A friend of mine sent me a poem recently by Naomi Shihab Nye called “So Much Happiness.” It begins:
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
I saw that very truth revealed this week, as the community gathered in the Katherine Thayer Cate Memorial Chapel and one by one those inclined to do so rose and offered thanks of one sort or another. The air in that chapel was alive with appreciation.
The world tells us that is a rare thing, especially these days. In a rather sobering guest essay in the New York Times last week Tara Isabella Burton wrote, “Feelings have become the authoritative guide to what we ought to do, at the expense of our sense of communal obligations.” Surely a good number of Cate students and faculty could provide an animated account of the various personal challenges of these last days of the fall trimester. There is plenty that we can “hold in our hands” that is difficult on this Mesa. But that does not cancel out the happiness. It informs it.
Which is why students and faculty on Monday were grateful publicly for each other, for moments together, for profound insights and everyday rituals, for parents, for friends, for the fulfillment that comes from being known, understood, loved. That floating happiness needed to be shared.
Another sociologist, Eva Ilouz, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem notes, “We have withdrawn to a highly subjectivist form of individualism. This means that our own emotions have become the moral grounds for our actions.” Perhaps, but if those emotions inspire us to offer thanks or praise or compel us to acknowledge the kindness of others, then even subjectivity has its benefits. “We may not be enough,” Ms. Burton concludes, “at least not on our own.” But together? That seems the far richer path.
And Ms. Shihab Nye tells us how to find it: by limiting the distraction of our discomforts – which seem so tactile and tangible – and focusing instead on the joy that floats above and around us, unobtrusive, unwilling to bother us with its presence, yet never far.
Her poem ends:
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.
Surely that explains what happened in our chapel this week. For such moments and so many others, we give our thanks.