Sunday, October 30, 2011


Occasionally I've written here before about the idea of happiness, and how it might or might not coincide with the endeavor to live with some modicum of virtue, or with a sense of surrender to the will of God. Lately I've been thinking about how those of us who, for want of a better terminology, live in the First World, have come to expect it as an integral part of our destiny. Expectations of happiness -- whether those expectations take the form of growing into it, or achieving it, or earning it -- seem to cut across social and economic boundaries in our culture.  In his book City on a Hill, James Traub describes remedial-reading and -math students from the poorest reaches of my former city, who believe that they will one day live in the suburbs and drive luxury cars, though this belief is based on nothing in their experience or in the experience of anyone they know, nor upon being in the position to achieve such a goal. And I have often wondered if the tattooed mothers I encounter in the crumbling Rust Belt town where I now live have had their skin pierced and written upon in order to mark themselves with a kind of talismanic map to a better place; after all, the Hollywood and pop-music stars who appear to be the heralds of our culture are inked within an inch of their lives, and they seem to have everything. And it goes without saying that my cousin's Princeton classmates expect to have the world handed to them by virtue of their being, essentially, who they are.

I wonder too if the anxiety that's currently gripping our culture is based, in part, on the bottom dropping out of our expectations of happiness. The recent college graduates currently occupying Wall Street and other less-likely places (there's an OWS contingent camping out in a vacant lot here, for instance, which seems like a particularly ineffective form of protest, since the jobs fled from here at least fifteen years ago) are the first generation in memory for whom a once-reliable pathway to security (and, hence, to happiness) has been washed away.  I don't like to hear people on the right casting aspersions at the OWS-ers, who are probably very scared; it's just unkind.  I have a close family member who is long-term -- as in years -- unemployed; he has a graduate degree, and worked in highly-remunerative capacities for years. I have another close family member who is married to a fully-employed licensed professional who likewise has a graduate degree; this family, nonetheless, gets WIC, but makes just a little too much to qualify for food stamps (i.e. SNAP). When you're scared about how you're going to provide for your family, happiness tends to go missing.

But of course, fear and happiness are different in the First World from what they are reputed to be in the Third.  As for me, I think of happiness as something that I sometimes devoutly long to have administered to me -- like a draught, or a shot, or a little homeopathic pill -- to keep me going, to settle me, so that I can do my work -- the daily work of trying to know what the will of God is, and, then, of trying to do it.  Sometimes I have it, in spite of being a million miles from home and dealing with a number of painful or wearying situations.  As for the work, I'm generally quite shaky at it, but then sometimes I'm entirely in the groove, making contact with what appears most clearly to be God's will with the kind of precise and delicate balance that you feel when you ice-skate, when you become aware of the sure and beautiful contact of your skate-blade with the ice, and you glide with a sharp and true freedom, picking up speed, until you go stumbling and crashing down. 
The other day I read this poem, by Barbara Crooker, on The Writer's Almanac:

Sometimes I am startled out of myself

like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

Perhaps we need to let go of our quest for the happiness we have come to believe is ours by birthright. Perhaps we need to abandon all hope. Perhaps we need just to give up, and, abject as we really are, go crawling into the shelter that we have simply got to trust is there. So much of life happens with no contribution from us, with no word, no consultation, no solicitation of opinion, from us. But there is shelter, and perhaps shelter might become haven -- might even, somehow, become home.


Enbrethiliel said...


Perhaps we need to abandon all hope.

Even Dante didn't do that, and he descended all the way into hell. (I presume you were channeling his famous line?)

Pentimento said...

Well, there's hope, and then there's hope. : )

Melanie B said...

Hmmm this resonates with the piece I just wrote and posted about the verse "Like a child rests in his mother's arms." It's sort of about surrender too. Surrender of a certain expectation of what peace means. Does it mean that we are happily in control, captains of our own destiny or rather does it require a certain surrender of our own will and desires. I'm thinking the image of the child in his mother's arms isn't of a newborn at all but a fractious two year old who both wants to be held and protected but also wants to be independent and not to be told what to do or how to do it. Yes, it's been a hard time recently with Ben, who is generally a sweet soul but who gets very fractious when he's sick.

I think I arrived at almost the same place in my conclusion. I love that image you've created. Yes, I do like the idea of accepting shelter while abandoning the insistence that we have a right to a particular kind of happiness.

Rodak said...

My greatest fear is that the way we live in the "First World"--whether it is currently letting us down, or not--is an impassable obstacle to the recognition of that in which we should be placing our hope. Very nice meditation, Pentimento.

Pentimento said...

Yes, absolutely, Rodak. I fear it too. I fear it for myself as well. I just got a free subscription to Martha Stewart Living with all my points saved up from a yogurt rebate program, and I practically drooled when the first issue came. But more on this in another post. What I meant to say was that we have to abandon all hope so that God can be our only hope, since He really is -- just like the Cantique de Jean Racine says in the opening vocal statement: "Verbe, égale du Très-Haut, notre unique espérance" -- our ONLY hope. But I didn't want to be heavy-handed.

BettyDuffy said...

Loved this, particularly the skating metaphor. So good.

Pentimento said...

Melanie, I also wondered about the "weaned child" image, because that willful age wouldn't be my go-to metaphor for peace or contentment, either. This may not be what the psalmist intended, but the image that comes to me when I try to understand what he meant is that of a "weaned child" who has cried himself out and crawls into his mother's lap. That's what I mean about hope and hope, and about finding shelter, and home, even in places that don't conform to our will.