difficulties is not undercut by the maxim. It isn’t a guide to anaesthetized ignorance. It is only a stricture to uplift one’s spirit. This undoubtedly can do nothing but palliate the trials we must endure. With luck it may even lubricate the voyage to a more agreeable outcome. Perhaps unfortunately for us Meher Baba maintained silence for most of his adult life, “a mysterious issue as much among his followers as with the rest of the world“. One can therefore only speculate as to the exact meaning he intended. For my part I am content to rely upon my own stated surmise which parenthetically speaks to the importance of individuality which he reportedly also addressed. To put a poetic spin on it, “If your eyes are blinded by worry then you cannot see the beauty of the sunset“. The practice also puts some needed distance between oneself and life’s skirmishes, the recollection of which is often distant and forgotten, not to mention random and impersonal. If nothing else, it’s a strategic tact (though its cultivated sanity tends to rob it of any visceral delight).
I suppose what if anything offends people about the aphorism is its seeming mindless capitulation. Too often we’re intent only upon vanquishing a disturbance rather than accommodating it in some other way. But as I say such dedication as proposed by Baba requires deliberation and reflection, not always humanity’s first choice of attack. Pointedly inherent in the saying is an element of patience or at the very least a temporary setting-aside, both of which historically contribute to a cooling-off and considered decision-making, what some might call hard work. If one prefers to be governed by logic, it may even be that the dictum is axiomatic in that by definition a worry-free view of life is a pleasing one. This doesn’t however seem to meet those instances of incalculable concern which continue to demand attention and hopeful settlement so I won’t go so far as to suggest that Baba’s prescription amounts to a philosophy of complete laissez-faire. But the prescription does go a long way to minimize what is possibly useless concern. Besides there is nothing faint-hearted about being happy; it requires the strength of an acute and focussed mind. It also encourages the long-term goal of happiness and reminds us to rise above the little things; or, as some have said, “You are what you think“. To be purely controversial I have to wonder whether anything no matter how catastrophic is worth the worry. Yet admittedly just being happy does at times sound awfully trite no matter how lofty or clinical the purpose.