Happiness is a shallow boat in a very rough ocean.

Happiness is something that descends upon you; it comes upon you suddenly. And then you should be grateful for it because there’s plenty of suffering and if you happen to be happy, well wonderful. Enjoy it.  Be grateful for it and maybe try to meditate on the reasons that it manifested itself. It can come as a mystery.

You don’t necessarily know when you’re going to be happy. Something surprising happens, and delights you. And you can analyze that. You can think I’m doing something right; I’m in the right place, right now. Maybe I can hang on to that.  Maybe I can learn from that.

You should be pursuing who you could be.

I’m thinking about these words, not mine but Jordan Peterson’s, early this morning, the first morning the clocks rolled back to end daylight savings time. Light brightened the sky an hour earlier only foretelling the earlier darkness too soon to come.

Happiness. Where to find it in a world descending into moral failure, climate failure, political failure? Or better to use the past tense—we’re there already. The news on NPR is unrelentingly depressing: Russia’s war in Ukraine, with unspeakable atrocities; Trump and his great lie—and all those Republicans who carry his torch of conspiracy, racism, mendacity; the abuses of both the far right and far left; the planet heating, melting, disappearing; guns everywhere, killing at random. This listing could fill a dictionary.

Driving to work I switch the station to Cape and Islands NPR and listen to the bird report from Martha’s Vineyard: a rare sighting of an infrequent visitor no doubt lost, too, in this confusing world.

I change the station again to WCRB, Boston’s classical music station and listen to a Handel organ concerto. Not knowing doesn’t make the knowledge go away but at least it’s kept at bay for the remainder of my twenty-minute drive to the Fenway to teach my 8:00am class at Northeastern.

Happiness.  Am I happy?

In the scheme of things, setting the world aside, I have many reasons to be happy. That’s the key: setting the world aside. Perhaps that’s selfish, and in truth impossible most of the time. To live on the court and not in the stands means the world is always with us. We can only steal moments—intimate moments—from the ever-present realities.

My boys give me the greatest happiness: the men they have become, their families, the lives they’re pursuing, their bonds with me and with each other.

My students if not a source of happiness are a wellspring of human connection, and contribution, that bring tremendous satisfaction.

I think about the relationships I’ve had and with the distance of time and blurred perspective find more gratitude than anguish. One gave me the sons I cherish; one gave me the deepest passion I ever experienced; one gave me the self-knowledge to know that complacency doesn’t work.

These women in my life have been enough.

‘Aren’t I enough for you?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘You are enough for me, as far as woman is concerned. You are all women to me. But I wanted a man friend, as eternal as you and I are eternal.’

‘Why aren’t I enough?’ she said. ‘You are enough for me. I don’t want anybody else but you. Why isn’t it the same with you?’

‘Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man, too: another kind of love,’ he said.

‘I don’t believe it,’ she said. ‘It’s an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity.’

‘Well—‘ he said.

‘You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!’

‘It seems as if I can’t,’ he said. ‘Yet I wanted it.’

‘You can’t have it, because it’s wrong, impossible,’ she said.

‘I don’t believe that,’ he answered.

I forever associate these last lines of Women in Love with the final scene in Ken Russell’s over-the-top film version with Alan Bates portraying Birkin—Bates so unlike Lawrence’s depiction—and so close to the visionary friend I’ve always longed for.

‘It seems as if I can’t,’ he said. ‘Yet I wanted it.’

The early daylight morning is turning into an unseasonably warm, even hot, November day. We blame it on climate change. Outside beckons but I have grading to do. I’m late and my students need their progress reports. If I’m quick and industrious I might be able to fit a last of the season swim in Walden Pond into the afternoon’s waning sunlight.

It’s a goal worth pursuing. Another kind of happiness.

Leave a comment


  1. Karen Glen Gitelson

     /  March 12, 2023

    Niland-I just chanced upon your writing and am deeply moved by your journey. I wish I had known you better but life is mysterious and I am still a wanderer. Your writing is remarkable and courageous-bravo! Karen

    • Thanks so much, Karen. Amazing to be reconnected after these many years. Life is indeed mysterious, often in good ways not seen in the moment.


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