A 2-year-old’s lesson in happiness

Here is a riddle. Ask most people what they want out of life and what do they answer? Happiness!

It's common both in the amount of times you hear it and in how mundane the answer is, like some beauty pageant contestant claiming holding hands will bring universal utopia. We know behind her smile hides a person who would spite her competition to win the crown given the chance.

Like most contrarians, I had a problem with the simple answer, happiness. Most people find happy people annoying and false. A roomful of happy people feels strange and a bit like there should be an organ playing black notes while in the backroom are brain-sucking-out machines making these people happy. Yet, many of us claim that is what we want for our lives.

I think, in the tyranny of my mind, about this as my 2-year-old son rides a scooter bike down the halls of Ronald McDonald House. I am part of a ministry group that goes there one a month to serve a dinner to families with children in the hospital. I do it out of gratitude because of our stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle during my son's brain surgery almost two years ago. For more than a year my son has been going with us when we serve. He brings fun. He has fun, it's his gift. So, here was my son, with joy on his face, flying through the hallways as we finished cleaning up. Happiness doesn't come close to describing his emotion. The mystery for me was identifying what emotion my son was showing. His tiny legs push and pump. He smiles and laughs as he goes. Most everyone who sees him becomes filled with his same emotion. Unlike happiness, his mystery emotion spreads. I say most because there is one boy, the same age as my son, who is distraught. It is his scooter and he wants it back. I, the parent, step in and give the boy his scooter back.

My son complains, and, much to his credit, complies. Then, he and I, father and son, go off to play with another toy. We both soon regain that sense of love, beyond happiness, in our playing together and being together. What was my son's emotion? If this is not happiness, then what is it? I think about what happiness is. Happiness is an industry. There is no shortage of books, seminars and techniques promising to make you happy. There's a plethora of drugs that promises to push sadness into an unreal well of happiness. The word's root betrays it.

Dig to the bottom of it, and you find the word happy comes from the Old English word 'hap' that translates into 'luck.' Luck, a force beyond us, sweeps in and carries us away into la la land. Luck and happiness depend on circumstances. Win the lottery, then you are happy. Most of us won't win the lottery. We, as such, remain unhappy. We're unhappy because Lady Luck coughed in our faces. Yes we still shell out our money and play the numbers on the fortune cookie. Happiness is luck.

My son dancing does not depend on anything but his act. Scooter or no scooter, he finds joy. Lucky people do annoy us. Landing a job because you were at the right place at the right time. To add to this, lucky people are unaware of their good fortune. They think it comes from their hard work, and gives them license to lecture the rest of us on how to be happy. Lucky people play a zero sum game. In the luck game some win, some lose.

Yet, as my son pedaled and giggled, those who saw him were not annoyed but joined in his joy. But happiness is unstable. I was happy because I got a raise, but then the next week I found out my son had been diagnosed with a serious condition that requires brain surgery. The winds of fortune are fickle. Whatever my son felt, this emotion, was resilient. When I took him off the scooter to return it he only momentarily stopped his joy to whine of protest, then it was back to finding something to wonder about. Happy people are fickle. My son was filled with something else, but what to call it?

The next morning I found my answer on the radio. Wislawa Szymborska, a great polish poet died. I love her poetry. As I heard the tribute to her, I followed her words down to answer to my riddle.

I found my son's world and a deep spiritual truth. Follow. Her poems are a celebration of life that can be best understood by the word delight. Delight. That was it. Delight is finding the constant light of simply being alive. Szymborska's poems always found delight with the world. Delight spreads like it does when my son dances. When we go to feed parents who have a child in the hospital, we are delighted to be with them. To find delight in the world is beyond being happy, it is to bring wonder and awe to the everyday, and everyday there is enough that happens to fill thousands of nights worth of wonder. I said a prayer of thanks for Szymborska's life. I left for work delighted by my discovery.

Her poem, “Nothing Twice,” brings it home. I encourage you to read it here

About Ernesto Tinajero

Art, says Ernesto Tinajero, comes from the border of what has come before and what is coming next. Tinajero uses his experience studying poetry and theology to write about the intersecting borders of art, poetry and religion.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for this!

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