Given the state of the world at the moment, it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s a plethora of books about with titles like The Happiness Project, The Happy Life Formula and Happiness: a Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Hmmmm. Sounds like it might be a lot of work, even if you do buy into the idea that we can make ourselves feel any given way.
Of course it’s true that there are circumstances, and attitudes, which might make feeling happy (or frightened, miserable, or whatever) more and less likely. But what today’s poem, ‘Happiness’ by Jane Kenyon, recognises is that feelings are given not created things. We feel what we feel, sometimes at the most unexpected times. Read Kenyon’s poem here or click the little red arrow beside the title on the Poetry Foundation page and have it read to you.
Leaning into the parable of the prodigal son, stanzas one and two offer us images of happiness itself as something lost and then returned to us. We couldn’t make it stay—it disappeared of its own accord—and it has to come back to us. We can’t go and fetch it. The rhetorical question about ‘forgiv[ing]’ it reminds us that having or feeling anything precious always makes us vulnerable; in some ways despair can feel “safer” than hope, gloom than happiness. To love or rejoice is an act of courage. The sense ‘that happiness saved its most extreme form/ for you alone’ will be familiar to all who have been blissful, transported: when we’re ecstatic, suffused with happiness, love, delight or (as in this case) relief, it’s easy to feel that no-one could ever had this total an experience.
That happiness may not be the most constant or predictable of things is suggested, too, in the imagery of stanza three. Happiness is conceived as the family grey sheep (if not black!): the eccentric uncle who turns up, literally out of the blue, landing in a small town America where everyone knows everyone else and knocking on all the doors till he finds you. There is something extremely poignant in those final lines of the stanza where the speaker describes being found ‘asleep midafternoon/ as you so often are during the unmerciful/ hours of your despair’. That is the voice of one who has known depression and hopelessness from the inside—how time weighs you down; how every breath is an effort; how a bleak endless emptiness of eternity yawns around you. ‘The unmerciful hours of your despair’. What an amazing line.
The final stanza underlines the arbitrariness of happiness. It is not something we can earn or merit: it just comes, even to those we might not expect to feel happy, and at times when it seems most improbable. Countering the idea that happiness is something we deserve or don’t deserve—and we think of the good son’s sense of injustice in the parable—Kenyon suggests we may have to accept the idea that happiness, like fortune, “isn’t fair”. This cuts both ways, I guess: there’s the relief of feeling that misfortunes aren’t life’s revenge on us for being not good enough in some way, but also the understanding that happiness is not a reward, or a birthright, but a gift. So, kiss the joy as it flies. Drink the wine down. Imagine how happy you’ve made the now-emptied wineglass, too.