Betty Duffy

(Amateur)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Happiness

I saw The King’s Speech Thursday night with Pedge. A fun movie, it was agreed, as we left the theater. We stood at our cars for a minute in the parking lot and said a few things we liked about it—and since there was nothing controversial to hash out, we both thought we’d just head on home. “Tomorrow’s a school day, and I’ve got a drive…so…”

“I’ll call you later.” And we both went home to our families.

There have been times in my life when I was so starving for conversation, the thought of heading home early from a night out with grown-ups would have appalled me. But really, I couldn’t quibble with the movie, I’m not dealing with any controversies at home, and if I needed a topic of conversation, I might have invented controversy just to keep the talk coming.

I didn’t want to invent controversy, because for the time being, I’m pleased to report that I find myself very content. Long time readers of this blog know that contentedness is not my strongsuit—not because I deal with any great misfortunes in life, but because…I’m moody, I guess. Anyway, I wasn’t sure if talking about feeling content and happy might ruin it somehow. Where could that conversation even go?

“I’m really happy.”

“Great.”

“Yeah, great.”

Nietzsche said, “That which we can find words for is something already dead in our hearts; there is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” I don’t think Nietzsche’s words are law, but there’s a grain of truth in every aphorism. When I’m writing, for instance, and my husband asks me what I’m working on, I can’t answer until I’ve finished. Verbalizing my thoughts prematurely could condemn them.

If I think I might be stumbling on some sense of stable satisfaction with the state of things, I don’t want to ruin it by trying to put it into words. I want to be quiet and nurture it, because anything I try to say about it will sound cheap and untrue. And yet, here I am trying to put it into words.

I’ll just say this: In the past I’ve entertained fears on the subject of happiness--such as the idea that the absence of conflict is just absence, emptiness, boredom and dullness. I could not have been more mistaken. Corrected by Confession, prayer, Rosary, many restarts and willful good thoughts, the absence of conflict is rather Presence--in every sense of the word.

And it’s too precious to give away for anything.

10 comments:

Lizzie said...

We discussed Marilynne Robinson's 'Gilead' at my book group last Friday and one of the ideas I thought came across strongly in terms of writing was how impossible it is to put into words one's deepest thoughts, feelings and desires. Reverend John Ames tries to articulate the inexpressible throughout the book - well that's how I saw it anyway!!
Silence can be the most articulate language we have - I wouldn't be so convinced of this if I hadn't experienced it myself on silent retreats with others or in those profound moments with people I love.
Although, I've realised I can use 'silence' as an excuse not to find the right words in some situations...!

BettyDuffy said...

LIzzie, Gilead has been on my bedside table for months, slowly working its way up the list. I can't wait.
"Silence can be the most articulate language we have" --very true.

lissla lissar said...

Oooh. This is sort of pertinent, and one of my favourite passages from Gilead, which is one of my two or three favourite novels. I can't wait for you to read and comment on it, Betty.


"I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and see amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparation compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptability, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing which meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try."
-Gilead

karyn said...

This reminds me of when I first started dating my husband. I didn't want to talk about him too much to other people because I was afraid I would "jinx" the feelings I had for him.

This post also reminded me of how I sometimes shiver at the thought of eternity being one very long spell of happiness. How silly - don't I want to free from sadness and suffering? But I guess, like you're saying, I sometimes think of contentment as emptiness. I hope I learn to appreciate Presence more often. Thanks for your insights.

Lizzie said...

Read Gilead soon! I want to know what you think of it. There are so many quotable parts. lissla lissar - I loved that paragraph too. I underlined multiple lines and turned so many corners of the book! Definitely one I'll revisit - I found myself quoting part of it on the phone tonight to my sister in relation to something she's going through. It distils so many of life's experiences in succinct yet sensitive prose.

Misha Leigh. said...

Verbalizing my thoughts prematurely could condemn them. - yes, that.

My husband is the opposite. His creativity comes alive and takes form as he speaks. Mine dies.

You said this so well.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I struggle with depression and have for several years. Some days I think I'm afraid to be happy. I used to live a life of imminent danger and unpredictable circumstance.

But now, I live a quiet life, home with children, no stressful outside job, no real worries, and it's kind of ... weird. Sometimes I berate myself into thinking I'm like that song "She's Only Happy When It Rains". Like I can't live unless I'm marinating in my own misery. I guess I'm so used to things going wrong, that when everything is OK, I don't know what to do?

I keep telling myself I should be happy, but then it's hard to be happy when there is no reason not to be. *sigh*

BettyDuffy said...

Anon, sometimes I think that for those of us who are only happy when it rains, we need to just give ourselves permission to be who we are. I'm a miserable puddle of pessimism--and that's what I'm bringing to the table in my prayers rather than constantly pestering myself to be someone else. It's a beginning.

mrsdarwin said...

If I think I might be stumbling on some sense of stable satisfaction with the state of things, I don’t want to ruin it by trying to put it into words. I want to be quiet and nurture it, because anything I try to say about it will sound cheap and untrue. And yet, here I am trying to put it into words.

I’ll just say this: In the past I’ve entertained fears on the subject of happiness--such as the idea that the absence of conflict is just absence, emptiness, boredom and dullness. I could not have been more mistaken. Corrected by Confession, prayer, Rosary, many restarts and willful good thoughts, the absence of conflict is rather Presence--in every sense of the word.


Betty -- yep. That's my life in a nutshell. I am happy, and though I have jumbled thoughts and ideas I want to share, I'm content with myself and my husband and my life. Which is why I don't write much anymore -- it's not that I don't have anything to say, but that I don't need to say anything.

Karly said...

Two quick thoughts: I'm happy to hear that you are feeling content and at peace these days, Betty. But I sure hope that doesn't mean you will share less of your writing (I know I would not be the only one to miss it!) Which leads to my second comment: I don't really worry that happiness or contentment would mean you would write less (which would truly be an absence). As another Gilead fan, I think of Reverend Ames reflection on his own deeply-ingrained habit of writing, which carried him through his loneliest days--he says something about how writing can be a cure for loneliness--even if you don't share it, "you feel that you are with someone." Even in the darkest hours of his solitude and hope for a family, a home in this world, he seems to me to be deeply content, due to his faith. The conceit of that novel is that he intends his writing to be read by at least one person--his son, after his death-- but how much better (and I can imagine he would also acknowledge this) is writing that creates a community, and a conversation...like this blog.