In preparation for the birthday edition of our Greenwood Musicmaking last week, I asked some folks for a gift. It was an odd request, but I had my reasons. You see, a few years back, on the occasion of my mother’s 50th birthday, she got friends and family together for a symposium on what constituted a good life.
Like any good Greek symposium, there was food, drink, music and celebration. But there was also a serious side to it. As we sat around the outdoor courtyard of a friend’s house on a beautiful autumn afternoon, my mother’s family, friends and colleagues – many of them professors of philosophy and theology – exchanged thoughts on what “the good life” meant to them. What opinions they had found in their texts, in their faiths and in their varied life experiences. The thoughts of Plato, Saint Francis, Jesus and the Buddha were all quoted, pondered, considered, exploring what different cultures thought at different times, and what we, today might take from those thoughts.
We kids weren’t excused from the exercise; everyone, from the youngest to the oldest had a say as we wandered through this beautiful marketplace of ideas. Honestly, I don’t remember any of the specifics of what we talked about. But I do remember thinking “You know, when I’m fifty – some time inconceivably far in the future – I want to do this for my birthday, too.”
Who would have guessed that 50 would sneak up on me like that? But there it was, and damned if we weren’t already inviting friends and family to join us for food, drink, music and celebration. So I asked some folks – those to whom I didn’t feel it would be an imposition (or just weird) if they could prepare some thoughts to share. But instead of “the good life”, I had a different nut I wanted to crack: happiness. My favorite authors (John Fowles, Herodotus, Hemingway, Hafiz) all seem to spend a lot of time pondering the nature of happiness. What makes them happy, whether happiness is something to pursue, to embrace, or simply to be. Whether it even exists. One of the most famous stories from Herodotus quotes Solon the Lawgiver telling King Croesus that you should call no man happy before he is dead (yeah, I understand there’s ambiguity on the happy/fortunate translation, but I have no problem with throwing both into the same bucket for the purposes of this exploration). Does this mean it’s a just a final score? Or (as Ecclesiastes seems to think) is it an integral, the path of one’s experiences, always to be built upon? Does it require self-awareness? Can you be happy without knowing it?
So, of those I was brave enough to ask, I asked this: what, to you, is the nature of happiness?
It was a wonderful evening. Between the food, drink, music and celebration (And pie. Did I mention there was pie? There was.) we didn’t get started on the philosophical bits until a little later, and some folks in charge of smaller folks had to leave. But they sent me their thoughts in cards, and by email, and now I have, in addition to all the swirling discussion in my head, these beautiful artifacts of what my friends and family think. Oh, and this. There are not too many things in life I’m absolutely sure of, but one of them is that this makes me happy: