In a previous essay I wrote about the idea of creating a “Secretary of Imagination.” I got the idea from Robert Fulghum’s quote about releasing a Crayola bomb: “A happiness weapon. A beauty bomb. And every time a crisis developed, we would launch one. It would explode high in the air – explode softly – and send thousands, millions, of little parachutes into the air. Floating down to earth – boxes of Crayolas.” And I thought that if we had a Secretary of Imagination, we could have more such happenings at regular intervals, because the world was in need of a bit more joy and happiness.
Sometime later I found a sermon published on the web site of a UU church about happiness. It resonated with the same theme – the basic theme was “Let happiness find you, hold your hand. Know what it’s like to float in a world that can feel so heavy.”
At any given time there have always been dreadful things going on in many parts of the world. I attended a play recently – Time Stands Still. It was nominated for a Tony Award in 2010. The play deals with two social activists, a photographer and a journalist, both dedicated to covering wars in places like Afghanistan and other violence-torn parts of the world. And there is a line from a monologue by another character who provides a counterpoint: “The people who are killing each other have always been killing each other, and the world has always watched while terrible things happened, and terrible things are always going to happen.”
And she goes on to make the point that she’d rather concentrate on happiness and happy events because there is nothing she can do about atrocities in far off places, like Afghanistan. But she does have some degree of control over her own happiness. And her viewpoint really resonated with me. It’s like the Serenity Prayer in a way:
Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
I know it is hard to accept that war and atrocities are things we cannot change, or maybe to a limited degree, and sometimes not even the most ardent social activist can change them either. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. But at some point, even they might need to accept that the change they can effect is minimal. But there are some things I can change. I can choose to let a little more happiness into my life. Rev. Makar, in his sermon on happiness, said “Part of the human experience is to feel resistance to happiness but [we should learn] to soften that resistance, to learn eventually the spiritual art of how to hold a beautiful thing that floats and cannot be contained….” That is how he characterized happiness: “a beautiful thing that floats and cannot be contained.” And he also said that “Life is joy and woe woven fine, and there is no enduring the woe, without the joy.”
Actually, it may very well be that launching happiness is a part of our UU heritage as much as the wisdom of Emerson and the social conscience of Thoreau. Hosea Ballou, a revered and influential 19th century Universalist preacher is given credit for coining a new word – “happify”. He said that we are “happified” when we believe that we are held in the arms of Love and that those arms will never let us go, no matter what. That God created us because God thought we might like it. And if you don’t believe in God, then perhaps you could anthropomorphize the Universe and think of it this way: the Universe released millions upon millions of bits of stardust in the big bang, stardust that could become human, because the Universe thought we might like it.
Now I like that – I’d rather think that we are here on this earth to be “happified” rather than make reparation over and over again for the sin of Adam and Eve. I realize that life is a mix of joys and sorrows– joy and woe woven fine – and that we can’t be “happified” all the time. But I think it is about finding balance.
The Greeks had a word for such balance, and it was an important part of their world view. They called it “sophrosyne.” Webster’s defines sophrosyne as “moderation; discretion; prudence” though scholars point out that the word itself has no direct translation into English. And even scholars have some difficulty in defining it precisely. It is part moderation, part balance, and part “know thyself.” Plato and the Greeks considered sophrosyne the ultimate ideal toward which a person should strive. It meant trying to come as close to excellence as one can within the frailties of human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, to all excesses, and obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion. In short, being in right relationship with the universe and with the self. The goal is to be in balance in all areas of one’s life.
So to that end – balance – I think we should try to practice Hosea Ballou’s idea of happification. This is my formula: in the morning as I get ready for work, I watch the local news, followed by the first few minutes of Good Morning America. I learn about the latest atrocities in Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Egypt or other hot spot du jour. I hear about the latest traffic fatalities, police shootings, road rage incidents, spouses who’ve killed their partners on their honeymoon by throwing them off a cruise ship, latest child abductions, and latest mass shooting at a school, a mall, an airport or a fast food emporium. I marvel at the latest political shenanigans and shake my head at some of the spoken gaffes of elected officials who should know better. While I watch TV news out of one corner of my eye, I hold one of my cats on my lap and feel her purr. It is a multi-tasking means of self-preservation in the modern world. Studiers of cat behavior say that it is an accepted fact that cat owners have lower blood pressure, especially in older people. The human-feline bond is never quite so close as when a person is holding and petting a purring, vibrating bundle of fur on her lap, and all is well with the world. So, given a world full of madness on the one hand, I balance that with the purr of a cat. It happifies me. Dogs can provide similar therapeutic value.
To continue on – at least once each day I go on the internet and look for some tidbit that I might find amusing. I am drawn to such sites as The Oatmeal, Reddit, The Daily Currant, UTube, and sometimes Facebook for at least one daily chuckle. And when I find it, I usually share it with some friends – sending a web link to one or more like-minded individuals so that they can chuckle along with me. It is one of my ways of spreading happification.
It is possible that one reason we resist or stifle happiness, is that we just don’t know what to do with it. If you’re really happy, you resist skipping down the street, turning cartwheels, humming or grinning idiotically in public. Why? Because you don’t want to look foolish.
Naomi Shihab Nye, says in her poem, “So Much Happiness”:
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.