Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Tragedy and Triumph of Polish Poetry

Here is a riddle.

Ask most people what they want out of life and they answer? Happy!

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 fake 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, happy. Most people find happy people annoying and false. A roomful of happy people feels strange and a bit like there should 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 what for out lives.

I think, the tyranny of my mind, about this as my two year son rides a scooter bike down the halls of Ronald McDonald house. I am part of a Ministry group that goes down one a month to serve a dinner once a month to families with children in the hospital. I do it out of gratitude for our stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle during my son’s brain surgery almost two years ago. My son has been going with us as we serve for more than a year. He brings fun. He has fun, his gift.

So, here was my son, with joy on his face, flying through the hallways as we finished cleaning up. Happy doesn’t come near describing his emotion.  The mystery for me was what was the emotion that my son showed? His tiny legs push and pump. He smiles and laughs as he goes. Most of the everyone who sees him becomes filled with his same emotion. His emotion, unlike happiness, spread.

I say most because there is one boy, 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?

So, 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 a whole shelf full of drugs that promises one pop and pop goes the 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 lala land.

Luck and happiness depends on circumstances. Win the lottery, then you are happy.  Most of us won’t win the lottery, whether a biological, monetary or socially. We, as such, remain unhappy, unhappy because Lady Luck coughed in our faces. Hence, the industry that promises to make us happy. We 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. Winning a job because you were at the right place at the right time and more importantly you had the right parent, makes them gloat and the rest of us resentful. Add to this that lucky people are unaware their good fortune is, that, good fortune. They think it comes from their hard work, and this giving 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.

Finally and most damning as a life’s goal, happiness is unstable. I am be happy because I got a raise, but then next week I find that my son has been diagnosed with a serious condition that requires brain surgery. The winds of fortune are fickle. Whatever my son felt this emotion was resilant. I took him off the scooter to return it. He only momentarily stop his joy for a 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 found my answer on the radio. Wislawa Szymborska,, the 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, finding the always there light of simply being alive. Her poems always found delight with the world. Delight spreads as it did as 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 happens to fill a thousand nights worth of wonder.

I said a prayer of thanks for Wislawa Szymborska’s life. I left for work delighted by my discovery.

Nothing Twice   
by Wislawa Szymborska
translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,
if you're the planet's biggest dunce,
you can't repeat the class in summer:
this course is only offered once.

No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with precisely the same kisses.

One day, perhaps some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you're here with me,
I can't help looking at the clock:
A rose? A rose? What could that be?
Is it a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It's in its nature not to stay:
Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we're different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.

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