Happy People and Why We Need Them

I’m alive, he thought.

His fingers trembled, bright with blood, like the bits of a strange flag now found and before unseen, and him wondering what country and what allegiance he owed to it.  Holding Tom, but not knowing him there, he touched his free hand to that blood as if it could be peeled away, held up, turned over.  Then he let go of Tom and lay on his back with his hands up in the sky and he was a head from which his eyes peered like sentinels through the portcullis of a strange castle out along a bridge, his arm, to those fingers where the bright pennant of blood quivered in the light.”

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine.

Following my reread of Fahrenheit 451, I’ve come to remember my love for Bradbury like a gold nugget hidden inside of me, waiting for me to find it again.  I turn his pages like they’re wonders, like they’re written in some other language which I can’t quite understand, but which nevertheless looks beautiful on the page.  He sounds like a writer of that deadly “popular fiction” genre, but he also sounds like a prophet, like a poet, like a journalist, like a presidential candidate.  I couldn’t quite pinpoint what made Bradbury’s voice so unique.

Until my friend and housemate Meg Anderson made it plain to me.  She said (and I paraphrase) “Bradbury always seems to find that exact point where pure happiness and pure sorrow meet.  He understands the necessity of both.”

Reading Bradbury led me to the discovery that, in contrasting his language and body of work, we have a dearth of happiness in contemporary writing.  Sharon Olds’s recent book Stag’s Leap chronicles the stages of the poet’s divorce from her husband.   The immensely popular Millenium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo being its popular name) drives us into the dark underworld of Swedish crime, and its even darker world of law enforcement.  Terrorism haunts us (The Goldfinch, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), while queer writing is most often plagued by suicide, disease, and fear (Angels in America, Written on the Body, The Hoursthan the happy ending of serial romance.  Different interpretations of Walter White’s death at the end of Breaking Bad include notions of satisfaction, pride, accomplishment, but rarely happiness.

This is not to argue that happiness should be overrated.  A friend and trusted counsel recently posed the question “why is everyone so obsessed with happiness?”  Yes, there is a need to balance our emotional spectrum, to explore and participate in a range of feeling, not all of them comfortable, not all of them designed to instill a euphoria of joy.  But writing in particular seems to have taken a dark turn, a turn purposefully away from any expression of happiness.  How many happy secrets are expressed on the sharing site postsecret.com?

But happiness is part of that emotional spectrum!  We need to feel that happiness the same way we need to feel that sadness and that anger and that fear and that confusion.  We need to watch a character’s trial by fire, and we need to see the enlightened moment of comfort afterwards.  We do not need to sugarcoat to present a realistic understanding of happiness in our writing.  We need to be as honest with the themes of joy, of exhilaration, of satisfaction, as we are with the themes of betrayal, anger, mistrust, grief.  During a talkback, the poet Charles Simic was asked about being in Belgrade during World War II.  He told the following story (again, a paraphrasing): We gathered in bomb shelters during the night.  At first, we’d be silent, scared, listening to the explosions above us.  Then someone would start singing.  Someone else would tell a joke, or a baby would make a sound, and we’d laugh.  This is how my childhood was shaped: not the terror of war, but the happy moments of community in those bomb shelters.

Meg, who is a fount of wisdom, recently told me why she loves to bake artisan bread (aside from the obvious satisfaction it provides for her grateful housemates).  She explained that the breadmaking is like a map, directions guiding her back to herself when she needs to be reminded.  The recipe, the steps, the practice, the movement, is intrinsically tied to her personal notion of being.  Books, too, seem to serve that purpose for many of us.  We read a book to discover the interior of those characters, yes, to empathize with an experience not our own, yes, but to also rediscover those little truths about ourselves in the words on the page.  What does it mean if those maps are leading us to our darkest selves?  What does it mean if those characters only speak to our sorrows, to our fears, and not to our individual victories over that darkness?

Books should not be an escape, they should be an encounter.  They should step up forcefully to the comfortable bubbles of our lives, and they should expect the most of us.  They should demand that we pay attention, when we don’t want to, to what we don’t want to.  But there is a bubble insulating us from happiness, now, too.  We are afraid of encountering all emotions, even the joyful ones, in the need to forsake cliche and avoid simplicity.  Dare yourself to encounter joy, to encounter happiness, to embrace the opportunity for excitement.

I’ll leave you with the following video.  In the Spring of 2012, I visited Rwanda and Uganda.  I spent two semesters studying African culture, politics, and history.  I read about genocide, about economic inequality, about colonialism, poverty, hunger.  I prepared myself for culture shock.  I prepared myself for the guilt that accompanies (and should accompany) the privileged Westerner encountering those who we typically deem as “less” privileged, at least economically.  What I did not prepare for was the expression of joy, the constant happiness and excitement and pleasure, which we were gifted to share with so many people we met.  We played tickle monster with children, we played football with teenagers, we cracked jokes about the length of my beard with hospital workers.  And we visited a school, where we were invited to watch and listen to the students sing and dance in a fascinating combination of traditional and contemporary African techniques.  What I encountered was a new, poetic, unsettling expression of happiness, an ecstasy so loud and undeniable.  Happiness is not an overtrod theme of writing.  Happiness is not automatically cliche, and is not automatically boring.  In order for us to be properly affected by the sense of tragedy and sorrow and anger and grief and confusion, we must meet those sensations at that point where they meet joy.

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