I reminisced with an old writing comrade. Ages ago, we both wrote for the society page, which, after the headlines and sports, was the most widely read section of the newspaper.
We laughed about booboos and bewailed the changes of the times. The rules were strict. There’s a lot we couldn’t say. If we reported a “quiet wedding” (read that sudden), it was in fact what the Spanish would describe as “se comio la torta antes del recreo,” meaning the bride was with a child.
Today, young women proudly announce to the four winds that they are pregnant, take a “selfie” of the baby bump and post it on social media, casually mentioning a wedding, maybe, in the next couple of years.
Now super seniors, we miss the camaraderie and excitement of the trade, but not the inevitable, tedious cocktail parties we had to suffer.
There we were in high heels, drink in one hand, purse tucked under the arm, gulping a canapé while making small talk with a stranger and taking mental notes on who wore what.
These days when friends ask why I dropped out of these “hoity-toity” events, I tell them: “Alcohol and hors d’oeuvres are bad for gout. I hate standing even in ballet flats. And I run out of ‘nice’ very quickly.”
For regular cocktail habitués, schmoozing and working the room is an art form. Effortlessly they say hi, you look smashing, ask how you are, and move on before you can reply. Given a chance and you told them you had a terminal illness, they would still say, “Wonderful!” and move on. They’re on automatic pilot, not listening, and they couldn’t care less.
On the other hand, there was someone I knew way back when who greeted me whenever we met at a party, or a wedding, even a funeral—it didn’t matter much where—saying, “Hi. Are you happy?”
I never knew quite how to react. She looked serious, sincere and perhaps she was. But it made me feel uncomfortable. I wondered if she knew something I didn’t, and if I knew that she did, it would make me mad or miserable.
I guess I must have been quite insecure to think that. Yet I was young and at that time of my life when nothing seemed threatening or uncertain.
I was suspicious of her tone and resented her intrusion. She stirred in me a paranoia that some disaster was lurking in the shadows and everybody knew about it except me.
Here I am, a whole lifetime later, thinking of how insensitive I was. She was probably the only person besides my mother who cared enough to ask. Could it be that she sincerely wanted to know?
Let’s face it. It is a rather odd question. Do you ever stop in the middle of your day, interrupt whatever you are doing just to ask yourself: “Am I happy?” I know I haven’t.
Here is what the great George Bernard Shaw says about that: “The only way to avoid being miserable is not to have enough leisure to wonder whether you are happy or not.”
I later learned that my very inquisitive friend was an unhappy person herself. Some referred to her as the “poor little rich girl.” Maybe she wanted someone to commiserate with her. Was she desperately reaching out for a person who cared enough to ask her the same question?
Why does it take us so long to recognize someone else’s cry of pain? At what age does “it is not about you” kick in?
‘All of the above’
Webster defines happy as “a feeling of pleasure or enjoyment because of your life or a situation.”
If we must nitpick, then let’s go a bit further. For some it is a life that is problem-free. Others think about it in line with their purchasing power and the bottom line of their bank statement. For a large majority it means good health.
I imagine that it would be a bit of “all of the above” for most of us, depending on our priorities. Age, I expect, has a great influence on what happy truly means.
For me it is “getting out of bed every morning and being grateful for another beautiful day.” I can’t ask for anything more!
I asked a contemporary for his description of happy. “One of the Seven Dwarfs,” he joked. I told him to be serious. A little sadly he said: “I will quote Nathaniel Hawthorne because for me happiness has been like ‘an elusive butterfly, that when pursued is always beyond our grasp, but if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.’”
He has decided to “sit down quietly.”
Ask me today and I will probably surprise those who know anything about me by answering with a resounding “Yes!” I have an abundance of reasons to say so.
Have I been happier? I can think of several instances in my life when I was euphoric, ecstatic even. But circumstances change. Not every day is a good day. Sometimes it rains.
Swiss philosopher Carl Jung once wrote, “The word happiness would lose its meaning, if it were not balanced by sadness.”
And today, praise God, there is perfect balance in my life. Yes, there is grace.
We are all on a journey. It is our choice how we spend the time that remains. Listen to the words of a wise man: “Let every day be a dream you can touch, a love you can feel and a reason to smile, because life is too short not to be happy.”