Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

LAVIN: Happiness 2011

In our last reading John Dewey presented a theory about habits and their relationship to willpower. He wrote that a man who CAN stand properly does so, and only a man who can does. If we substitute “happiness” for “stand properly” we end up with this theory: people who CAN be happy WILL be happy; those who are never satisfied with anything will never find happiness. This is just a theory. Does it hold true in real life? In a story from Chekhov we read that when everyone else was trying to have a good time, Akaky Akakievich was not even thinking of diverting himself…Having written to his heart’s content he would go to bed smiling in anticipation of tomorrow, of what God would send him to copy. Akaky found happiness without ever looking for it. It just came to him because he had a predisposition to BE happy. In Mary Lavin’s short story we find a similar theme. A woman named Vera has three children and a loving husband. Then her husband dies unexpectedly and Vera’s character is put to the test. But Vera is a strong woman and she has very definite views about life: Her theme was happiness: what it was, what it was not; where we might find it, where not; and how, if found, it must be guarded. Never must we confound it with pleasure. Nor think sorrow its exact opposite. Vera was not a philosopher. She was just a young single mother raising three children and supporting herself by working at the local library. Plus, she had her own aging mother to deal with; and grandmother wasn’t always pleasant to be around: Our grandfather had failed to provide our grandmother with enduring happiness. He had passed that job on to Mother… Father Hugh had given our grandmother up early in the game. “God Almighty couldn’t make that woman happy,” he said one day… But Vera did her best to support herself, her three children, and her elderly mother. This attitude had a strong effect on the three girls. They weren’t philosophers either, but they were introduced to philosophy by having to come to terms with the way that Vera approached life: What was it, we used to ask ourselves; that quality (which mother called happiness)… was it courage? Was it strength, health, or high spirits? Something you could not give or take? A game of catch-as-catch-can? “I know,” cried Bea, “a sham!” Vera has many good qualities: courage, strength, health, high spirits. But does happiness require these things? Or is happiness sheer luck: A game of catch-as-catch-can? The skeptical daughter Bea suspects that happiness may be a sham. Maybe their mother is merely putting on a good front for the girls and is faking it. Maybe she’s not really happy after all. People disagree about what happiness is and the role of happiness in living a good life. Vera and the priest disagree, for example: Mother answered. “Take Father Hugh… he rejects happiness! He casts it from him.” “That is simply not true, Vera,” cried Father Hugh, overhearing her. “It’s just that I don’t place an inordinate value on it like you. I don’t think it’s enough to carry one all the way. To the end, I mean, and after.” Father Hugh doesn’t agree with Aristotle that happiness is the highest good. For him happiness is not enough to carry one all the way. But Vera is persistent in her quest. Even though she works hard and the burden is heavy, Vera is able to carve out a niche of happiness for herself: There was only one place Mother found rest… the garden… So if she did not succeed in defining happiness to our understanding, we could see that whatever it was, she possessed it to the full when she was in her garden. Vera didn’t DEFINE what happiness was (the way Aristotle did); she SHOWED what happiness is by DOING it. Make no mistake. Vera’s life was hard; but on her own terms it was a happy one. So in the end over Bea’s face came the light that had so often blazed over Mother’s… “You don’t HAVE to face it! It’s over!” Then she who had so fiercely forbade Father Hugh to do so blurted out the truth. “You’ve finished with this world, Mother,” confident that her tidings were joyous. Vera had done what she had been born to do and she had done it well. In Vera’s world that’s called happiness.


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