October 6, 2008

It all adds up to happiness, doesn't it?

After my earlier post, I ran into Dirda's review of Julian Barnes' book in the WaPo, where I came upon this brilliant paragraph from the book - a beautiful exposition of our modern lives.
Bumper stickers and fridge magnets remind us that Life Is Not a Rehearsal. We encourage one another towards the secular modern heaven of self-fulfillment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, the material goods, the ownership of property, the foreign holidays, the acquisition of savings, the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn't it -- doesn't it? This is our chosen myth, and almost as much of a delusion as the myth that insisted on fulfillment and rapture when the last trump sounded and the graves were flung open, when the healed and perfected souls joined in the community of saints and angels. But if life is viewed as a rehearsal, or a preparation, or an anteroom, or whichever metaphor we choose, but at any rate as something contingent, something dependent on a greater reality elsewhere, then it becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious. Those parts of the world where religion has drained away and there is a general acknowledgment that this short stretch of time is all we have, are not, on the whole, more serious places than those where heads are still jerked by the cathedral's bell or the minaret's muezzin. On the whole, they yield to a frenetic materialism; although the ingenious human animal is well capable of constructing civilizations where religion coexists with frenetic materialism (where the former might even be an emetic consequence of the latter): witness America."
And in this America, what do people like me do without religion or frenetic materialism to indulge us along the way? Life may be an "overrated way of passing the time" but we still need some fuel to take us through it.
Barnes notes with approval Somerset Maugham's view that "the best frame of mind in which to conduct life" is that of "humorous resignation." One of Barnes's friends shrewdly suggests that "our only defence against death -- or rather, against the danger of not being able to think about anything else -- lies in 'the acquisition of worthwhile short-term worries.' "
Aah...so the fuel I need is more short-term worries... but worthwhile ones! :)

Actually, the review ends with these lines - lessons we all could learn from in our march towards that day when the door finally shuts...

The philosopher Epicurus maintained that quiet routines like this offer our best response to death: Work hard at what you care about and enjoy moderate pleasures. It's really very good advice, but probably just a little too sensible for the unruly human heart.
In short, life is short. Enjoy ... in moderation! :)

Previous posts about happiness: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

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At the school dances white and black girls shook on the floor, by Anais Duplan

Today, a poem  by  Anaïs Duplan,  from the Bennington Review. [AT THE SCHOOL DANCES WHITE AND BLACK GIRLS SHOOK ON THE FLOOR.]  ...