If I had thought last week that I would be writing about rainbows and butterflies, I would have felt immediately compelled to dress in black, light up a smoke, and drink JD straight out of the bottle. That’s my delusional edgy writer persona talking and it says things like, “What is this, the Hello Kitty Blog? The Snow White Blog? Are you going to be posting pictures of yourself with tiny birds perched on your finger and furry woodland animals gathered around your feet next?” And then my you-can-be-a-normal-person-and-a-writer-at-the-same-time-voice says, “HEY! If rainbows are good enough for Maya Angelou, they are MORE THAN good enough for you! So GET ON with it!”
Yesterday we visited the Butterfly Conservatory, which is as close to magic as I can imagine. In case I’m ever trapped in some kind of meditation situation where I have to “picture a calm and peaceful place,” I’m going right to the butterfly house in my mind. It was so warm and green and lush, and the air is filled with tiny, delicate, colorful winged creatures who can’t hurt you, and who, in fact, care absolutely nothing about you. They are just utterly themselves.
Almost as interesting as watching the butterflies was watching people watching butterflies. Almost to the person, (myself included) people walked into the conservatory, turned to the left, took out their cameras, and focused on a 6″ by 6″ space where one butterfly perched on one leaf. Then they stood there for 5 minutes trying to get the perfect picture.
Photography has an acquisitive nature, and vacation photography perhaps even more so. When I am in a lovely new place taking pictures, I feel like with each click, I am going capture, capture, capture. I’m much more concerned with taking what I want, getting the perfect shot than with just being wherever I am, letting it all sink in. I’m embarrassed to say that at the bottom of Niagara Falls I took a picture of the rainbow that we saw with MY CELL PHONE and tried to text it to my sister, but it didn’t go through. There I was, with an enormous rainbow in front of the enormous Falls, and I was looking at my cell phone.
But the Butterfly House has a very soothing quality and eventually you are lulled into putting away the camera and just being there. Watching the old German ladies take pictures of orange butterflies on each other’s heads, the little boy laughing at the white butterfly that landed on his grandmother’s chest as she sat on a bench looking tentative and pleased, and Jacob, with observation and patience that he did not inherit from me, trying over and over and over to get the brown and blue butterflies to land on his finger.
There is a popular quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” But happiness is Big Business these days: The Happiness Project is an NYT best seller, Harvard University President Derek Bok is currently talking about “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being,” and right here in our little town, psychology professor Ed Diener and his son are quite well-known for their book, Rethinking Happiness: The Science of Psychological Wealth.
My friend Barb shared this quote from Viktor Frankl in one of her comments on my posts: “Again and again I admonish my students: ‘Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success; you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”
I love this quotation, but it also confuses me, as does the Hawthorne quote. In fact, both have elements of weirdness, meanness, and truth in them. The weirdness is that I don’t need any help at all finding negative emotions, so if happiness is just a location on the full spectrum of human emotions, why is it harder/more work to experience than sadness, boredom, disappointment, loneliness or fear? Is there something “special” about happiness that causes it to require so much effort, study, thought?
The meanness element in these quotes is along the lines of telling people who are trying to get pregnant or meet their life partner, “It will happen when you stop trying.” Honestly, is there anything more obnoxious, confusing or unkind than that? Are you supposed to TRY or NOT TRY, for God’s sake???
And the truthful aspects of both of these quotes is that the pursuit of happiness is not happiness itself. Trying to be happy is not the same as actually being happy. For me, “happiness” is such an overused word, an overexamined concept, that it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. The word itself is no longer precise enough, or descriptive enough, or evocative of a direct life experience. And when you lose the language for something, you are in big trouble.
The word that resonates with me these days is “participation,” which has nothing to do with happiness. It just asks us to consider the question: am I in my life or not? And the answer is not always the same, but it generally leads to more interesting questions, like, “If I’m not in it, why not?” and “What does participation feel like, right now?” and “What would I like to participate in more? Less?” What does participation feel like for you?
“Happiness” feels like a retrospective emotion, sort of an evaluative perspective on something that is past. And that seems okay. It’s a good thing to be able to say about something, but it’s not the thing itself. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with the thing itself, and to me, that feels incredibly freeing. Taking my eyes off of the ideal of “happiness” feels like deciding to stop staring at the sun. Instead, I can look around and see what is around me, reflecting that sunlight, making those rainbows, warming up those precious, indifferent, exquisite little butterflies.
Today’s poem is a beauty. It’s by Jane Hirshfield and it’s called “It’s Like This: You Were Happy.”
It Was Like This: You Were Happy
It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.
It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.
At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent — what could you say?
Now it is almost over.
Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.
It does this not in forgiveness —
between you, there is nothing to forgive —
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.
Eating, too, is now a thing only for others.
It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.
Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.