Pursuing Happiness: August 27, 2015
“God is to be found down here in this world that God created and seven times pronounced good.” --Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
About a year ago we spent a Friday night with Daddy. Saturday morning the kids woke up early. Too early, even for them. I got up, shushed them, threatened them and crawled, muttering, back under the covers. Quiet for a bit, then laughter, a little shrieking, some bumping around. I tried to ignore it and, truth be told, thought it was Mark’s turn to get up. But I wasn’t asleep. I was seething quietly beside my sleeping, oblivious husband, and thinking bad thoughts about my children when I heard a sound worse than shrieking.
Footsteps in the upstairs hallway. Footsteps coming down the stairs. The door opening. Footsteps outside the children’s room. My father’s quiet voice, incredulous, addressing his grandchildren. Did they not realize that they were being so loud? Did they know that their room was right underneath his room? Could they please be quiet? Thank you.
Slowly the footsteps retreated, up the stairs, down the hallway. Silence.
Even now, almost a year later, I am cringing. I am mortified. Others might interpret such a scene as the extended family lending a hand with the child rearing. A parent having your parenting back. That’s not really my Dad’s style. He is a wonderful, caring, generous, loving, involved grandparent. But not so much hands-on, especially at 5am. I’m super sensitive to being a good kid, still, at 46, so I read it—rightly or wrongly--as indictment.
And wow, was I awake now. Awake. Angry. Embarrassed. Vengeful. On my feet and on the move.
“Get dressed!” I hissed through clenched teeth. “Why?” they asked, bright eyed. “Do it!” I spat, and turned on my heel to get myself dressed in the dark, find my keys, grab the damn diaper bag.
“Where are we going” the angels chirped, ready for adventure and thrilled to be allowed, after all, to get up.
“Shhhh! Be quiet! And get in the car.” (Subtext: this is bad. Quit being so happy.)
I didn’t know where we were going. Just that we were going away. And for at least three hours.
The morning was perversely beautiful. A soft, gray dawn with pink and gold highlights. The sunrise just caressing the tree tops. Joyful, chattering children in the backseat. I was nursing the mortification but also aware of the beauty. I wanted to shake off the bitterness…but, well, I kinda wanted them to feel the bitterness, too, before we all got over it together. I was trying to swallow that tit-for-tat. I was trying to rally. But a huge parenting no-no is to reward bad behavior. Which way to play this hand I was dealt?
I really, really wanted some coffee.
NPR announced On Being with Krista Tippett. I’d heard about the show and was often interested in the advertised topics but it aired Saturday mornings at 6:00. Please.
If you don’t think God is personal and if you don’t think God is playful, then you’re just not paying attention.
Into the midst of my bad mood, into the muck of my self-righteous indignation and self-centered muttering came the program, Pursuing Happiness with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet and three other global religious leaders about happiness as a virtue that is acquired and practiced.
Did you catch that? Happiness as a virtue that is acquired and practiced. More on this in a moment.
The participants also discussed happiness as religious duty; as embodied; as it relates to beauty; and its social implications. I recently listened to the program again, and again I loved when Rabbi Sacks paraphrased the statement of Rav in the Jerusalem Talmud: “In the world to come a person will have to give an account of every legitimate pleasure he or she deprived themselves of in this life; because God gave us this world to enjoy.”
On that morning, driving around downtown Greenville in that rosy-fingered dawn, I understood Rabbi Sacks to say that a person will have to give an account of every legitimate pleasure he or she denied another person. And I was convicted of my bad mood, and of wanting to perpetuate it on my children, who were refusing to be sucked into my gloom.
I parked, we bounded out and found the new Eggs-Up Grill open and welcoming. The nicest waitress—possibly the nicest person—in the whole world served us. Rachel was cheerful, complimentary and quick with the coffee. She was nicer to my children than I ever am, AND, she’d woken up even earlier than they had.
Jack and Emma were well-behaved, nice to each other, templates of perfection. I was trying not to deprive them of a legitimate pleasure. I was trying to acquire and practice the virtue happiness: to act on the knowledge and my belief that these children are miracles and gifts of a good God.
That’s when I remembered that it was Emma’s 2nd birthday. That two years earlier I’d helped birth this tiny miracle. That 11 hours later Jack came to see her and gazed at his baby sister which such love and depth that he became, for that moment, the face of God.
How could I begrudge such joy? Lament an hour’s lost sleep? Resent my sleeping husband?
Pursing happiness as a virtue, as opposed to pursuing pleasure, is a very different starting point. I associate it most closely with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This gem of a site (The Pursuit of Happiness) reminded me that Aristotle really says something more like happiness is the exercise of virtue; it’s the accomplishment of a life lived with moral character—the goal of a virtuous life.
The Dalai Lama, on the radio that morning and in his book The Art of Happiness, said “The purpose of our existence is to seek happiness.” But again, happiness is not a fleeting emotion or a passing contentment. It is a hard-won, learned state of being. “For our life to be of value, I think we must develop basic good human qualities—warmth, kindness, compassion. Then our life becomes meaningful and more peaceful—happier.” It begins with a deep engagement with reality—training the mind to accept the inevitability of suffering and to embrace compassion.
I believe both ideas.
I believe that living a virtuous life in balance—avoiding both excesses and deficiencies—is the perfection of human nature. In this sense it mirrors the Biblical phrasing, “Happy is the man who...” That man, or, I would say, person, is ‘happy’ because she is living according to the principles of her faith. Sometimes translators call that person blessed.
I also believe that it is an essential discipline to train the mind to react with compassion. I believe the Dalai Lama’s claim that, “True spirituality is a mental attitude that you can practice at any time.”
It’s just that I wasn’t practicing it.
In fact, I did begrudge, lament and resent. Even while enjoying the other patrons’ smiles at my children. Even while receiving Rachel’s benediction that I am a good mother because I have such wonderful children. (Which is kind, if faulty, logic. They are wonderful in spite of me. Sometimes it seems they are wonderful TO spite me.)
Rachel gave Emma a “bill” which said, Happy Birthday, Beautiful Girl!! and gave me a bill that didn’t include Emma’s birthday breakfast. We burst out onto the bright pavement and explored the newest Falls Park garden. A cluster of Governor’s School kids swirled across the bridge and shouted, “Hey, Sib-Jo family!” Jack and Emma veered off and ran among their legs before zooming back chasing butterflies. The only thing missing was the Ghost of Christmas Future.
“Okay!” I wanted to shout at God. “I get it! I will stop denying myself this pleasure.”
I made the decision to change course. I took a deep breath and said: I will practice spirituality even now. Especially now. It is not rewarding bad behavior—theirs or mine.
It is grace. It is surrender. It is blessing.
It was God being found down here on this earth that God created and seven times pronounced good.
(Post-Script: On Being is a fabulous program, and from the website you can listen to any show as well as download to the device of your choosing and listen later. I am a devotee. )