The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness: 

Thoughts on Thomas Jefferson’s words in “The Declaration of Independence”

After one year of college I decided I needed a break. I wanted to stop paying some entity to educate me and take responsibility for educating myself, to experience the world directly and do something tangible. 

That first fall I picked apples with a man who was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. Arthur Harvey lived his values. He took pride in working hard and in a job done well. As a follower of Gandhi, he chose carefully what he did and how he went about it. The man who chose picking apples in an intentional way helped me develop my own values.

Many of the pickers were on break from college as well. We were seeking to understand life and found comfort in physical work. We were compatriots working outdoors in New England in the fall. Arthur had rules for the picking crews. There would be no drugs, alcohol or non-married sex. This was coming from the guidance of Gandhi and was radical for the early 70’s. We worked hard, ate great food and some evenings, Arthur gathered us together and talked about Gandhi. I revered Arthur and was grateful for the clarity he gave us about our work, as well as for the friendships I made there. 

I walked out into the orchard with a picker’s bucket around my shoulders. I learned by watching how to pick the apples carefully. He demonstrated how to avoid breaking stems or punching holes in the red skin. Each apple had to be deliberately placed on top of the others in the bucket. Ladder placement took practice and skill. We were paid by how much we picked. No taxes were taken out, Arthur’s war protest. We could make our own decisions about taxes and donated a portion of our income to a fund designed to contribute to causes we chose. It was called the Greenleaf Fund. We met together at the end of the season to decide where the money would go. Many of the pickers were Quakers and believed in consensus decision-making. We had some lively and heated conversations as we decided how to spend the $10,000 in that year’s fund.

I had many adventures on the land and in several states over the next few years. A friend who was a forager for food and herbs startled me by enrolling in nursing school. She wanted to be a midwife and needed experience with patient care. My friend’s transformation in her white nurse’s uniform really struck me. I realized that I could go to nursing school too and gain the freedom to pursue my interest in natural methods of healing.

For most of my life I’ve thought of my parents as dedicated educators. They both earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees (Mom much later after having three of us). But just this year I learned a detail from my father that resonates with my own experience of dropping out. Dad and Mom loved Oberlin College where they met. After their graduation, they moved to Baltimore for Dad’s Master’s and PhD in English at Hopkins. He got the masters but looked closely at the men going for the doctorate. Many expected to be there for years diving into the library in their subject of choice. To this young WWII veteran, newly married and with a baby on the way, the library shelves weren’t that attractive. 

Instead, he got a temporary job at a nearby boys’ school thinking he’d return to the degree in a year or two. He stayed at Gilman for 39 years, commenting that his time with 11th graders was “magical”. He watched them wake to the reality that choosing what they would do in the world mattered. His work with high school students engrossed him from the start. He was a natural! 

At age 67, talking with Dad who is 95, I became aware of the parallel in our lives. It is good sometimes to walk away and take responsibility for one’s own learning in the world. As I look at the green leaves of late spring, I recall a friend who is now earning her PhD in her 60’s. She is inspired, excited and fully engaged with the material. There is no absolute about when we study or in what order we do things. In fact, this seems to parallel another idea. 

Should all high school graduates routinely offer a year or two of service after graduation? They might know themselves better, have fun with other young people and experience giving back. This would help them grow a hunger for learning and clarify what they want to study. 

Responsibility and meaning are the threads that connect learning and growing throughout life. There are ebbs and flows and occasional meanders. It is never too late to alter the course, change direction and be surprised by new insights or opportunities. A friend of mine in his 40’s recently shifted his life trajectory to spend time with his dying mother. This happened as he prepared to be a father for the first time. He was pulled between staying with his mother and getting back to his pregnant wife. His years of meditation practice helped him attune to what was best in the moment. Time spent with Mom brought many things to completion for him and brought them both comfort.

When Thomas Jefferson chose the word “Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, he did it intentionally. “Happiness” in the late 18th century implied the well-being of individuals as well as society as a whole. Today, we understand this word differently, as a more personal expression of contentment and individual joy. 

I love George Bernard Shaw’s idea of happiness: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” 

Let’s lean towards Jefferson’s broader idea of happiness. When meaning and purpose are woven into experience, we are likely to find greater depths of joy. “Happiness” can encompass an array of emotions as they are part of the tapestry of a full life in a balanced and harmonious society. Human beings like to belong and to make a difference. This aspect of life is the source of real happiness.