Happiness, Purpose, and Praise

imageIn the middle of some weeks and months of gloom—sad songs, sad memories, sad circumstances with my mother—happiness occurs too. My students and I read Dickens’ Great Expectations and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. My daughter skips down the sidewalk on her way to school. A volunteer at church wrangles teachers for a middle school class. I organize the twenty-fourth draft of my fantasy baseball league. I see Zootopia three, no wait, four times with my daughter. A strong wind blows. I get texts from absent friends sharing their joys and achievements. The cats jump into bed when I head in for sleep.

I consider myself to be a happy person. Many different things inspire feelings of happiness in me. What kinds of things? Watching my daughter skip down the sidewalk to school, of course. One of my cats leaping onto a windowsill to be fed there. Indian food, well, good Indian food. The grooves of a record. Garamond font. Holding hands with a person that I love. Legos. A light covering of snow on a mountain path in summertime. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Shooting pool with friends. Watching a baseball game in Baltimore with friends. Having dinner with friends anywhere (even at Wendy’s). Kissing a woman that I love. Again and again. Fountain pens. Warm sand at the beach. Otters. Danish modern furniture. Arts and Crafts style houses. Farms. Wind strong enough that I can lean into it. Any wind. Fourteen-inch narrow ruled yellow legal pads. Visiting my nieces. Driving along the Maine coast. Tarot cards. Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blue. Sails. Art museums. Cleanly swept streets in a city where the buildings tower high. Acrobats.

I could go on. Seriously.  Do some of these happinesses outshine others? Certainly. Do I turn any away when they present themselves? No, not if I can help it. Yet, I cannot find a thread to bind all these things together, and many of them contradict each other. Some share nothing other than the fact that they exist in the world and that they make me feel happy. It’s almost as if the only qualification I have is mere existence, but that is not true. I could make a list of what I avoid; it would be a long list. However, it would never come close to eclipsing the other side.

I once facetiously proposed writing a travel book called, Good Food is Everywhere. I was traveling to the Oakland Coliseum with my friend Dean, and he mentioned a place to eat— god knows what. Everywhere we traveled, we found good food. I said, “There is good food everywhere”—the kind of panglossian statement that belied our experiences in the world. We had both been bounced around romantically; our parents had faced significant health challenges. Life held no guarantees. Nonetheless, somewhere, everywhere, someone was making something genuinely delicious to eat. Happiness, even in this limited and simple form, was available. All one had to do was find it.

And, to be clear, let me distinguish between happiness and what? goodness? While doing the right thing—being just, striving to be good, or, as Rilke wrote: “praising this world”—is my goal, I have never expected that behavior to provide happiness. The sunnum bonum gives life its meaning and purpose, but it also engenders struggle.

In the Ninth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke exhorts:

Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth, and despite that,
still is able to praise.

The struggle is between the Things, and our praise, and the “imageless act.” I know what a Thing is, but struggle trying to nail down what an imageless act might be. Let me propose the following.

I do an exercise with my students in which I pick up some thing on my desk—a stapler, for instance—and ask them to chart its existence before it came to rest on my desk. We consider each human hand that “touched’ it, and if it interacted with any other Thing (was transported, boxed, or shelved in a store or warehouse), we then have to go through the same process with each the things involved with it as it made its way to us. And so on. The result is not an iceberg so much as a galaxy of connections; the web becomes nearly impenetrable, nearly limitless. I think that this may be the “business” that Rilke points to—a series of acts and actors who disappear, become party to that “imageless act,” part of a supply chain that exists only to invisibly deliver a stapler. When we use the stapler without an understanding of the vast cloud of connections—of the benefits and costs borne by that cloud, those people, those Things—we are party to that business and expand its limits.

Cutting through that business is a struggle. But within the business, what can we find? A thousand hands—more—and all these things: a lathe, a cam shaft, a table, a ship’s propeller blade, a rivet, a mallet. Each one sings out for recognition, for praise. Every hand, every foot, every heart, and every thing. Imagine knowing that all your acts would be held up for praise, and to know that your single cause for being was to praise. The tongue is freed, the heart endures. And the world becomes. Again.


rilkeThis is from the Duino Elegies, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

I have been thinking (and writing) about happiness, and found myself writing about “things.” When I think of “things,” I mean them, in part, in the way Rilke writes: things that are made, that bear the evidence of creation and intention.  But before I go on, here is The Ninth of the Duino Elegies.


The Ninth Elegy
Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)—: why then
have to be human—and escaping from fate,
Keep longing for fate?…

Oh not because happiness exists,
that too hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
Not out of curiosity, not as a practice for the heart, which
would exist in the laurel too….

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once, no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once;
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

And so we keep pressing on, trying to achieve it,
trying to hold it firmly in our simple hands,
in our overcrowded gaze, in our speechless heart.
Trying to become it,—Whom can we give it to? We would
hold on to it all, forever… Ah, but what can we take along
into that other realm? Not the art of looking,
which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing.
The sufferings, then. And above all the heaviness,
and the long experience of love,— just what is wholly
unsayable. But later, among the stars,
what good is it—they are better as they are: unsayable.
For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,
he brings not some handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing. Isn’t that the secret intent
of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?
Threshold: what it means for two lovers
to be wearing down, imperceptibly, the ancient threshold of their door—
they too, after the many who came before them
and before those to come…. lightly.

Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth, and despite that,
still is able to praise.

Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one,
you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe
where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice. So show him
something simple which, formed over generations,
lives as our own, near our hand, and within our gaze.
Tell him of Things. He will stand astonished; as you stood
by the rope-maker in Rome or the potter along the Nile.
Show him how happy a Thing can be, how innocent and ours,
how even lamenting grief purely decides to take form,
serves as a Thing, or dies into a Thing—, and blissfully
escapes far beyond the violin: —And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient
they look to us for deliverance; us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within—oh endlessly—within us! Whoever we may be at last.

Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
Earth, my dearest, I will. Oh believe me, you no longer
need your springtimes to win me over—one of them,
ah, even one, is already too much for my blood.
Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first.
You were always right, and your holiest inspiration
is our intimate companion, Death.

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller…. Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.