“What am I missing,” the young boy wondered to himself.
He was ten, lying awake in his bed, staring at the ceiling in the dim grey light. The soft sheets held him in a pocket of comforting warmth. His room was spacious and filled with toys. An intricate train set sprawled across the floor, built by his father just for him. His favorite part was a red dining car, which he took from the set and placed on his bedside table each night before going to sleep. It was heavy plastic and a battery-powered light on the inside illuminated silhouettes of diners and waiters. On its side, the words Dreams of Joy were written in flowing script.
The boy looked away from it again and back to the blank ceiling. The feeling of emptiness returned. The world seemed like such a confusing mess that he could barely wrap his head around it. What was he meant to do? How was he expected to be happy?
That was what everyone talked about — being happy. They told him the things he would need to do to be happy. He did his best to listen and do as they said. Some of them were even fun! But every night, as he lay in bed, he would still feel like this. As the distractions of the day melted away, and he was left alone with himself, he couldn’t escape the feeling that something was missing. He feared that if his life ended here, something would have gone undone.
That was where his thoughts always ended up — his own death. He imagined fading into nothing and was filled with terror at the idea that he wouldn’t exist anymore. The first night it happened, he had cried and run to his parents for comfort, but they hadn’t been able to help. So since then, he lay still in his bed, letting the fear and emptiness wash over him as best he could, waiting for the dark void to swallow him into sleep.
He looked to Dreams of Joy again. He couldn’t make out the words on its side in the darkness, but he could see them in his mind, glowing against the bright red paint. He reached over and turned on the switch on the bottom of the toy before replacing it on his bedside table, and looked at the happy people eating, laughing, and loving life.
He decided that he wanted to be one of them.
In the morning, he asked his mother how to become like the people in his toy. She told him that he would have to get good grades in school, and then go to a prestigious college, to get a lucrative job, to be able to pay for luxury trains.
Frustrated that it would take so long but trusting his mother, the boy set himself to his schoolwork. He went to class that day and did his best to pay close attention. He took copious, if messy, notes, then rushed home to do his homework, thinking of the people in the train car all the while.
For years, this was the boy’s life. He would take the most advanced classes he could, do all the extra credit work, and ace every test. He chose to attend summer classes and knew what college he would attend before his sophomore year of high school.
There were struggles, of course. While he worked, the nights of silent terror never left him, and so he slept little. He would occasionally doze in classes or lose focus on his homework. Nobody ever chastised him for it — he was a perfect student otherwise. But he scolded himself harshly. He sought ways to sleep better, but none worked.
He drank tea before bed, or worked himself to exhaustion, or wore a sleep mask. Nothing chased away the insistent dread. He always lay awake, staring at the ceiling.
But each night, and every time he faltered or wanted to give up and do something else, he thought of Dreams of Joy, and what his mother had said. So he kept on his path.
When he was sixteen, his father grew concerned that the boy was overly focused on academics. He said, “Son, school is important and all, but you’ve got to remember that A’s and intellectual pursuits aren’t everything in life. You’ve got to stay healthy and fit. You won’t get much joy out of life if you can’t get up from behind your desk.”
The boy listened intently to his father and took his words to heart. He remembered the silhouettes in Dreams of Joy, and how they all were thin and fit, the men with broad shoulders. In between his studies, the boy began exercising each day. He started jogging, swimming, biking, even lifting weights. He researched healthy diets and ate only what would give his body the nutrients it needed, forgoing all candy and sweets. His father was proud, but the boy didn’t notice. All he saw was the progress he made — how his muscles grew, how his belly flattened, and how quickly he could run a mile.
As he worked on his body and his mind, he grew excited, getting closer and closer to his goal of happiness. He still lay in an ocean of fear each night, but he knew that his joy was close at hand, so he closed his eyes and waited for the next day of work to arrive.
When the time came to choose his major in college, he didn’t know what to do, so he asked his professors. One professor, whom he greatly respected, said, “my boy, you’re smart and driven. You’ve got discipline and determination and a lot of ambition. I think you would do very well in business. You can make a lot of money if you apply yourself there.”
So the boy went into business. For four years, he studied even more vigorously than he had in high school. He rose to the top of his class, the favorite of every professor. He started small ventures, all of which succeeded, earning him the respect and praise of all his peers.
All the while, he continued to push his body. He ran marathons regularly, participated in sporting groups, and even joined a bodybuilding league to further measure his progress. Every night when he fell into bed, his muscles ached, and his mind was well-worn from a long day of charging headlong towards his happiness. And every night, he stared at the ceiling as the familiar terror took him in its grasp.
In his junior year of college, while his mother was visiting him, she asked if he had met any girls. He said no, and that he wasn’t much interested in girls — they wouldn’t make him happy. His mother, aghast, said, “Son, there is nothing that will make you happier! There is no greater joy in life than to marry and have a family. Friends and family are the best things in life.”
