What We Wish for Our Children: On the Pursuit of Happiness

It is perhaps inevitable that we hand the family flag to our children, sometimes even before they are born, hoping that the little ones will wave it for all to see and admire. We want them to be something special. We want them to cure cancer, make money, be gorgeous, become famous, produce equally singular grandchildren — all of that and more. Somehow — in there somewhere — we think happiness is to be found and will be theirs. That notion is implied, not stated. It assumes that all those achievements and acquisitions will automatically lead to that blessed state of well-being, or at least not diminish their chances of getting there.

As we, the parents, get older though, I think that our hopes and dreams for our kids sometimes change. Perhaps it is, in part, because we have now had many chances to see our offspring hurt — to see them really unhappy. Broken hearts, dashed prospects, defeats on the field of play that we call life. Perhaps we begin to wonder if ACHIEVEMENT is worth the cost, if luck is just possibly more important than talent, if physical beauty is as crucial as we used to think it was. Perhaps we come to realize that no one can “have it all” and that choices have to be made in any life about which baskets will hold our eggs, those fragile parts of us that can be so easily cracked.

Philip Larkin’s poem Born Yesterday gets to the heart of this matter. Written in 1954, it was dedicated to little Sally Amis, the new child of his friends Hilary and Kingsley Amis. He first talks about those things that others are likely to wish for her: things like perfect love and beauty, worthy enough for certain, but not especially likely. And, indeed, he hopes that she can have those things. But then he changes course, knowing that she probably won’t be that lucky.

Larkin suggests that she could do worse than be ordinary. He implies that the qualities that make one different from others — he calls these qualities “uncustomary” — can complicate your life, even if they are remarkable or special, including great talent or beauty. His birthday wish for her is therefore a bit shocking: “In fact, may you be dull –/If that is what a skilled,/Vigilant, flexible,/Unemphasised, enthralled/Catching of happiness is called.”

To me, what he is getting at here is that the ultimate gift for any of us is to have a kind of openness to life, the capacity to experience each day with the wonderment of a child who was, as the title suggests, Born Yesterday. The idea is to discover (or rediscover) that wide-eyed watchfulness that just about all newborns have, that makes the world enthralling. Happiness, in this context, is something to be “caught” almost randomly, not achieved or the result of hard work, but a matter of attitude toward the world and the ability to see it afresh and let the passing moments dazzle you.

If he is right, then most of us and most of our children don’t have to be great heroes or heroines, athletes or leaders, Nobel Prize winners or creative geniuses or supermodels. Happiness might just be in reach, if only one can stretch out one’s arm to catch it.

Here is the poem:

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love –
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

The photos are of my children when they were small: Jorie and Carly Stein, respectively.