My daughter laughs in her sleep. Her dreams bring her great joy. She tee-hees, she giggles, she chortles. Sometimes it’s loud enough to be heard across the hall. This child’s natural state is happiness. Sure, she gets cranky sometimes when things don’t go her way, she can be hurt or angry, she cries sometimes, but she is almost unrecognizable without a smile on her face and a spring in her step. This is not the bliss of ignorance, rather it is the thirst for knowledge that keeps her going. She is vivacious. She runs everywhere because she is impatient and hungry for more joy, more happiness. But she is not running after her bliss; she is running because the running (or the dancing or the cartwheels) are part of her delight. Her bliss goes with her everywhere, even in her dreams.
I’ve been thinking a lot about joy, happiness, and bliss. Bliss in an (English/American) academic or philosophical sense is something to achieve, to find, to get, to capture.
We are supposed to look at happiness as something tangible, and we spend our lives chasing happiness, reaching, grasping, clutching at something elusive. The phrase “follow your bliss,” is such an aggressive concept. When I hear the phrase, I picture Sir Thomas Wyatt on horseback chasing the female hind of Anne Boleyn. In Whoso List to Hunt, the pleasure is never achieved. At least the poets had the right idea: the chase was half the fun. The Romantic poets talked of the sublime, a sort of communion with nature, reachable by stepping outside. Wordsworth “behold” Tintern Abbey and celebrates the “wealth the show to me had brought” in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Female Romantic poets went even further, and bliss became something that could come to them, in their dreams, for instance, as Mary Shelley describes in “Stanzas.”
In a theological sense, bliss is something we achieve through suffering, the reward at the end of our unhappy lives. Although I like C.S. Lewis very much, he focuses on heavenly bliss, believing “Heaven will work backwards” and turn all our hardships into meaning after our lives are lived. A quick internet search brings more than a handful of Bible studies looking to get bliss, achieve bliss, so here, again, bliss is something we try to accomplish.
In the United States, it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence, our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We pursue, aggressively, our happiness, we “follow our bliss,” a definitive act. “Creating Joy” from Mental Health America, asks us to “pencil in a little pleasure,” a phrase that sounds trite and aggressive at the same time. This sense of having control, or having to have control, of our own happiness, is an inherent problem. We try to define happiness, to pin it down, to turn it into an equation.
I like better the concept of alegria. (Allegria in Italian, if you prefer.) Alegria, from the Spanish and Portuguese, speaks to a happiness that comes from a sense of abandon, that moment of bliss when one lets go. With alegria, we can dance, sing, paint, write, or whatever, but the state of bliss comes to us in the very act of enjoying the process. (If alegria sounds like a brand name, it’s because it is: shoes, coffee, medicine, even an idealized living community pop up on a search for alegria.)
Mary Shelley wrote of bliss:
Oh, come to me in dreams, my love!
I will not ask a dearer bliss;
Come with the starry beams, my love,
And press mine eyelids with thy kiss.
Mary Shelley worked as hard as her husband and fellow poets; perhaps harder as she did so often with children at her breast, but she understood bliss in a way that my young daughter already seems to get.