Astounded that he could have forgotten this, he immediately sought love. He built closer relationships with those he played sports and worked out with. He began to attend bars and parties with his fellow business majors. And he started to date, seeking the perfect woman with whom he could build his happy family.
At his graduation, he had succeeded in all his goals. The crowd cheered thunderously for him as he accepted his diploma, filled with friends. His girlfriend cheered loudest of all, beautiful and overjoyed in the front row. He shook the hands of all the professors who had taught him over the years, smiling and laughing. He jubilantly tossed his cap into the air alongside his peers.
That night, with his girlfriend asleep in his arms and his diploma resting on the bedside table, he waited for the nightly fear to arrive. He never spoke of it to anyone since that first night as a child. His girlfriend didn’t know what passed through his mind as she slept beside him.
He watched the ceiling, patiently enraptured by nothing. Slowly, it came. He thought of death, and the fear arrived. It crept from his mind down through his heart and settled in his stomach like a chunk of iron. He felt himself sink into a void of regret, and he let himself fall, knowing that it would pass.
As his mind swirled in the darkness, he wondered aloud, “What am I missing?”
“Hm?” His girlfriend asked, barely awake.
Surprised, he turned to her and said, “Oh, nothing.”
“Did you forget something?” she asked, pulling him closer.
He opened his mouth to say no but stopped. Puzzled, he realized he felt like he had forgotten something, but couldn’t quite place it. “Maybe I have,” he said.
She hadn’t heard him — she was already asleep again. He looked to his bedside table reflexively and saw the diploma there. The fear returned, and he wondered why it persisted when he had everything that someone needed to be happy. Perhaps he just had to wait a little longer.
Out of college, he immediately began work on a business that would provide for himself and his family. With help from his professors and fellow graduates, he secured funding from multiple investors and set to work.
Shortly after, he proposed to his girlfriend and made her his wife. He made new friends through his new business and maintained old friends through the sports and competitions he still took part in.
Five years later, his business had twenty employees, and his second child was born. He lived in a beautiful home with his family just outside the town he had grown up in. He slept on the second floor in a luxurious king bed beside his beautiful and loving wife. After they put their children to bed, they would lay down and talk. Eventually, she would drift off, and he would lay in silence, comfortable, and ready for sleep. The fear would come, he would wait, and it would go, and the next morning he would awaken and continue on his way.
By the time he was forty, he was a millionaire. His business had thousands of employees, and he had become a key investor in many other successful ventures. He had gone back to his old college and spoken at graduations. He was the top name in his industry, and he often heard from old friends, “I knew you would go far.” He continued to work and improve his business, knowing that wealth and renown were two of the keys to happiness.
As his wealth continued to grow, he also sought out worthy charities to donate to. He volunteered for non-profit organizations and made generous donations whenever he could, knowing that helping the needy was one of the keys to happiness.
He remained strong and healthy, though he flagged with age. Still, he competed where he could and managed his diet carefully, knowing that health was one key to happiness.
He maintained a loving relationship with his wife. His four children all loved him, and he loved them dearly. As they grew, he taught them everything he knew and made sure they had every advantage. He watched with pride as they learned and began to leave the nest. He waited eagerly for the day he would have grandkids, knowing that a big family was one of the keys to happiness.
In what little spare time he had, he traveled and attempted to seek new experiences. He skydived, scuba dived, mountain climbed, and went on an elephant ride. Everything that he could think of, he immediately went and did.
And each night, he waited patiently for the fear to pass. Each night, he thought of his death with fear and regret and guilt. Most nights, he accepted it and slept soundly after it passed. Some nights though, he wondered why this feeling persisted. He had achieved and exceeded every measure of happiness he had ever heard of. Whenever he heard of a new one, he achieved and exceeded that one too. What was he missing?
One day, he saw a magazine on a street stand. On its cover was a picture of a monk in simple robes, smiling at the camera. The headline read, “A New Way to Happiness?” The man immediately purchased a copy and read of monks living in the mountains who had achieved perfect happiness by living with little and spending their days meditating.
Intrigued, the man sought to meet with these monks. They agreed, and he climbed to their mountain monastery. They greeted him warmly, and he asked them, “What is the key to happiness?”
The monks said nothing, and one of them simply gestured to an empty meditation mat on the floor. The man sat, closed his eyes, and meditated with them.
When he left, he felt cleansed. He was weightless. All his earthly cares had been taken away, and there were no further challenges to face. When he lay in bed that night, the fear came, and he thought for sure that with more meditation, he could be like those monks and finally be happy.
