The Happiness We Can Have

What, rouse thee, man! thy Juliet is alive,

For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead;

There art thou happy: Tybalt would kill thee,

But thou slew’st Tybalt; there are thou happy too:

The law that threaten’d death becomes thy friend

And turns it to exile; there art thou happy:

A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;

Happiness courts thee in her best array;

But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,

Thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love:

Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.’


Friar Lawrence’s admonishment to Romeo, who is awash in self-pity, is an appeal to recognize all the particular blessings, reprieves, and privileges that fate or God have poured upon him. He urges the self-dramatizing adolescent to recognize what has been given and to receive it.

In English, as well as in German and French, a lineage can be traced from happiness to notions of fortune, fate, luck, or the will of the gods. “Haply I think on thee,” Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 29, meaning not “happily,” but “I happen to”—but when the speaker happens, haply, to “think on thee,” it seems, he becomes happy in some of the most exquisite ways English can afford him: “and then my state, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate, for thy sweet love, remembered, such wealth brings, that then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

The occasion of happiness here as in Romeo’s case, is something given—a happenstance, a sudden occurrence of something unbidden, but recognized and received.

Among the many ways to define or imagine happiness, one that makes sense to me is that it is something available, like ground water (for the time being) or radio waves that we can tap or tune into and receive. It is not so much a human condition as an ambient condition—perhaps a condition of the God “whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere” in which we are invited now and then to share. The more we accept the invitation, I think, the more practiced we become at tuning in and receiving happiness, broadcast like the Spirit that is described in scripture as “poured out” upon mankind. We can be drenched by it, or, huddling in our self-constructed shelters, we can miss it the way we miss the weather when the blinds are closed.

I imagine every doctor has seen people inexplicably happy in the midst of suffering that would seem to provide ample reason for despair. I think of one account of a woman with end-stage breast cancer, who lived day to day in considerable pain, but who while she had a voice sang with a visiting friend an old hymn with the refrain, “Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” When her voice went, she urged her friend to sing it for her. She wasn’t being insipidly pious. She was asserting a kind of happiness evidently not dependent on happenstance. Another line in the same song reads, “No storm can shake my inmost calm when to that Rock I’m clinging…” Happiness described there has something to do with finding a source of stability and confidence that is finally psychologically and spiritually independent of circumstance, somehow surviving slings and arrows and the ills that flesh is heir to.   That seems the kind of happiness to hope for, pray for, receive, claim, and live into. It’s available. It’s not too late. Therein we are happy.

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