July 7, 2012

On Happiness

Growing up, I don't recall that happiness--the attainment or lack thereof--was ever much of a topic of conversation around the dinner table. It's not that we were any more or less happy than anyone else; it's more that we just didn't talk about being happy. Or at least, that's my memory of it.

I don't mean to imply that our parents were indifferent to our happiness, or that they didn't want us to be happy. It's just that as a goal in life, happiness wasn't high up on their to-do list. Work and family and church topped the list. Adherence to that holy trinity of life would perhaps distill a modicum of happiness from the day-to-day routine, but being happy was never the primary purpose of life.

Working hard ... taking care of your own ... keeping faith with Holy Mother Church ... those were important. Being happy ... well, not so much.

As I look back on my life, I realize that moments of supreme happiness have been relatively few and far between. I've thought about this from time to time. Is there something wrong with me? Am I missing a genetic marker for happiness? Did the happiness fairy forget to come visit me?

The war wasn't helpful. For too many years, the memory of it held me back from fully committing myself emotionally to anything other than work and family, church having fallen by the wayside long before the war. But, I can't blame it all on the war. Thinking about it, I have to admit that I have never really worked at being happy. Instead, I have settled--if that's the right word--for being content.

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of being content. There is in it a New England frugality of emotion that satisfies me. Happiness is fireworks brightly flowering against a night sky before winking out. Contentment is sitting in front of a warm fire on a cold winter’s day, watching the gentle flickering of flames over logs. Youth sees the future as a blank slate upon which their destiny will be writ large; age brings with it an appreciation of holding one’s own over the long haul.

The poet Robert Graves, in summing up the impact of his experience as an officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers during World War I, wrote that he adopted “a brutal persistence in seeing things through, somehow, anyhow, without finesse, satisfied with the main points of any situation.” As I try to balance the needs of work and family with my own desire for happiness, I understand what he means by “brutal persistence.” That’s the life I chose. I’m content with that.

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