The ‘Hamlet’ of Happiness
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
I spoke with my mother a couple of days ago. She recently turned 88 and had just gotten home from her lifelong learning class at Brandeis University where all the teachers are volunteer peers. This course, she said, was the best ever, a true Shakespearian scholar and retired professor at its helm. She is taking his class on Hamlet, a play she has read, and studied many times over the years from college onward through continuing education classes. Yet she sounded incredibly enthusiastic to have her nose in this play yet again; to feel equally or more enchanted than ever by the synergy of familiarity with the work, on one hand, and the novelty of what this particular professor and class brought to it, on the other.
To read a prized work with the intimacy of the scholar and the curiosity of the explorer excited her, and hearing about it excited me. To see and hear with new eyes and ears, even what feels familiar, represents a hallmark of enjoyment. Things only get old when our modes of experience get stale, when we have used up our line of inquiry, and when we have turned jaded and cynical.
To read a work of literature is to co-create its meaning. Whatever the author intends, or writes unintentionally (subconsciously), takes on meaning within us as we bring to bear our own intelligence and experiences as lenses. Through our reading the words on the page take flight in the skies of our imaginations. Reading is like having a dialogue with the material, and if we are lucky this conversation sparks a love affair or an inspirational, even transformative encounter.
There is so much that seems difficult about aging. Naively, I once thought that along with our acquired wisdom over the years—should we be lucky enough to live a long time—that we would also grow to accept our declines in memory, in muscle tone, in agility and flexibility, in speed; that somehow the slow dulling of vision, hearing, smell and taste would somehow feel compensated for by a growing appreciation for the small things.
What I have learned is that we tend to have a sense of ourselves that persists.(And neurons with which we are born that are still with us–yeah, baby neurons!) If we are lucky enough to house a decent memory, there is some through-line, some arc of chapters in our lives that make sense as part of our story. And it is difficult to reconcile the creaky joints, perhaps the increased pain, the dulling capabilities, with who we “really” are.
Although older age can produce greater happiness in some ways, and some alacrity and quickness with a huge data base in our chosen fields, it does not often happen without feelings of loss—the losses of those family members and friends who have left this plane, of course, but also the losses of our major identifiers—professional identities, community participations, etc. Many elders feel almost invisible, as if they have grayed into the atmosphere. And certainly we live in an impatient culture of elbows, with little interest in making room for those moving at a slower pace.
To love something—one’s garden with its flowers petaling open anew under the morning sky; a favorite piece of literature; a symphony, etc.—and to love it again and again, with fresh ears and eyes, well, that is savoring. The happiness of savoring, of ‘Hamlet.’
Guest saddle: What do you love, over and over? The smile of your baby or grandbaby? The smell of the lilacs wafting through the summer-open windows? A piece of music that reminds you of happy times? Are you giving yourself enough opportunities to revel in such happiness?