Riffing off of Nikki … in Ego Tripping: I/we love you inside and throughout all of forever; knowing that even your doubts, complexities, and errors are magnificently correct.
– Dr. Thomas A. Gordon, Psychologist, November 2019
At the dawn of 2020, I’m dipping back into the expansive conversation I had with Dr. Thomas A. Gordon, recorded June 1, 2019. In my post of July 30, 2019, I promised that I’d sip again from our conversation, which lasted for more than a scintillating hour.
In the edited excerpt below, we grapple with the very idea that it’s possible to choose happiness (wreak happiness?) within the crucibles brought to boiling by oppressive people and forces, histories and systems.
Is there really a choice for folks who have been consigned to social death? Are we consigned to being happy-go-lucky in order to survive?
Gordon doesn’t shy away from what’s ugly. He orients me, in fact, toward embracing my obligations in the face of what’s ugly. He invites me to be fueled by my core freedoms of conscience, of integrity, of will.
Is choosing happiness easy? HELL-to-the-NO!
But after my conversations with Thomas Gordon, and we’ve been conversation partners since the 1980s, I come away sensing that choosing happiness is the sum of my other elemental choices:
Choosing human connections. Choosing community and morality. Choosing dignity and integrity. Choosing fulfillment and loyalty. Choosing to trust that in danger I can find pivot points towards sanity and safety and sanctity.
PJH: Do we have the choice to be joyful or happy? We have the capacity to be those things in the middle of trauma or oppression. Should we be doing it in your opinion?
GORDON: The quick answer is yes, yes. It is not only possible. It is required of a conscious-slash-moral being. … If you really are awake to who you are, you have a capacity to make choices to preserve, advance, expand, transform who you are to be better than you were yesterday, irrespective of the circumstances that you’re in.
… So Frantz Fanon, the Black psychiatrist, used to say, be very very careful each day, meaning be mindful each day, of your capacity to make choices, and do not make choices that renounce your freedom. If at sunrise they’re going to hang us, I still say … no one could predict how we’re going to walk to the gallows. NO! Because you still got choices. … We all might be saying Margaret Walker’s ‘For My People’ on the first five steps. Let there be a ‘bloody peace.’ … [B]efore we go to the gallows, we [might] take out 10 people.
You can’t ever strip human beings of all of their capacity to choose, unless you take away their mind. … Unless they’re literally strung out on acid or drama! … For most of us, we have more choices than we realize. Which is what our enemy wants: us to always be unconscious. They don’t want you to realize how much power you have….
PJH: I think there’s a serious difference between happiness and being happy-go-lucky. I see happiness as everything from an enzyme to a catalyst to a quest. I think happy-go-lucky is when you’re just performing to make the money or to get safe. And maybe there are moments when you have to be happy-go-lucky to escape or something…. How would you put happiness in a political context…?
GORDON: [American culture] starts shaping people to actually Identify with themselves as the only point of reference. So you end up having a very disorientated, distracting and defeatist, self-referential-type being that can say, ‘I’m happy-go-lucky.’ Meaning I can do, willy nilly, arbitrarily, at any moment, whatever I want to do, and not really connect it or reference it to —not only a moral framework, but even a practical framework, because ‘I don’t have to. I am authorized to be self-referential ONLY!’
Now what you want is healthy people who can be self referential and moral, not either/or. … People take happiness to mean: ‘I don’t have to think. I’m so swept up in euphoria. I’m swept up in manic, euphoric pleasure, that I can therefore be not sober or mindful.’ And that’s very localized to this society. So you’ll see [someone who] didn’t think about the consequences of what he was going to say. He just exploded … and didn’t care about the consequences. Didn’t think about the ripple effects. Didn’t think that what you do now is going to affect seven generations….
That’s not what you’re talking about. You’re not talking about being independent apart from a moral framework. You’re saying deeply embedded. …You don’t want people happy-go-lucky. You want people deeply happy … grounded. Otherwise … they [ignore] consequences on other human beings and the ecology that sustains them. That’s an illusion.
Epilogue: In November, I wrote Dr. Gordon a personal and professional update, owning up that I felt shadowed by some nagging doubts. An excerpt of his encouraging email, dated November 7, 2019, synchronizes his message of connection.
“As for today’s doubts, let them be navigationally instructive. There’s something there to be named and spotlighted. Doubt prompts/forces/invites us to slow down and check the journey’s invisible knapsack for compass, practical support kit, and bi-lingual flashlights.
“Doubt, like many things meant to be taken in moderation, only seems problematic until we realize it’s sharpening our real-time readiness to move and rally some folks to go to places they wouldn’t ordinarily go. …Rumbling with doubt … [means] you’re on the move.
“Doubt slows us down, as we’re about to enter unknown curves or terrain — the better for us to move more swiftly ahead.”
BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “…I am embracing, craving and exploring my complex humanity as an African American man. Critical celebration has guided me into nuanced self reflection and evolving curiosity about a simple, provocative question: What is a happy Black man? How does he navigate the labyrinth of life? How do I? I am a son, brother, father, grandfather. I am a lover, apprentice to wiser elders, straight man crafting brotherhood with my gay Homeboy. I am an orphan seeking affirmation after the deaths of my mother and father. I have confronted, survived, and transcended my youngest daughter’s rape by her Black step father. A happy Black man? I am done with surviving. I’m done with Black History Month packaging, the symbolic roll call of the heroes and the readings of their pronouncements. I’ve been ordained by anonymous, daily, often agonizing work, in search of timeless health and lasting jubilee. The Black man of happiness has blossomed. I’m hungry for the change of ball bearings! I’m ready to pour the love packed in honey. I am ….” www.blackmanofhappiness.com/shop