Observing teenagers—their self-doubt and theatricality, the earnestness of their flirting, their bleeding desire to be seen, to be loved, to be in love—I envy adolescence. Granted, I am far happier in my early thirties than I was at seventeen, and would not trade places. My teenage years were at sea, which is to say were typical, but in the decade since, I have made landfall, gotten a wife, a career, a home; I have set my lands in order. I have attained much of what I then felt sick with desire to have. But though happy, I am happy within the limits of possibility, whereas my teenage imagination was ignorant of limits. Adolescence attracts me not for the happiness I had, but for the happiness I believed I could have. Desire, not happiness, tastes of the infinite. I felt most alive in those years I would least relive.
I prefer for no one else to want what I want. In high school I loved discovering the flaws of attractive girls, because flaws made them more attainable, without making them less desirable. I hoped the competition would be turned off, leaving the uncontested prize to me. Similarly, in traveling, I place a premium on obscurity, favoring second-rate scenery with solitude over first-rate scenery with hordes of tourists. Picking a career, a restaurant, or a neighborhood to live in, I try to follow not my strongest but my strangest desire, the longing that leads to the least crowded enjoyment. The easiest odds of happiness lie not with what we love most, but with what we love most uniquely.
I am a better reader now than when I was in graduate school, because I read with less enthusiasm. I can stay with a book from cover to cover, whereas in graduate school I could scarcely finish anything, because I wanted to read everything. Ten pages in, I was craving the next book. My patience was insufficient for novels, so I mostly read poems and essays. To visit libraries paralyzed me with my options. I sampled tables of contents endlessly, but an excess of hunger prevented me from eating.
I knew a friend in college who behaved similarly toward people at gatherings. Spotting you from across the room, he would curtail his conversation and weave through crowds to greet you, but as he shook your hand, his eyes were already scanning for the next friend he craved talking to. His hand and eyes, his having and wanting, were always out of sync. He liked so many people that he scarcely knew anyone beyond hello.
Too much desire is self-defeating, wildly overrunning the thing it wants. Passions need a pinch of apathy to slow them down to the pace of enjoyment.
The pursuit of happiness is doomed to fail, not because no one can be happy, but because no one can be happy by trying to be. Each new land that Alexander the Great conquered, instead of satisfying him, merely widened the circumference of his desires. Meanwhile in Macedon, his servants kept the stables, made love to their wives, and never dreamt of Persia's riches. Happiness is the pursuit of nothing.
Mr. Stanley’s Aphorisms and Paradoxes are outstanding examples of the long-form aphorism... inevitably studded with discrete individual aphorisms that could easily stand on their own.
-James Geary, author of The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism