Wednesday, March 23, 2011

South of Broad, or Choosing Happiness

I finally put South of Broad by Pat Conroy down after a few marathon sessions. In this book about Charleston, South Carolina from 1969-1990 a teenager recovering from childhood trauma is introduced to a cross-section of his beloved city that will become his friends, and change his life. Race, religion, class, sexuality, vanity, marriage, family, psychological disorders, pedophilia, molestation, AIDs; nothing is taboo.

The book was given to me by my mother and I was frankly surprised at the tone of the book. She leans towards the not-quite-trashy romance novels, and "Chick Lit" about women rediscovering themselves after or during various life changes or shopping. On the other hand, South of Broad brings up almost every horror that humans can do to each other and then a few more. The characters are well-defined if somewhat stereotypical and are the best part of the book. A few too many "if we had only known that we were walking into danger" chapter endings and beginnings left me frustrated with the plot and only the fact that the level of melodramatic tragedy matched the foreshadowing left me satisfied with not burning the book after I read it.

When I look at the number of catastrophes that terrorize the residents of this book, I wonder how they all didn't end up in the mental hospital together. Then again, I have to wonder how all people don't end up in the mental hospital. As television news and centuries of tragic literature reminds us, people are awful. A person can be nice, but people overall are horrible to each other. The animal world is no different even if it is written with simpler prose. Cruelty is found in almost all animal species. If evolution has made us cruel, where does this desire for happiness come from? Is it something that is taught to us, or are humans born with it? It came from somewhere, but even in the most collectivist of cultures, art and literature feature the desire for individual happiness.

Various studies on language show that until we know the words for concepts we cannot think about them. Who do we have to blame then for the first person who thought of the word wealth, happiness, success, or even love? Do we get to blame them or thank them for these concepts that drive most of our lives? Some of these concepts do not exist in languages that do not have words for them. The words aren't inevitable, otherwise all cultures would have them. The hierarchy of needs claims that until the basic needs of food and shelter are met, the need of family is not pressing. I disagree. I think that as long as the word is known the concept is desired. It puts to a word the way that humans at times help complete strangers whether it benefits them or not. 

After the tragedy in Japan I heard many people hoping that others would appreciate their lives more and stop complaining about first world problems. I can be gracious about all my blessings and still be overwhelmed by life. Tragedies that are too huge for our insufficient human brains to fully comprehend make us feel bad about feeling bad about our own world. This just leaves us feeling bad. One has to take those feelings and turn them into positive actions or positive thoughts. This requires action of some sort.

Happiness is something I desire. I want great success in my career and the perpetual love of my friends, my family and my partner. In the end I have to choose to be happy and choose to find success in my career and to grow the love that already exists in my life. Sometimes it's difficult to choose to be happy, to look on the bright side and turn off the melancholy and actively decide to have a good day. Ok not sometimes, it's mostly difficult, but stewing in your own complaint juices only deepens the flavor. I'm trying to choose the positive in my life, and to share that positivity and encourage others for being positive. Is this frequently against all of my impulses? Yes. Do I think it will help me? Yes. So I'm choosing to be happy and have a good life. I don't know if it will work but I'm willing to try.

Author's Note: Yes, I understand that animals help each other in the wild. No, I don't understand it. No, Science doesn't either.

No comments:

Post a Comment