We Learn Happiness Inevitable,
But Perhaps Not Right This Minute
Editorial for The Freeman’s Journal/HOMETOWN ONEONTA
Edition of Thursday-Friday, Dec. 25-26, 2014
Not having watched Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” for a few years, it was a jolt to rediscover that the movie’s deus ex machina is his contemplation, on a bridge during a wintry storm, in his cups, his S&L on bankruptcy’s brink, just having run his car into a tree, of ending it all.
Instead, as we now remember, his guardian angel jumps in, and Stewart’s George Bailey, after rescuing Clarence – from the Latin for “clear one” – is taken on a tour of his hometown, Bedford Falls, as it would have been had he never lived.
With George’s realization of the good his one life had accomplished, the movie ends with our hero, his loving family and his appreciative community packed in the livingroom of his rambling – and repair-challenged – Victorian, singing “Auld Lang Syne.”
The message resonates at the end of this gray year in Otsego County, where many of us, updating our cell-phone contacts at year’s end, “erased” one, two or even more friends who made the decision not to go on. Their decisions, we can agree, have left us in a sadder place today than when we last contemplated the message of Christmas.
In this despond came an unexpected light: “Stay,” by poet and professor Jennifer Michael Hecht, which – after two of her friends took their lives – debunks society’s rationalizations of the individual decisions made this year that have depressed our local reality.
Three conclusions – two data proven – emerge:
• One, we know such final acts are devastating to immediate families. But Hecht shows that is statistically so: If a parent takes his or her life while a child is under 18, the chances triple the child will follow suit.
• Two, there’s a copycat effect generally: People contemplating that desperate act are more likely to follow through if someone they respect makes that choice.
• Three. We know this – George Bailey learned it – is: “You owe it to your future self to live.” However daunting the personal challenges may seem at any moment, things get better, often much better.
As we all know from personal experience, bitter disappointments, undeserved tragedies, health crises contribute to the people we become, and we emerge stronger, more thoughtful, better prepared for future setbacks, and more appreciative of the many joys that always await.
One of our correspondents tells of trying to return to Cooperstown from Edmeston in a storm last winter, only to get stuck twice on snow-covered ice halfway up that steep hill just past West Burlington.
Turning north on relatively flat Route 51 and inching through Burlington Flats and West Exeter to Richfield Springs and, eventually, home, a TED talk came on the radio. The subject, happiness.
The best research, it seems, shows that everybody has a happiness level. After a blow, no matter how harrowing, within six months we’ve returned to that golden mean. It’s more golden for some; less for others, but there you have it.
That’s a reality worth contemplating as we soldier through life’s winters – figuratively and, in the months ahead, real – (and embrace its delights.) People we love and admire surrender to their devils, and we can mourn what might have been. But whatever today’s darkness, let’s keep our eyes on that bright star ahead.