The Bearable Brightness of Being

The title today alters The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a 1984 novel by Milan Kundera that I will never read and a 1988 movie that I will never see. Their philosophical underpinnings are too esoteric, the sensibilities too seedy. But I do love the title. And I do care about the Russian invasion of Prague, the historical setting; if you are interested, you might listen to Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968. We played it at Texas Tech, a decidedly unsophisticated locale compared to the beauties and intellectual society to which the novel refers.

Just yesterday, someone asked if I ever considered to possibility of being forever full of an overflowing sense of love and giving and goodness. I said no. At times, it does come, however, and seeking its return is not a bad thing. When we are in the midst of living, a sudden joy can make bearable what a friend once described as “life getting so daily.”

A famous 19th century art critic named Walter Pater made a statement that has ruined a lot of lives: “A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Read the essay here. From that time on, certain people, believing his definition of success, have dedicated themselves to achieving ecstasy all the time. Even when that feeling is love, our persons are just not adjusted for it. Most things are dull, repetitive, apparently meaningless, beneath our capabilities, tiresome. As examples I present dishes and laundry, mowing and mopping.

When that beautiful moment comes, then, when our hearts swell with love for another human or for the potentiality of humankind, with gratitude for a selfless act or the profound beauty of a waterfall or a melody perfectly played, the brightness of being does seem real, our lives bearable.

Is this joy pursuable? Honestly, I don’t know. An openness to its possibility seems the best answer. Billy Collins, a poet I’ve quoted before, wrote a poem titled (coincidentally) “The Great Walter Pater.” In it he thinks he might not mind being a statue in a pond or carp “when the dogs of trouble have me running down a dark winding alley.” The reference to the carp has to do with a remark Pater made when asked to what kind of fish he would be. I expect we all know what he means when he says “dogs of trouble.”

For most of us, wanting to be something other than we are or expecting ecstatic sensations constantly is not the problem. Getting through the dailies, whatever they may be, poses challenges. The nourishment—spiritual or mental—of those more gracious moments helps us through. Perhaps that is what we call joy.