The Obligation to Be Happy

The Obligation to Be Happy

March 07, 2014

Since the late 1970s, Linda Pastan has been writing “quiet” verse on marriage, family, parenting, and grief. While she was a senior at Radcliffe College, she won Mademoiselles poetry prize (in case you didn’t know, Sylvia Plath was the runner-up). Despite that success, for the next decade, Pastan put poetry aside to raise her family, until her husband urged her to return to writing. In those 10 years, Pastan focused on pregnancy, childbirth, raising a family, keeping a house and cultivating a relationship, all necessary but difficult things. Rewarding yes, but clearly also requiring attention, diligence, work and constancy.

During this season of lent, I’ve been drawn back again to Pastan’s poetry that centers the quotidian against which she navigates marriage, motherhood, and daily sorrows and joys. The simplicity, seeming ease and directness of her work appeals to me as I try, and fail, to exert control over my busy life.

I’m a wife, mother of two, magazine editor and a poet, identities that overlap and merge and sometimes explode. Some days, frankly, I don’t feel happy. And yet, shouldn’t I, since I’m fortunate to be able to work hard and well through my productive days? And shouldn’t I feel joy at the desire and ability I have to write? It should be effortless to be happy, right? I’ve been blessed, I know. So why don’t I feel an inner, unwavering joy?

Pastan, tries to absolve herself of that very thing in her poem, “The Obligation to Be Happy.” I love this vulnerability from a woman who seems able to handle it all, and do so much (when you consider the amount of awards she has won, written more than 10 books, and served as Maryland’s Poet Laureate):

It is more onerous
than the rites of beauty
or housework, harder than love.
But you expect it of me casually,
the way you expect the sun
to come up, not in spite of rain
or clouds but because of them. 

What relief, I thought. It’s not easy to be happy (it’s harder than love, Pastan says!), so I don’t have to be concerned with forcing it. If I feel happy and free of worry and anxiety, that’s just fine. Or, maybe not.

In church recently, the young priest preached that we shouldn’t worry about the future or even tomorrow, just today – how we order our lives and souls today. It was the Sunday before Lent, with the Gospel about banishing worry from your life, according to Matthew 6:25-27: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

At first, I thought, what does this guy know about worry? He’s 29. He’s not married. He looks like a modern hippie with that beard. He doesn’t have kids. His job is saying Mass, hearing confession, and counseling parishioners. He has a place to live. He has food to eat. He doesn’t have to worry about college tuition or retirement accounts. He has time to go for walks and watch the birds. OK, full stop.

Then I realized this young priest had to have an amazing amount of courage to give up marriage, a family, a job out in the world – and leave his family and don vestments. He had incredible courage to follow his vocation – an inner one that told him, “Come to me. Don’t worry. Just trust.”

Our young priest is practicing what he preaches. So what can I, what can we in the pews, learn from him? When we pray (or write), we move aside and let our “self” speak, whether to God or to the page. When we pray, we trust that we’re being heard; we learn patience because we put out a request for what we need, and then we wait. We learn gratitude when we pray, since we consider about how we have been blessed or helped; when we write, we’re grateful to be able to create art, breathed through with light.

When we pray, we’re grateful for the breath that moves in and out of our body. Simone Weil said, “Absolute attention is prayer.” Praying and writing are similar practices; they’re both gates into inner calm and a way of being present, grateful, patient and worry-free. Easy? No. But there’s our door in. Just open it.

In his powerful poem “Trying to Pray,” James Wright captures the essence of prayer – and of writing, I would argue – both are acts of letting go, of accepting things as they are and of thinking of what could be – hope in the darkness: "This time, I have left my body behind me, crying / In its dark thorns. / Still, / There are good things in this world. / ....I touch leaves. / I close my eyes and think of water." 

This journey that we’re on, it’s tenuous and unpredictable. In the quotidian, in our spousal relationships, there’s an element of uncertainty and surprise. Which way will our minds and lives lead us? Will we decide to stay the course we’re on?

With prayer, the one listening is God. The one we’re lead to is God, a constant. With life and with writing, we’re being lead on a path of pilgrimage. We know not where. But if we start with prayer, we are being led to a place of peace. Let’s start there. 

Photo Credit: David Noah


Explore more art and stories on the topic of letting go: 


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