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Are We Afraid to Be Happy?

In the stream of life, basic truths become self-evident. Just as water passes under a bridge, we know that everything changes and that everything is connected. We know that true happiness has no reason.
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Why all the embarrassment
about being happy?

Wendell Berry asks in his poem "Why." Why indeed! In the novel "Snow," by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, one of the characters says to another, "You got drunk so you could resist the hidden happiness rising inside of you."

What is it about happiness -- not to mention joy -- that prompts these authors to suggest we might be afraid of it? We can be all too quick to share our suffering -- our problems and worries, our fears and troubles. Suffering has a weight to it, and that weight can easily form into an identity. It can pass on its weight, its seriousness, to us, and all its good reasons for taking up so much of our time.

But the kind of happiness -- even delight -- that might be scary is ungraspable, and I would submit it has no reason. It doesn't consolidate our identity so much as dissolve it for a moment. Perhaps this is why it can be frightening.

Sure, there is the apparently more solid happiness of a new contract, a new relationship, an unexpected windfall, but that kind of happiness, based on conditions, doesn't last too long. Its effects are usually short-lived. This means that, like hamsters on our wheel, we are then on the lookout for the next thing that might come along and satisfy the vague sense of lack that can shadow so many days.

Yet, sometimes we can slip into a state beyond word and thought altogether and come to a rest -- a condition of union, in which we and our surroundings are not distinct and separate entities but are joined below our surfaces in the wider circle of life. In those moments, there is no one in particular looking and nothing being looked at, but simply an effervescent, glistening aliveness. Who we normally take ourselves to be has disappeared, and so too has that vague sense of lack.

This is a deeper, yet simpler life. Deeper than all notions of beauty and all philosophies, deeper than any study or sophistication of the intellect, it nourishes as nothing else can. Yet, for the self that is used to the seemingly solid ground of opinions, beliefs and concepts, such depths without reference points can be disturbing -- even though our freedom lies that way, through the open door of the cage of identity.

I, for one, don't always fall into those deeper waters. Sometimes I forget the greater life humming below the surface altogether and am seized by the emergency of the moment: by taxes, by the car that has to be serviced, by what to get for lunch, by the words someone sent my way that tightened my lips and tilted me slightly sideways. Or, I become immersed in some hope or fear for the future, whether it be tomorrow or the rest of my life, my head buried in pink or black clouds, lost to the vibrancy of the life that is living me here and now.

To swim along with those thoughts is to go unconscious and be washed this way and that on the surface of life. To exclaim at the beauty and also the ugliness of this world is to dive somewhat deeper, because beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice, good and evil, move us and can stir us to action. But a deeper life still emerges when we fall back from concepts and opinions altogether and immerse ourselves in life's living stream -- independent of thought of any kind, hopeful or fearful.

Then everything has the signature of beauty on it, however it appears. That stream is the flow of the way things are, moment by moment. Joy is in that stream. The creative urge, love of self and others and passion for life is in that stream.

When we are in it, we are undivided; we are living authentically. We are living the meaning of life instead of looking for it. When we embrace the way things are, instead of struggling with our thoughts about the way things are, we ring true. When we ring true, we can act and speak authentically, which is to say out of the truth of the moment.

In the stream of life, basic truths become self-evident. Just as water passes under a bridge, we know that everything changes and that everything is connected. We know that true happiness has no reason, that this world and our life in it is a mystery play, and all the men and women merely players. We know that our nature is peace, and that love suffuses everything.

There are many ways to fall into that stream, and for me one of them is poetry. Poetry addresses the grand and forever themes of being human -- those same truths that are evident when we are in the flow of the way things are.

And it does so without needing to appropriate the language of any particular philosophy or creed. Poetry is itself a universal language that can transcend religious and cultural boundaries. It speaks to what is essentially human in us, prior to beliefs of any kind.

A great poem is an echo, a mirror, for what we may not have been able to put into words ourselves -- for our own deep knowing. It captures in exactly the right language of universal insight that can open a door to the love and wisdom that lives in our own heart's core. It bids us, as Mary Oliver does in her poem "Mindful," to open our eyes and our ears and to immerse ourselves in life's stream. For how can we help but grow wise, she says:

with such teachings
as these -
the untrimmable light

of the world, the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass.