It’s difficult to get what you want. Even if we desire something, most of the time we don’t take the right steps to get it — that’s the problem with pleasure. We want to be happy, but we prefer pleasure. But pleasure and happiness are quite different. There is no happiness without pleasure, but if you want to be happy, in a deep way, you have to choose not to search for short pleasures, but to make the effort required for greater pleasure, which is where real happiness lies.
A good reminder that being happy is hard work, coming from the author of Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide. (The book is a bestseller in France but was only recently translated into English. Here it is on Amazon.)
My boyfriend gave me Bobcat as a gift. He saw it on my Amazon wish list and decided to get it for me. He didn’t buy it because of the reviews or the book blurb. He bought it based entirely on the cover illustration. He didn’t tell me that when he gave it to me. He told me later, after I had already drank it down like a shot. I told him I loved his gift. I meant it. Rebecca Lee writes with such airy precision. Every story in this collection left an impression in my brain, something faint. A thought I knew I would return to.
But my favorite story in the book isn’t the title story (though that one is very, very good) but rather “Min.” Like all Lee’s stories, this one feels global in scope, located firmly in place and time (with all the politics that implies). Like all Lee’s stories, it also transcends the immediate and gestures toward the timeless, towards truths. In “Min,” a woman (a student of feminist theory, no less) travels to China in the late 1980’s with her male friend, Min. When she arrives, she is given a task: to find his future wife. The plot doesn’t play out like I expected. But in her search for Min’s perfect wife, the narrator comes across this:
Earlier that day I had found a sheet of paper on which Min’s grandmother had written her definition of the “superior woman.” At the top of the page it said, “Formula for Woman, According to Dignity.” The formula was “Has excellent posture, which is two-thirds contentment and one-third desire.”
Oh! Oh. It’s almost too obscure to be wise. But it is wise, I think. Two-thirds contentment, one-third desire. The golden ratio for a dignified person. Neither restless from desire nor lazy from contentment. This is a person who burns slowly like a candle, not rapidly like a forest fire or embers smoldering and soft, flickering out.
I took stock of myself after reading that paragraph. I realized that my contentment is too small. My desire isn’t too large—that isn’t my problem. My posture doesn’t suffer from excess of desire. I don’t ache from it. It doesn’t cripple my steps. But my contentment? That’s another matter.
But go read this book. It’s lovely. It’s smart. I almost wrote a fan letter to Rebecca Lee—that’s how much I like it.