Borges: “Medicine cannot cure what happiness cannot.”
Recently I heard Russ Baker give a lively talk about the copious book he’s published after over a decade of intense investigative reporting on some of the worst government corruptions, scams, assassinations, and consequential lies in US history. The analysis went back to the Kennedy assassination and beyond. The general tenor of the talk was that any reason we think we have to trust the major media or the government probably needs to be reexamined. And that things are worse than we thought. One of the most remarkable moments in the Q&A that followed, though was when, asked how he managed not to become overwhelmingly cynical and depressed, Baker said, convincingly, “I’m a cheerful guy. And I love doing this stuff. Truth is exhilarating.”
It was a good reminder that happiness isn’t dependent on good news, or positive thinking, or the sort of ignorance often mistaken for bliss. Some of the happiest people I know have complicated lives, precarious finances, or chronic pain. Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, Brightsided, offers a characteristically edgy critique of the culture (or cult) of positive thinking that encourages members of the public to avoid “being negative,” to enjoy life, to make a project out of happiness. The result of such efforts to “be positive,” she points out, is dangerous neglect of critical questions that need to be asked, critical thinking about public issues or consumer decisions, and even a kind of atrophy of the emotional musculature it takes to sustain a deeper sense of well being than the superficial cheerleading that often passes for happiness.
My mother had that. My dad—a large-hearted but difficult, eccentric, high-maintenance spouse—asked her on occasion, “So—do you love me in spite of it all, or because of it all?” As I recall, she evaded the question deftly, and they both moved on, with a little ritual laughter. From this distance, it seems to me the obvious answer was “Both.” It’s probably the true answer for most relationships. And it’s probably true that the deepest happiness any of us achieves comes both in spite of and because of circumstances. “Be joyful,” Wendell Berry admonishes, “though you have considered all the facts.” In order to do that, we have to learn something about joy that isn’t obvious, and isn’t circumstantial, and certainly isn’t marketable. Happiness like that has something to do with discipline, maturity, simplicity, contentment, hope and, I think, what Frankl would have called a search for meaning.
Emily’s “thing with feathers” sings a tune “without the words. She makes a point of that, setting the phrase off with one of her famous dashes–so often a sign that she’s dropping into a slightly deeper, more ambiguous place of momentary reconsideration. No words would seem either a condition of abject limitation for a poet whose words are her wellspring, or, ironically, a condition of freedom from what Eliot called “the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings.” Hope, in either case, appears to be a state that defies, or doesn’t need, explanation, rationalization, or even description. We don’t need, she suggests, to philosophize or theologize about it. As a recent movie title puts it (and let us try to suspend the sexy images of Sandra Bullock that come to mind) “hope floats.” It is a lightness of being. And perhaps it is pure gift. Perhaps, like poems to a poet, it just “comes,” not because of, but despite, our desperate summonings, like the angel who shows up to help, always to offer an invitation to something new, always having to begin the invitation with “Be not afraid.”
Could’a gone fishing
But then I got thinkin’
The road to the river’s
A mighty long way…
Commemmorating Kevin Mack
I keep saying I knew him less than the other folks in the program—that all I have to remember are isolated moments. Then I remember that’s always what we have—the moments, few or many, that left an imprint, bent the branch a little, inscribed something on the imagination around which other experiences arrange themselves.
I remember his hands—how he held them widely parallel, as though making a large space for the idea he wanted to convey. At the last faculty meeting I attended, he gave a report on the PBL program he was helping to launch in Florida. The combination of excitement and humility—those shining eyes, those open hands—moved me. People speak of his passion for medical education—so often these days the phrase is in danger of melting into cliché. But to witness it was to see how love fuels the intelligence that fuels action—one act after another until something is begun that others continue.
I remember his serving food at a curriculum committee, how he came early and set up full plates of aram sandwiches and chips and salad—hard to eat gracefully at a meeting. After the meeting two of us helped him gather up what remained to take to the break room for students. He seemed as eager and pleased to be the bearer of leftovers as he was to bring the freshly piled plates an hour earlier. Both were gifts. Nothing was wasted. It seems a little cheesy to compare people to Jesus, but it did at the time and does now make me think of Jesus at the feeding of the 5000 when he aid, gather what is left. And there were 12 baskets.