Friday, May 13, 2011

`Only By Experience of Its Contrary'

With minimal exertion one could assemble a substantial anthology drawn from Dr. Johnson’s reflections on happiness. He returns obsessively to the subject and devotes much of his only novel, Rasselas, to the theme. For Johnson, happiness is dense with contradiction, elusive to attain and understand. For many moderns the state can be defined as getting one’s way, and they’re unlikely to get it with Johnson. In The Rambler #203 he writes:

"It seems to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity. The time present is seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment, and we are forced to supply its deficiencies by recollection or anticipation."

My thoughts turned Johnsonian when one of the kindergarten teachers handed me a sheet of paper and said, “You’ll appreciate this.” On it was a drawing of a St. Valentine’s Day heart that resembled a Clovis spear point. The artist was a relentlessly cute five-year-old girl in her class. Inside the heart, below the teacher’s name, she had written:

“I hope you hav[e] a Happy ending of your lif[e].”

She closed with “Love,” followed by her name and the name of her preschool brother. Her teacher, a vigorous 40-or-so, didn’t take the note as a prophecy of imminent death. Instead, she quoted Art Linkletter and said she thought it was cute. I’m not convinced. Kids revel in ambiguity, real or imagined, and the note recalls one of those drawings that challenge perceptions: rabbit or duck? As though to test my reaction, the teacher ended up in the hospital emergency room later that day. She was diagnosed with an unpleasant but hardly fatal condition, and released the following day. Johnson writes in The Adventurer #67:

“Happiness is enjoyed only in proportion as it is known; and such is the state or folly of man, that it is known only by experience of its contrary.”


Dregs said...

Maybe this little girl has already absorbed the wisdom of the Greeks (variously attributed):

"Call no man happy until he is dead."

Anonymous said...

Unsolicited advice used to roll off me like buckshot off a duck's heart. Nowadays I am more apt to smile and reply, 'You may be right.'