Wednesday 19 December 2007

The greatest gift that I possess

Bonus points (as ever) to anyone who can identify the header (it sounds oddly Christmassy, somehow; but isn't). I've been meaning to write about the nature of happiness for sometime, but have actually been handicapped by not being able to get that bloody song out of my head every time I so much as thought of the word. Arrrgh!

Several different ideas milling around in my head. One is that I've always made a point of giving an honest answer when people ask me how I am. So not necessarily (ha! but pretty inevitably) giving all the gory details, but if they say "How are you?" I say "Crap!" if it's crap; I only say "Fine!" if I am fine. But conversely, if I'm blissfully happy, I say "Blissfully happy." One of the only things in the whole world that so much as faintly annoys me about A is that when I ask how his day has been, he'll often say "Not too bad." Even when I'm fairly sure it has actually been pretty good. And I really dislike the cynicism of that (most kinds of cynicism I'm fine with, obviously; just not that one). I suppose my view is based on honesty: I dislike communication by rote. I don't like it when words lose their literal meaning: I think it's dangerous when you start saying things without thinking about what they really mean. That was one of the things that put me off religion: all that insincere chanting of liturgies.

But I digress. It seems to me to be so grudging to refuse to say that you are fine, you are well, you are happy. doesn't it also rather insult the people with real problems? Another example: In his notes on the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'Once more with feeling', Joss Whedon (yes, I am about to blaspheme against my god) says, to conclude his introduction, "Very occasionally, if you really pay attention, life doesn’t suck." This really quite offended me, in a way I don't expect Joss ever to. Why? Well, here is a guy who loves writing,who gets to write all day, who has been sucessful, even lauded, for his writing skills. So he's respected in a field in which he wants to be respected. And he's making money. And he's living in an affluent, civilised society, and what's more he's near the top layer of it socially. What the heck has he got to complain about? To put it brutally, what right has he to be grumpy?

I feel the same about myself. Here I am, in a well-paid job, with interesting hobbies, in a nice house, with a nice man, a nice baby, and a nice cat. Oooh, and lots of lovely secondhand paperbacks. I might be me but with health problems. I might be me with not enough money and horrible credit card debts. I might be me with A dead in a car accident, or Sasha with health problems. But that's only the tip of the iceberg: I might be still in this lovely civilised society, but with debts or illness or a dead-end job. I could be in lots of places in the world where being left-wing and outspoken would have got me shot by now. I could be in a country, or at a time, when a 41-year-old having a baby would have very little chance of surviving it. I'm sure you can see where I'm going. We have such privilege that we can barely remember what it might feel like not to have it. And we're not even just -- just!!! -- well-fed and well-housed. We have centuries of literature and music at our fingertips. We have it all!

I keep remembering a lovely column by Andrew Brown, who writes a very interesting blog (I've linked to the blog, not to the article, which was aeons ago). The gist of it was: he was at home, sitting by the fire, with a very nice book and a glass of rather good red wine, thinking how splendid this was. But also relecting that he might have been in much the same situation a hundred, two hundred, even three hundred years ago. Good book, good wine, good fire: these things have been constants. The difference was that three hundred years ago, those pleasures would have been yours only at the very top end of society. Now they're actually pretty modest; easily attainable. It's the old old story: we'd be so happy if only our aspirations didn't always increase to match our achievements.

So, I've been thinking about how wonderful everything is. But I've also been thinking: if I'm so happy,why don't I feel it more? Because things are pretty damn blissful: why aren't I higher than a hawk? Or deeper than a well? I began to wonder whether I was somehow failing to engage with reality: whether I'd somehow detached myself. But the more I've thought about it, the happier I've been feeling; a glow of content has started to permeate me; and so I wonder: are we afraid to be happy? Do we just hate to admit to it? Does it make us seem smug? Is it naff? Are we afraid that if we tell someone we have it all, they'll want to take something away? Maybe it's an English thing, not to gloat. But it's odd, isn't it?

1 comment:

A said...

This is cheating given that is actually Beck's line, but we've just been discussing that you could summarise this whole post rather more snappily: If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands....