on happiness vis-à-vis sadness (and the other way around)

 

 

 

“We are more apt to feel depressed by the perpetually smiling individual than the one who is honestly sad. If we admit our depression openly and freely, those around us get from it an experience of freedom rather than the depression itself.”

 

— Rollo May, Paulus: Reminiscence of a Friendship (1973)

 

 

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These thoughts, this post, are occasioned by a film I saw about beleaguered people in a foreign country.

I was transfixed — totally engrossed in the people’s stories and the picture the film gave of their daily lives.

I shared my enthusiasm for the film with someone close to me and suggested that she see it with me.

She said no, she had no interest (despite my strong recommendation) in seeing the film.

“Why?” I asked.

She answered (perhaps she was looking for excuses), “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

This struck me as patently ridiculous. Since when has it been imperative to avoid things — in life, in art — with the potential to make oneself sad?

 

 

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It should be obvious that true art mixes joy and beauty with pathos.

In his Poetics, Aristotle developed the theory of catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις, catharsis, meaning “purification” or “cleansing” — the purification and purgation of emotions — especially pity and fear — through art”; as explained on Wikipedia). Note that, as explained in the online encyclopedia article, catharsis represents an “extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration” (italics added).

The film which I saw was a documentary about North Korea entitled Under the Sun. More about this below.

 

 

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So much for theory. Let’s consider some examples. But first, a digression about happiness in PEOPLE.

To what extent is happiness a desideratum? Can we expect it? Is there even such a thing — is it real? How should we regard others who are, seem to be, or claim to be happy?

My father, Alan W. Smith, thoroughly enjoyed life, on many levels: an interest in things (including the delight he took in little things, such as observing what happened once to dry ice when he threw a chunk of it over the side of a ship into the water; he wanted us to see it), including intellectual curiosity; a love of music (chiefly as a performer); a delight in people and their company; a delight in little amusements; pleasures such as eating, drinking, and the outdoors (experienced as an everyday citizen, not as a woodsman; e.g., raking leaves in the fall, a walk with his wife or the dog on the seashore, a blizzard). He had a keen appetite for life.

Unlike a lot of adults, he loved his work. He never begrudged, never complained about anything. Welcomed everything and anyone who came his way.

He could loosen and cheer up a group simply by being himself and by virtue of his presence. He didn’t mind looking ridiculous, making fun of himself (or being made fun of), or being regarded as extravagant or incautious.

Oftentimes, he would enter a parlor with people leaning forward in their chairs — tight lipped, looking uncomfortable.

“What’s everybody looking so glum for?” he would say. The complexion of the group would change just like that and people would begin talking and joking. In the words of Louisa May Alcott*, he “pervaded the rooms like a genial atmosphere, using the welcome of eye and hand which needs no language to interpret it, … making their [his guests’] enjoyment his own.”

He took the weather with equanimity, be it a blizzard, a hurricane, or an earthquake.

My father happened to be in the Bay Area, visiting my older brother in the late 1980’s, shortly before the former died, when an earthquake struck. “I’ve always wanted to be able to experience what an earthquake feels like,” he told me afterward. As my former therapist pointed out, such an attitude showed an appetite for life and an eagerness to experience it.

A hot summer’s day? A great excuse for setting off a few fireworks in our back yard, or for a lobster cookout (which both my parents loved) in the front yard of our rented summer house on Cape Cod.

I remember a blizzard in my home town of Canton, Massachusetts when I was in high school. Everything was shut down. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. An idea came to my father. Wouldn’t it be great to toast marshmallows and cook hot dogs in our living room fireplace? There was a problem, however — we didn’t have the ingredients. Such niggling problems never seemed to stand in the way of the fun planned by my father. Come to think of it, how about a walk? We walked, tramped about two miles each way through snowdrifts, found a store that was open, and bought marshmallows, hot dogs, and buns.

There was, of course, another side to him. He could be pensive and gloomy. He could be irascible and had a bad temper. His cheerfulness was only one side of the coin.