He arranged for his eldest son to take over his business, and with his other children out of the house and his wife content to wait for his return, he left home. He lived on that mountain top for two years and didn’t speak to a single person in all that time. He meditated for eight hours a day and spent every spare hour growing his own food, tending to the monastery, and his health.
Every night, he lay down to sleep on a thin mat in a cold, empty room, carefree and spiritually open. The fear would arrive and pass as it always had, undeterred.
When he returned home, he would have felt defeated, were it not for the carefree detachment he had attained. His wife and children greeted him warmly, but with bad news. While he was gone, his parents had passed.
He mourned with them, both for the loss of his parents and the loss of the final moments he could have had with them. And in time, the sadness passed, and he went back to his old home to clean it out and sell it.
Sifting through cabinets, shelves, and boxes of old memories, he came upon one filled with his old toys. Inside it, he found the old plastic dining car. Its paint had faded, and the lights no longer worked, but when he saw it, the vision was of it as it had been in his childhood. He held it in trembling hands and saw through his tears the silhouettes that he had once hoped to join.
Surely, he thought, this is what I’ve been missing. I had forgotten my Dreams of Joy.
He immediately booked tickets for himself and his wife on the most exquisite luxury train he could find. They dined with other joy-seekers that night, some of their age and some younger. The inside of the dining car was bright and crystalline, filled with beautiful people and delicious food, just as he had imagined it when he was a child.
That night, he and his wife slept in a luxury suite aboard the train. As they lay down to bed, the tracks clacking away beneath them, they talked as they always did, and she drifted off to sleep. As he lay alone, he smiled to himself and closed his eyes, confident that for the first time in his memory, he would sleep fearlessly.
But a thought crept into his mind — the thought of his death. He felt the familiar fear well up in him and consume his every feeling.
As it passed, it was replaced with anger. Had he been lied to? Had everyone hid something from him? What could he possibly be missing?
Carefully, he slipped out of bed. He put on a nightgown and slippers and shuffled down the dark halls of the train car to arrive again at the dining car. The staff were cleaning tables and met him with surprise.
“Would you like something, sir?” one asked uncertainty.
The man met the young waiter’s eyes and, after a short pause, said, “could I have a cup of tea?”
The waiter nodded, and a few minutes later, the man was sitting at a table, a steaming cup of tea in front of him, staring out at the dark shapes that zoomed past him.
When the man didn’t drink the tea, the waiter returned and asked, “sir, is there something wrong?”
The man looked at the waiter and asked, “Are you happy?”
Taken aback, the waiter’s eyes widened, and he looked around the room for someone else but found nobody to help him. He looked back at the man and saw the sadness in his eyes. The waiter said, “sometimes.”
“What makes you happy?” the man asked.
The waiter began to relax. He sat down across from the man and thought for a moment. “I suppose I don’t really know. Sometimes I feel like I can be happy, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m happy when I’m working,” the waiter gestured to the room around them. “And sometimes I’m not. Other times I’m happy just reading a book or lying in bed, but other times I’m not.”
The man shook his head, defeated. “I’ve tried all of that. I’ve tried everything. I’ve become wealthy, I’ve become fit, I’ve started a family. I even became a monk for a while.” He looked out the window again, imagining himself as a child, laying in bed and watching his own silhouette in Dreams of Joy.
The waiter followed the man’s gaze out the window and asked, “who said you need all that to be happy?”
“Oh, my mother, my father, my professors. A million other people. But it seems they didn’t know what they were talking about.” The waiter jumped at the sudden, hearty laugh that escaped the man’s throat. His head was thrown back, his eyes closed, his whole body shaking as guffawed. When he calmed down, he wiped a tear from his eye and looked at the waiter.
They sat together in silence for a while after that, the waiter too nervous to speak, afraid whatever he might say might trigger another unpredictable reaction. Eventually, the man reached down and took a sip of his tea. “This is wonderful,” he said, looking straight at the waiter. “Thank you.”
“Y-your welcome, sir.”
“I’m sorry I startled you. I just had an idea about what I’ve been missing, and it seems so obvious that I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. After so many years, I couldn’t bring myself to be regretful anymore, so I had to laugh.” The whispers of a smile still pulled at the edges of the man’s mouth.
His curiosity overpowering his better sense, the waiter asked, “what were you missing?”
The man sipped at his tea again and gave a full, serene smile. “I’ve always thought that happiness was a process — the end result of a set of actions. Never did I consider that it could be a decision.”
Even more confused, the waiter just raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t worry, kid,” the man said, waving a hand dismissively. “I know it’s a crazy idea, but I’ll let you know if it works.”
With that, the man finished his tea and stood. The waiter remained seated and watched as the man tightened his bedrobe and walked off towards the suites.
As the man lay back in bed, he didn’t think of happiness or fear. He didn’t even remember that he was supposed to wait for the thought of death. He pulled his wife close and fell asleep.