Sing a song
As I look at the entries in my journals of the last ten years, I realize that I have written mainly about the loss of loved ones … son, husband, mother, brother
Most of my writing was to help me cope with the kind of shattering tragedy that divided my life in two … the terrible news – the sudden death of a child – concentrating the mind on that reality and trying to figure out how to deal with it.
The other subject is a more subtle kind of tragedy – a sense of meaninglessness. In some ways this situation is more dangerous because we do not always realize that it is happening to us, but it drains the joy and zest out of life.
Ask the average person what they want from life, and they will probably reply, “I want to be happy.” I think it is fair to say that most people want to be happy and many work hard trying to achieve that. They buy books, attend seminars, change their lifestyles, all in an ongoing effort to find that state of mind – happiness. But in spite of all that, I suspect that many people, most of the time, do not feel really and truly happy.
Is it possible for people to be happy? Are those who are unhappy going about life in the wrong way? Why do even the rich and powerful yearn for something more?
I was perusing some popular English stories about people coping with the ups and downs of life. One of my favourite is the tales of a ruggedly individualistic, red-headed orphan girl whose gutsiness is legendary. She is, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, whose philosophy of self-reliance and disdain for governmental and other do-gooders mark her as a die-hard opponent of stunted thinking.
After a stint in a Dickensian orphanage that only makes her stronger, Annie famously finds a home with self-made billionaire Daddy Warbucks. But alas, if Warbucks is good at making money, he is also good at losing it. Indeed, in one episode we find him not only broke but soon after an accident, blinded. With help from his friends and some hard work he finds the courage to build his fortune anew and his sight is restored.
Warbucks is also good at losing Annie. Prior to his frequent travels – for example, a yachting trip with a gold-digger wife, or a business trip to lawless foreign places — he makes provisions for Annie’s care that invariably fall through, forcing her and her dog Sandy to take to the road and make their way as best they can.
Though often down and out, Annie never even thinks of declaring defeat or surrendering herself and her fate to public institutionalised aid. Instead she must rely on the kindness of others, and it is from individuals that she earns respect and friendship.
Repaying kindness in kind, she soon becomes of significant benefit to her benefactors. Annie’s wanderings are like a Pilgrim’s Progress in more than one sense.
Bonds are formed with friends who share and come to admire one another’s qualities.
They are willing to lend not only moral but, when needed, practical support.
Some of these friends are kindly and innocuous; others, such as the chilling Asp, are deadly dangerous. And though Annie does not turn to religion for help, the uncanny and supernatural do sometimes watch over her.
When it comes, friends support for Annie is like a drink to a thirsty traveller. If Annie and her creator had a motto, it could well be the old chestnut: ‘It’s a great life if you don’t give up.’
No quitting, no passive acceptance of unjust treatment unless fate has put you physically out of combat. Annie has not only the punch, but the heart of a fighter. An implicit believer in final causes, she acts on the assumption that if we have feet, they are for us to stand on. Like her friend and helper Jack Boot, she scorns the ‘petty cruelty of professional uplifters and officious busybodies.’ When he deservedly comes into money, Jack will use it to found a ‘home’ for other little people, like Annie – a real ‘home.’ That is, one utterly unlike the callous state-run aid factories administered by the likes of brutish Mrs. Durance that Annie has hitherto suffered in and bolted from.
Do Annie and her friends prize self-reliance more than safety and security? Or do they think that relying on yourself is the best way to be secure in the long run? For can you really expect others, even if they are well-intentioned, and no matter how cosy a salary they draw for helping you, to care about your life more than you do?
Few desire freedom, most are content with ‘fair masters’. Better to be free and independent, even if sometimes famished and often insecure than to be fed regularly by a master but always to obey, to wear a collar, and to be on a leash.
Even in the funnies, life is often far from funny. But in the long run you fare best by standing tall, and on your own two feet.
In Annie, this holds true even in the face of the most crushing reverses of fortune. And so the once-rich magnate Warbucks, though reduced not just to destitution but to blindness, staggers but does not fall. Though devastated he is not crushed. With Annie’s help and his own grit he sets out to rebuild his life, going hopefully forward as best he can.
Heroic resistance to life’s setbacks and perils is not just the job of a handful of famous heroes. Rather, it is part of the everyday task, perhaps even the everyday duty, of ordinary people.
At one level this is a scary message: you want me to do this? And at another, it may seem needless: why strain to be heroic if we can outsource the solutions to our problems?
In Annie, which is effectively a reply to such plaintive queries, Gray speaks to his audience with profound respect. He takes for granted that we are not perpetual minors, of necessity the wards of a social collective, but that we and no others are fit to be entrusted with final responsibility for the life we have. For Gray, as for Milton, our dignity lies in being free to fall but sufficient to stand.
For the road is not only its own vocation, but its own reward. There you are sure to find the scope for your powers that bestows a joy on life which is all the greater for being earned.
Though Annie has no family – she has friends, winning them by her virtues wherever she goes. Young, but standing tall, she meets whatever life throws at her head-on.
The qualities that make us human emerge only in the ways we relate to other people.
Could that be why we need our lives to have meaning? Are we in fact striving to figure out how to live so that our lives matter, so that humankind will be at least a little bit better for our having passed through it?
I would like to think that if Annie’s story had taken her into old age she would still have valued and admired kind people, rather than clever, wealthy, powerful people.
Friendship is after all a commitment to accept the frustrations and disappointments that are an inevitable part of imperfect human beings relating to one another.
Life is not a problem to be solved once; it is a continuing challenge to be lived day by day. Our quest is not to find the one answer that is right but to find ways of making each individual day a human experience that gives some measure of joy and happiness.
In this world not everyone will do great deeds or achieve great worldly success. But we have been given the opportunity to find greatness for ourselves in the everyday. Eating can be a quick refuel, or an opportunity to savour the life- giving miracle that comes to us from soil, seed, water, sunlight and human energy, brought to the table.
Here is where we require the wisdom to recognise that the miraculous is right in front of us. Let’s not rush to the next activity in search of something important and miss the moment of greatness before us. We have in us the capacity for finding joy.
For human beings the joys of life are not based on a few great moments but on the accumulation of many little ones.
Let’s take time out to rest and reflect as we walk this road called life, and let the moments of joy and happiness accumulate, add up to something that gives meaning to life.
As we learn how to live, how to give of ourselves, life itself rewards us with many ways to experience the meaning of life …