“If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?” – Rumi
I had an unpleasant New Year’s Eve. Perhaps it was that I had just fallen back to earth with a resounding “thud” from a happy high of holiday bliss which included delightful time spent with my sweetie and children, and my family and old friends. Perhaps it was the reconnection with the reality of my bank account. Maybe it was a result of dipping my toe back in to work yesterday and the deluge of phone calls and things to do. Or, perhaps it was that my sweetie suggested at 7 pm that we take the Christmas tree down and put away the decorations and I was hungry and already cranky and out of sorts. Taking down the Christmas tree is not high on my list of fun projects. In any case, it wasn’t a stellar day for me.
Just a few days ago I had begun writing a blog post I tentatively titled “happiness is…” . In this post which I wrote while still in my holiday bliss-bubble, I discussed new feelings of happiness that have been catching me off guard recently, and my philosophical and emotional struggle to allow myself to be completely happy. (I know, I overthink things, but that’s how I roll, and the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings only made these questions more relevant for me this holiday season). Yesterday I could feel the “happiness is…” post just sitting there in my draft file mocking me.
While visiting my parents in my home town of Corvallis, Oregon over the holidays, I spoke with my mother about my quest for happiness. I shared the questions and feelings that come up for me of the “Why should I be allowed happiness when other people are struggling?” variety. My mother, who is 25 years older and wiser than I, who just before Christmas celebrated 50 happy years of marriage to my father, and who doesn’t generally seem nearly as big a struggler as I anyway, smiled at me quizzically and indicated that she understood my dilemma. At the same time, she seemed far removed from it. Like I said, she’s wise.
There is a yoga studio in Corvallis which must have opened fairly recently called Livewell Studio. I LOVE this place. In the past when visiting my parents I have been known to be so desperate to find a place outside the house to practice yoga, that I have attended a Bikram class. That’s desperate. Well no worries now, this studio has me covered.
As I gratefully shuffled into a class at Livewell Studio last week, I saw a piece of paper on a small altar and stopped to read what it offered. It was a poem. A poem which surprisingly provided me with some very concrete answers to my happiness questions at just the right moment. Here it is for you. Happy New Year.
A Brief for the Defense
by Jack Gilbert
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
From ‘Refusing Heaven’, Knopf 2005