When something untoward happened to him — an argument with his second wife, for example — he would say to himself through gritted teeth (as she used to tell me), “I’m not going to let it ruin my day.”

 

 

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Phony Cheerfulness

 

A truism: no one is happy all the time.

There was a nice looking, perky girl in the class a year ahead of me in college: Marie E______.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this. It will sound petty and perhaps mean spirited. But Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness grated on me.

A friend of mine, who lacked emotional depth and (often) insight into human relationships, was eager to get to know Marie and had several tennis dates with her. The relationship went no further.

“The thing I like most about her,” he told me, “is that she’s always cheerful.” This comment seemed obtuse and fatuous. It nettled me. I would be willing to bet that Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness was her way of dealing with insecurities that she probably felt.

 

 

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Happiness in a person without an admixture of sadness seems to be inimical to the human condition. One wants to get to know both sides of a person — to hear about their highs and lows from him or herself.

What about my father? you might ask. Didn’t I just wax rhapsodic over his cheerfulness and capacity to enjoy life?

I noted that he had another side that, while it was less often seen, would suddenly be displayed in bursts of anger. And, my father knew profound grief from family tragedies for which he did not bear responsibility but in which he was the chief mourner and suffered the most.

A capacity for joy does not preclude an awareness of sadness, does not obviate sadness.

Who wrote the Ode to Joy? The same composer who in his late quartets, beautifully, incomparably, expresses pathos, sadness.

 

 

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The film mentioned above is Under the Sun (2015), a documentary about North Korea. It was directed by the Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky.

It is beautifully done and tugs and pulls at the viewer emotionally on many levels. The central person in the film, who is unforgettable, is an adorable eight-year-old North Korean girl named Zin-mi. The plot is ostensibly about Zin-mi going through steps, including school, as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. At the film’s conclusion, she breaks down and cries upon being admitted to the children’s union. She is perhaps crying from relief that the stress of achieving the goal is over and, it seems, from what one would call joy mixed with sadness.

As I noted in a previous post:

re “Under the Sun” (a film about North Korea)

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/08/25/re-under-the-sun-a-film-about-north-korea/

 

The compelling thing about the film is that you come away caring about the people and touched by the film’s PATHOS — despite the fact that one is aware that the people live incredibly hard, regimented lives in a totalitarian state where they have been effectively brainwashed and reduced almost to automatons (or so it often seems).

The film features beautiful, elegiac music composed by a Latvian composer, Karlis Auzans. It captures the pathos musically, for example, in a scene where you see North Koreans having family photos taken in a sort of assembly line fashion. A couple stands proudly in front of an automatic camera with their children. The photo is taken and another couple poses. And so on. As they stare into the camera, one sees expressions of pride but also feels a great sadness. The music rises to an emotional pitch and captures this. One feels empathy with the people posing, with the North Koreans! One feels that they are people, just like us. That, despite very hard lives, they experience feelings like ours. One feels like crying oneself, but one, at the same time, experiences a kind of joy in contemplating the miracle of human existence, and how this elemental reality links us all, regardless of circumstances.

 

 

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This got me thinking about pathos in literature and music. About the comment “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

Anna Karenina ends sadly. Does that make one any less desirous of reading it? It seems that in most operas the plot involves a tragic love affair, often with someone committing suicide, dying of grief. Art (in the broad sense of the word) is full of grief, so to speak, as well as happiness — as depicted by the artist drawing upon a profound knowledge of human life. Would one wish all art to be reduced to the level of a situation comedy?

What about music? Ever hear stirrings of pathos? In Beethoven’s late quartets, in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, and so forth?

Case closed.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 2018; updated May 2018

 

 

*In her novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873).

 

 

 

 

 

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
This entry was posted in Alan W. Smith (Roger W. Smith's father), essays (by Roger W. Smith), general interest, personal psychology (Roger W. Smith observations re) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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