There are varying suggestions for attaining eternal happiness, depending, amongst many other things, on whether you read an English proverb or a Chinese one.
According to the English proverb: ‘If you want to be happy for a year, plant a garden; If you want to be happy for life, plant a tree.’
I’m very lucky to have a garden, and I can say that it has been a place of pleasure, prayer, play, produce and performance; rest, rejuvenation and recreation; health, healing, hospitality, harvest, and good honest hard graft: year after year and in all seasons. It has been a particular place of solace during the coronavirus pandemic, and I’ve had a bit more time than usual to simply enjoy the sacred space. I remarked to my son one day “I’m sure the birds have been singing more loudly during the lockdown”. He replied “it’s just that you’d usually be working in an office in London and wouldn’t be able to hear them or wouldn’t be listening to them!” Maybe that’s true; but I’m still convinced that they’re singing more loudly now! And I’ve even become a little more aware of the many different tunes of the song thrush. I’m ashamed to say that I would have assumed that each species of bird sang the same song all the time! But no, these guys can really mix it up and have a party.
I love during the summer being able to sit out in the garden in the early morning and listen to those birds, and to look at the flowers and to smell the fragrant roses and shrubs, so carefully shaped over many years. And then I like to sit out again in the late afternoon or early evening and to listen to those birds again and to rejoice in the beauty and the peace, and to give thanks for another day.
Turning to the Chinese proverb about happiness, we are told that: ‘If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else’.
We were blessed at the Irish Chaplaincy with many new volunteers at the start of the lockdown, and I was touched to read what one of them, Kristjana, had written, following her contact with Phyllis:
“When I got involved in shopping and delivering for the elderly with the Irish Chaplaincy, I was not expecting it to be such a gratifying and eye-opening experience. Though most encounters today are timid and reserved, my first with Phyllis was not. Phyllis is a wonderfully bright, inquisitive, chipper, straight-talking lady. She has shared with me the things that distress her, snippets of her life and her general day-to-day happenings. It has been a pleasure sharing these with her, talking about the very mundane to the very serious. She thanks me numerous times each time I deliver the shop. But I don’t think she realises how grateful I am for her and the experiences. The opportunity to commit some time and to help my community in this way has been a humbling and lovely experience.”
I think those English and Chinese proverbs may be more connected than seems apparent at a first reading. When we tend a garden we are, hopefully, giving pleasure to others as well as to ourselves, and bringing forth something of beauty will surely give benefits far beyond our own life, and to people we’ll never meet: after all, Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world. In the case of planting a tree it is all the more striking, perhaps, that it will bring benefits to future generations long after the planter has departed from the earth.
And one further connection: the Chinese character for ‘rest’ is composed of the character for ‘person’ next to that for ‘tree’, which seems rather fitting.
Finding happiness is not a straightforward business, and we must beware of chasing it too keenly, for as the Hasidic proverb warns us: ‘While we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment’.
But if we truly desire to be happy forever, having some beautiful spaces to enjoy certainly helps (and in writing that, I’m well aware that many people don’t have such spaces; and let us spare a particular thought for prisoners, whose cells now will be like ovens, and who are confined in them for up to 23 ½ hours a day); or maybe, as the Chinese would have it, we just need to help someone (or to allow ourselves to be helped: because, ultimately, we’re all interconnected, and one is not possible without the other). It’s as simple (or as difficult) as that.
PS On the subject of birds singing, I like this poem by Mary Oliver, called ‘Invitation’:
Oh do you have time
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,
do not walk by
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.