Three thousand years and hard-won lessons of the past century continue to steer us in the right direction. Fewer people live in poverty. Women win more rights and leadership roles. Through science and political compromise, we continue to make headway into a better world.
However, while our technologies and practices change, we ask many of the same age-old questions:
What does it mean to be an upstanding citizen?
How can we achieve optimum health?
What is the secret of happiness?
The famous writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “He who cannot draw from three thousand years is living hand to mouth.” I don’t want to live hand to mouth. I want to know what our forebears can tell us about happiness. Thucydides, born in 460 BC, said, “The secret to happiness is freedom. The secret to freedom is courage.”
This isn’t how I usually think of happiness – linked to freedom and courage. Instead, I like to think happiness is securing a good job and pursuing meaningful hobbies and having fun with friends. This is the stuff of happiness. But perhaps in my privileged place in history, clad in this privileged white American skin, helped along so frequently by my privileged gender, armored with a privileged boarding school and university education – perhaps I need to step back. I need to step back and consider Thucydides’ words divorced from my rich inheritance.
Is the secret to happiness freedom? To find out, I could ask a person forced to convert to a foreign religion, one imprisoned or enslaved, anyone made to conform. I could ask someone whose power, individuality, or self-determination have been hijacked. I think they would speak on the merits of freedom. They have. Their names are Alexander Hamilton. Susan B. Anthony. Gandhi. Frederick Douglass. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Harvey Milk. Aung San Suu Kyi. Malala Yousafzai.
I should also consider the opposite: Can one be happy without the power to act, think, or speak as one wishes? No, I think Thucydides was on to something. If one cannot be happy without freedom, freedom is indeed a necessary ingredient.
Yet is the secret to freedom courage? So often we win freedom through battles of the body. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Emancipation Proclamation – these were founded on courage, and they pave the way for freedom to flourish. But beyond the political realm, there is another type of freedom. It’s more subtle and better suited to a discussion of happiness inside our civilized society. It too requires bold commitment and bravery.
I speak of a freedom of mind, a freedom of sexual identity, a freedom to be confident and comfortable in one’s skin, with one’s quirks, perhaps against the grain of social norms (but within the bounds of decency). Embracing one’s individuality demands courage because stepping from the crowd singles us out. There we are, alone and vulnerable to the judgments of others who can be cruel and dangerous.
Once I stand alone, though, two things become obvious. First, every person is equally unique. We’re milling in a crowd of vast similarities and crucial differences. As I discover and accept my idiosyncrasies, the veil drops. If I’m not like my brother or like my father or like my neighbor in substantial ways, they too are different from one another.
Second, the judgments of narrow minds will not destroy me. Inevitably, someone will criticize me for not being more outgoing or being too serious or valuing evidence over sentiment; but if I’m true to myself, if I remember Thucydides and am courageous, these blows will remind me of the singular path on which I stand.
Happiness does come with freedom, and freedom can often be won with courage – courage of the body or of the mind. Our physical and political rights are meant to be protected by a just state. We guard it with our votes and our courts and perhaps with our lives. The mind – that is to be protected and cultivated through recognition of an individual’s worth.
I am not meant to be like you. I am meant to be me.
And you are meant to be the beautiful, precious you.
In that truth, I see a road to happiness. I will no longer grasp at excuses for myself. I will appreciate my introversion and my inexplicable love of the movie “Pride and Prejudice” and my need to write and speak, even into an abyss if I must.
As for you: I promise to value your mind, your strengths, and your interests that in their best expressions only add to the wealth of our species. Two thousand five hundred years ago, Thucydides suggested happiness blooms from freedom, and freedom blooms from courage. It’s an insight ahead of its time: Self-actualization is a feat of bravery. Here’s to courage – mine, yours, ours.
Daniel McNeil is the director of Grand Area Mentoring.