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Searching for the "ser"

My mother’s father, Gustavo, wrote many letters to her when she first moved from Ecuador to this country in her late teens. She was having a hard time as a recent immigrant, without legal status, and as a young mother of two, but she kept responding to his letters telling him over and over how happy she was and how wonderful her life was. Finally, after months of correspondence, he wrote back:


No es fácil ser feliz. Hay que haber sufrido mucho para serlo. No es lo mismo ser feliz que estar satisfecho. Aquí el "ser" y el "estar" tienen toda su trascendental diferenciación….Para ser feliz hay que elevar la mente y el corazón, para estar feliz solo se necesita satisfacer las necesidades secundarias o del cuerpo.


You might recall if you’ve studied Spanish (or grew up speaking it), that there are two verbs for our one English verb “to be.” One version, “ser,” is used to imply permanence. The other version, “estar,” is used for temporary states. You can use “ser” for your profession, your being a parent, or your place of birth. But you use “estar” for feeling cold or tired or thirsty--states that you are, but that are changeable. Here, then, is the way I would translate what Gustavo wrote into English:


It’s not easy to be happy. You must have suffered a lot to be happy. Being happy isn’t the same as feeling satisfied. Here the “ser” and the “estar” have all of their transcendental differentiation….For to be happy you have to elevate your mind and heart. To feel happy you only need to satisfy your secondary necessities or those of the body.


He is distinguishing between these two types of happiness, for which we don’t really have succinct language in English. There is the outward happiness, the “estar,” that relates to our experiences of satisfaction, but there is a distinct, internal, permanent happiness, the “ser,” that we cultivate through drawing meaning from our experiences.