The Place I Want to Get Back To, Mary Oliver ‘Thirst’
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
and first light
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground, like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they come
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can’t be repeated.
If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named
Sermon: “The Pursuit of Happiness II”
We have to ease ourselves into December the way we go into the Atlantic Ocean in Maine in early July, when it’s still very frigid—though it never gets warmer than merely being frigid. You stand at the edge of the water and let a wave wash over your feet. Then you brace yourself and walk in waist high, then dunk down and come up screaming, tempted to make a b-line for shore.
December, we’re told, is the season to be jolly…tra la la la la. The New York Times weekend papers in early December weigh about 50 pounds as they bulge with advertisements for all the happiness you can buy. The day after Thanksgiving begins the rush toward buying happiness.
This is not one of those sermons telling you how terrible it all is, but an effort to pursue the meaning of pursuing happiness, and to ask, for a moment at least, what is happiness?
Let’s begin by looking again at the origin of the phrase; it is, of course, from our Declaration of Independence:
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
The phrase, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” is, first of all, about freedom, which is the cornerstone of this country. A variation of the phrase was used by the famous philosopher of freedom, John Locke, who said that the purpose of government is to secure ‘life, liberty and estate,’ or ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of property.’
Locke’s phrase aimed at the property rights that a government should guarantee its people. Jefferson’s list covers a broader spectrum of rights, which are listed in the Bill of Rights, including free speech and a fair trial, and so forth. In other words it’s all about basic human rights. I believe that Jefferson changed the phrase ‘pursuit of property,’ to ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ in order to appeal to that which is part of the human condition, or human constitution – the natural tendency to avoid pain and to seek pleasure…the innate desire to find happiness.
There are lots of aspects to happiness, of course. And there’s the other side of the happiness coin: sadness. I was intrigued some years ago to come across a Russian proverb that says, “Why should we be happy when there are so many beautiful things to be sad about?”
The holidays have this aspect built-in to them; the nostalgia, and missing people who are no longer here – often the key people in our lives.
We’re drawn to sadness – we appreciate it, often without realizing it, which is why it ought to be mentioned.
We pay for the opportunity to immerse ourselves in some sadness by going to see certain movies or reading certain novels or plays. There’s something about sadness that we value.
Sadness is a response to human caring and compassion, which we value – caring and compassion are central aspects to what it means to be human, to be able to feel, to empathize…to care about another person’s suffering or sadness.
The things that bring happiness change as we grow, as we mature, as we form committed relationships or raise children and welcome grandchildren into our lives.
Some of our fondest memories are of the happiness or joy of the Christmas and Hannukah season, getting toys and games and gifts wrapped in colorful paper, put under the tree to open all at once, or given one gift a night for eight nights.
A parent’s happiness is proportionate to the response the child gives to a gift, it’s proportionate to the degree of appreciation they express.
For the child, happiness is most directly related to ‘getting stuff.’ For the parent, or grandparent, or aunt and uncle, happiness is most directly related to ‘giving.’ That’s why we know the truth in the old adage, ‘It’s better to give than to receive.’ Giving empowers the giver.
We who are parents and grandparents have to be careful not to demand too much by way of appreciation from our children, even while we need to teach them something about expressing their appreciation. It’s tricky business.
Happiness is age dependent, and circumstance dependent.
At our staff meeting on Thursday morning I asked the staff to complete the sentence, ‘Happiness is…’
“The first thing that comes to mind is that happiness is sitting in front of the fireplace; happiness is having time with my wife in the morning; happiness is connecting with another person and realizing that you’ve accomplished something or came to understand something that neither of you could do alone; happiness is having things in order, like having the house back in order after the holidays; happiness is having the choir organized; happiness is taking care of each other and the endless possibilities of creativity—it’s about all the things that make us human; happiness is sharing beauty, sharing the experience of appreciating beauty; happiness is having a clean slate; happiness is clarity—when there’s a clear understanding between people about what’s expected of one another.”
The thing that touched me most about this discussion with the staff is how it affected the atmosphere in the room—after an hour of animated conversation about lots of things that have been happening and plans for things to happen later, it became quietly reflective; it had what I’d call a spiritual quality to it.
I closed the staff meeting with Sandburg’s poem, ‘Happiness.’
I asked professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me
what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work
of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile
as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the
Des Plaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and
and a keg of beer and an accordion.
