A few months ago I watched the HBO series on John Adams. Politics aside, he was a fascinating man, though his wife Abigail (gorgeous name, that) strikes me as an even more compelling character. Late in life, so the HBO depiction goes, Adams takes a walk through a field with one of his sons and, upon spotting a little flower, overflows with joy. ”Your mother used to say that I don’t take enough delight in the mundane,” he says. ”Rejoice, evermore!”
Rejoice, evermore. It’s a common refrain in human literature. Holy books and religious ceremonies are filled with it. And yet it seems to me that most of the time we consider such an attitude to come from mood. If I am happy, I will rejoice, and if not, well, to hell with your sunny attitude. In my old age, though, I’ve come to feel that rejoicing is a matter of mental discipline, more than anything else. It is a disposition that has been cultivated, not a gift of fate. Notice the imperative nature of the statement: rejoice. No qualifiers there.
It is telling that in Western Christianity two days devoted to rejoicing are reserved for the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. Morbidity is set aside in favor of lightheartedness. Rejoice. Do not be afaid. Et cetera. Shut up and quit your complaining, in other words.
Years ago I was in a terrible depression when I called home for Mother’s Day. After speaking to my own mother she gave the phone to my grandmother, with the instructions that I was not to let on how bad things were. I was offended. Such a demand went against all the self-indulgence I had been taught by the new age hippies in charge of the education system I had been fed into. It seemed to me that honesty was more important than being pleasant. I now see the wisdom of what was asked of me. There is no reason to subject someone else to my misery, especially if there is no productive reason to do so. Unpleasantness perpetuates itself anyway. We feed our own monsters when we go on about how horrible life is.
Behind the commotion, noise, and mindless entertainment that comprises most of modern life lies a very real misery, I’m afraid. And yet it is not all in the mind. We have asked for it, and we have gotten it good and hard. We deserve it. Any culture that places so much emphasis on the material world will end up this way. When I talk about materialism, however, I don’t emphasize the indulgence, which is merely the necessary counterpoint to the real problem: anxiety and work. The WASP culture is a nervous one that has little trust in the goodness of life. We love to complain about greedy corporations that (or should I say “who,” given the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling?) are only too willing to grind the souls of workers into powder behind a cubicle wall, but they get away with this because we let them—because, at some level, the simple life isn’t good enough for us. Modern technology has increased our productivity astronomically, increasing opportunities for leisure and good health, and we have turned it into an excuse to mechanize society and try to make more money. But are we really happier than the people who whizzed in street gutters and died of the bubonic plague at age 35? Maybe we are, but we shouldn’t answer too quickly.
The frantic pace of our work creates the demand for mindless entertainment. As a musician who is engaged in making art music—not pop music—I often wonder if places like the orchestra hall are empty less because of a lack of education and more because beauty is just too much for most people to take. Who can listen to a symphony by Brahms and then go back to the office building without being tempted to shoot himself? Instead, we fill our heads with the noise and contention and hatred that resembles the workaday world—reality TV, machine-like computerized music that accompanies tone deaf celebrities, and football, which is increasingly a sport strictly for militarized animals—while most adults live vicariously through their kids because they secretly hate their lives.
What would happen if most people realized that it was their lot in life to enjoy it, that they might have life abundantly? The anonymous wizards who run the treadmills of modern life would be powerless in the face of popular demand to live life wholesomely and thoughtfully. I don’t think I’m dreaming of the impossible here. It is because we think that a quieter life is impossible that it never happens. Our Waspy anxiety says, “I will enjoy life—read books, go to the symphony, smell the roses—when I accomplish x, y, or z.” It’s also an adolescent insecurity. ”I want to be making 75k by the time I’m 25.” Etc.
Maybe some of you think I’m just smug, but I know the price of leisure. For years I have chosen a lower income and a lower standard of living in exchange for enough mental space to cultivate an existence that is at least somewhat fit for higher thinking and contemplation. Some people think I’m lazy, but they can go to hell: I would never jump into the hamster wheels that make them such boring dinner mates.
Do-gooders are often the worst when it comes to all this. ”How dare you be so happy when so much is wrong with the world?” Well, for starters, I can’t control much of it. I can only influence my own little world. And what if the dollar collapses tomorrow? Or what if the nut jobs who say the world will end on May 21 are right? All the more reason to rejoice. The measurable and the tangible are not the real stuff, the essence of life. The things that really matter are hard to describe with any satisfaction. But we’ll never even discover them if we’re always counting beans, or fighting “Tara-ists,” as George Bush calls them, or trying to get our little tyke into Harvard. I guess it all goes back to that whole foolishness of the wise and wisdom of the foolish business.
So just call me a jackass. I’m content with what’s right in front of me.