In three out of five conversations I have with my mom, there’s the inevitable check-in. Despite how busy I am professionally and socially, she wants to know how I “really” are. And at one point in these conversations, I hear the deep concern and love in her voice when she says to me, “I just want you to be happy.” I shamefully admit that my answer, for the most part, is a barely concealed sigh of impatience. In my mind, I say to myself, “Happy? There are so many things I want to accomplish – who has time to think about happiness? “
But I’ve been thinking about it lately, especially when it comes to this question of my mother, the only human on earth who loves me more than I can love myself. My mom never once said to me, “I just want you to be rich” or “I just want you to be famous” or “I just want you to have what you want”. The things the world is trying to convince us of are the highest goals.
But “happy” is such an interesting word, because in today’s world many of us are trained to have the same dazzling response. Unlike the ancient philosophers who associated the idea with ethics and virtue and the pursuit of the greater common good, today I guess many of us see happiness as a childish or indulgent goal for those who do not take life and responsibilities and achievements and justice seriously.
Yet I also think it’s a word worth using a little more, to think about what else it might mean beyond our usually mundane associations. So I picked up the phone recently and called my mom, and I asked her bluntly, “Mom, you know how you always tell me you just want me to be happy?” What does this mean to you? ”And without skipping a beat, my mother-in-law said to me,“ It means that wherever you are and whatever you do, you would be at peace with yourself.
I was so moved that I almost cried. It was not the answer I expected. But when I hung up and thought about what she had said, peace seemed like a good place to start thinking about this idea of happiness.
there is a beautiful early 20th century painting by William Arthur Chase titled “The Keynote”. It simply shows a young woman in a blue dress sitting in front of a black piano with her back to us. She is leaning to the left, away from the piano, one hand behind her gripping the corner of the stool. But his other hand is stretched out on the piano, two fingers tapping the keys, perhaps hesitantly, perhaps boldly. What I like about this painting is what her posture evokes: this feeling of a young woman alone, oblivious to our gaze, running away to try something that attracts her or that her. constrained. There is a note of hesitation, but more out of caution than reluctance, as if someone is coming soon to send her to do what she is “supposed” to do.
It might sound like an odd picture to use as a reflection on happiness. But I think an important aspect of human happiness comes from pursuing things that compel us, that cause us to express something of ourselves. Considering the prerequisite for the satisfaction of all other basic human needs, I think it is in our nature to be creators of all kinds of things, to want to create, to put a part of ourselves back into the world. And when we have the space, the courage and the encouragement to follow this creative spirit, it is a way to be at peace with ourselves, to be installed deep within ourselves.
Yet contemplating a pursuit of happiness I can’t help but think about our human need for each other as well. I am so moved by “10am Is When You Come to Me”, a series of watercolor and pencil sketches by Louise Bourgeois. Throughout her career, Bourgeois has probed questions of belonging, intimacy, family, sexuality and body, unconscious and interiority, and in 2006, she created 20 sketches on musical score paper from his hands and those of his assistant and friend Jerry Gorovoy. He worked with Bourgeois for over 30 years, and 10am was the time he arrived every day to meet her.
The paintings are done in shades of red and pink, the color red for Bourgeois representing the intensity of the feeling. The hands relate to each other in different configurations, one gripping the other, clinging to each other, connecting the fingers. The score suggests to me the rhythm of everyday life. Bourgeois described his relationship with Gorovoy thus: “When you are at the bottom of the well, you look around you and you say to yourself, who is going to bring me out? In this case, it’s Jerry who comes and he presents a rope, and I grab onto the rope and he pulls me.
As commonplace as companionship may be to many of us, it remains a world-changing thing to experience the cohesive presence, trust, and support of another person. I think sometimes we lose sight of how much other people contribute to our sense of well-being and our ability to move around the world with our burdens somewhat lightened. The language of happiness in our world is often forward looking – “When I will be happy.” . . “- while these beautiful sketches remind me that exhilaration is not always a fountain of emotion. Sometimes deep happiness is a quiet stream that flows gently in our daily life, a flow of existence that stabilizes us so that so many more can be accomplished.
Vassily Kandinsky believed that art could be a language for our inner life. The Russian pioneer of abstraction viewed his art as a form of spiritual practice and seemed more interested in what his work evoked in people than in the decipherable images that could be distinguished. He was heavily influenced by classical sheet music and incorporated his appreciation of music into his art in various ways.
His 1913 piece “Composition VII”, with its array of vivid colors, varied shapes and seemingly arbitrary lines, all of which seem chaotic but hang beautifully together, reminds me more of jazz than anything else. Art historians suggest that this is a work on the biblical themes of the resurrection, the day of judgment, the flood and the Garden of Eden, with all the ideas of death, destruction, renewal, rebirth, choice, grace, vulnerability and survival.
From the overlap of these themes we see a thrilling work of vibrancy and beauty. Sometimes we have to extract happiness from whatever life gives us. Our lives, like painting, are full of themes of death and renewal. And yet, Kandinsky creates a magnificent image from these themes.
Can’t our lives be similar, where we make up strands, lines, happiness from everything in our midst? I’m trying to figure this out on my own as I go, but I’m thinking these things out loud with you because despite all that we resist and persevere in, there are some things that I want for all of us. Like my mother, I want us to be happy.
Email Enuma at [email protected]
To follow @ftweekend on Twitter to discover our latest stories first