Thanks to a passionate lesson in poetry from Anne Loecher, I now know the answer is — both.
“There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.”
Immediately I felt the need to interrupt. “But Anne,” I said, “there is so accounting for happiness. Scientists have researched happiness, and can say what leads to greater happiness, and what undermines it. Happiness isn’t that mysterious.”
Fortunately, Anne was patient with me. She gently but firmly suggested I try being a little less literal, that I listen for the magic, for the beauty, for the musicality, for the miraculous. And, fortunately, I had the good sense to take a deep breath and try again.
The poem goes on:
“And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.”
Of course, I could say, equality in life circumstances is crucial to happiness. That is, if you are a monk in a cell, and you have more or less the same amount of possessions and quality of life as those around you, you can settle into happiness — though a monk coveting the possessions of a handsome young wealthy neighbor would be less happy. Or, I could suggest many specific reasons why that clerk is happy. Or question the viability of genuine happiness for the pusher. Etc.
Or … I could and did decide to just sit with the beauty of the poem, savor the poet’s insight, and appreciate the ineffable and unknowable qualities of happiness. For me, this revelation also opened my heart to the value of poetry itself, more open than I’ve been since my teens. It was a transforming moment.
Our conversation about Jane Kenyon’s poem reminded me of a recent feed from the online service, The Daily Good, which explored the scientific underpinnings of Bobby McFarrin’s classic song, “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” According to that article, McFarrin got the “why” just right. And yet … perhaps the mere existence of that brilliant piece of art is nothing short of miraculous.
To be clear, given our messy and unhappy world, particularly the threats posed by climate change, I believe it is critically important to individually and collectively understand the scientific underpinnings of happiness much, much better than we do. We need this understanding as a guide for making wiser choices than our GDP-obsessed culture currently presses on us.
And, thanks to poetry, I have been reminded of the wisdom in both approaches to happiness. Yes, it is miraculous. Yes, it can be scientifically understood, quantified, and predicted. Just typing those two sentences makes me smile. How cool to hold both concepts as valid!
Here’s something else that’s smile-inducing: a link to the Daily Good article analyzing “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and, a video of Bobby McFarrin the song itself: http://www.dailygood.org/view.php?sid=105 Together, they prove the point quite nicely!