The pursuit of happiness sounds so undignified — like the greyhounds chasing after the mechanical rabbit, or the dog chasing the car.
The song from the musical, “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” puts it nicely, simply:
HAPPINESS IS FINDING A PENCIL.
PIZZA WITH SAUSAGE
TELLING THE TIME.
HAPPINESS IS LEARNING TO WHISTLE.
TYING YOUR SHOE FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME.
HAPPINESS IS PLAYING THE DRUM IN YOUR OWN SCHOOL BAND.
AND HAPPINESS IS WALKING HAND IN HAND.
HAPPINESS IS TWO KINDS OF ICE CREAM.
KNOWING A SECRET.
CLIMBING A TREE.
HAPPINESS IS FIVE DIFFERENT CRAYONS.
CATCHING A FIREFLY.
SETTING HIM FREE.
HAPPINESS IS BEING ALONE EVERY NOW AND THEN.
AND HAPPINESS IS COMING HOME AGAIN.
HAPPINESS IS MORNING AND EVENING,
DAY TIME AND NIGHT TIME TOO.
FOR HAPPINESS IS ANYONE AND ANYTHING AT ALL
THAT’S LOVED BY YOU.
HAPPINESS IS HAVING A SISTER.
SHARING A SANDWICH.
HAPPINESS IS SINGING TOGETHER WHEN DAY IS THROUGH,
AND HAPPINESS IS THOSE WHO SING WITH YOU.
HAPPINESS IS MORNING AND EVENING,
DAYTIME AND NIGHTTIME TOO.
FOR HAPPINESS IS ANYONE AND ANYTHING AT ALL
THAT’S LOVED BY YOU.
Happiness is age related, and circumstance related, but it’s essential to the human spirit.
“Most people wouldn’t be so unhappy if they didn’t have such an exaggerated idea of other people’s happiness.”
The story says that Sandra Day O’Connor is happy for him, and she visits with the couple while they hold hands on the porch swing. She said that it’s such a relief to see her husband of 55 years so content, now.
The culture tends to focus on young, romantic love, which often seems immature. The songs and movies and novels seem to set young people up for a big disappointment. It’s not that love doesn’t last, it’s just that love changes with the years. Love changes. If it lasts, it matures, and mature love is a sight to behold.
The O’Connors’ story was reported by the couple’s son in an interview with a television station in Arizona, where Mr. O’Connor lives in an assisted-living center, opened a window onto what might be called, for comparison’s sake, old love.
Of course, it illuminated the relationships that often develops among Alzheimer’s patients — new attachments, some call them — and how the desire for intimacy persists even when dementia steals so much else.
I found the story about Sandra Day O’Connor’s reaction to be heart-warming and poignant. She’s happy that her husband is getting something he needs, even though it flies in the face of our notions about love.
Happiness is related to specific circumstances. Older love doesn’t get much press, but it has an important place in our lives.
The Times reporter says, “Researchers who study emotions across the life span say old love is in many ways more satisfying than young love — even as it is also more complex, as the O’Connors’ example shows.”
Mary Phipher is quoted as saying, “Young love is about wanting to be happy. Old love is about wanting someone else to be happy.”
John Gabrieli, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the researchers said, “As people get older, they seem to naturally look at the world through positivity and be willing to accept things that when we’re young we would find disturbing and vexing.”
When our children are very young we do things to try to make them happy – that’s why our culture’s Christmas focus on children was invented.
As our children get older, we’re more concerned about their safety; we’re more aware of the dangers of driving, drugs, alcohol and sexual activity. It’s not that we don’t want them to be happy…but we’re concerned that they will spend too much time making a mad dash for it.
When our children enter their adult years, we hope for their security, and we hope for some pay-back – that they will be thinking more about us as we age and then they just want us to be happy…as well as safe and secure.
Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz, Carl Sandburg
Are you happy? It’s the only
way to be, kid.
Yes, be happy, it’s a good nice
way to be.
But not happy-happy, kid, don’t
be too doubled-up doggone happy.
It’s the doubled-up doggone happy-
happy people … bust hard … they
do bust hard … when they bust.
Be happy, kid, go to it, but not too
Making the House Ready for the Lord, Mary Oliver
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
Still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice—it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances—but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
“He who binds himself to a joy doth the winged life destroy; he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternities sunrise.” Wm. Blake