"What Makes Life So Sweet": Thoughts on New Year's Eve

Alarm clock “Life, however long, will always be short,” wrote the poet Wislawa Szymborska. And for those of us with a secular worldview who don’t expect to experience an afterlife, our time here is that much more precious. “Something about the meaning of life changes when you realize deeply that it won’t last forever,” wrote Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. “We bring a deeper commitment to our happiness when we fully understand… that our time left is limited and we really need to make it count.” There is only one holiday this season celebrating what is arguably the defining aspect of human life: New Year’s Eve, our global, secular celebration of the passage of time.

Beyond the parties, traffic, and kissing, December 31st offers a pause in life’s chattering conversation to reflect on what we’ve learned from the past and what we hope for the future. Most of us want to live happy, meaningful lives, but we also know we’re not going to live forever—if we were, we would have no need to mark the passing of each year with such passionate celebrations of life. After several years researching what mankind has had to say about how to live a meaningful life, I’ve found the finitude of life is a universal theme. As Saul Bellow wrote, “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” Death, the moment in each of our lives when time’s arrow hits it target, is what gives our lives meaning.

Of course, brooding about death all the time is no recipe for happiness. Embracing joy when you find it is. “Be fully awake to everything about you,” LeRoy Pollock advised his teenaged son Jackson in 1928. “The more you learn the more you can appreciate & get a full measure of joy & happiness out of life. I do not think a young fellow should be too serious, he should be full of the Dickens some times to create a balance.” We shouldn’t forget or abstain from having fun.

The writer Brendan Gill concurred. “Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the argument that life is serious, though it is often hard and even terrible,” he wrote. “Since everything ends badly for us, in the inescapable catastrophe of death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time; and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so. There is no third rule.” In the long nights of midwinter, New Year’s Eve parties encourage just this attitude. Toward the end of his extraordinary life, the twentieth century’s greatest economist John Maynard Keynes confessed: “My only regret is that I have not drunk more Champagne.”

Don’t make Keynes’s mistake.

We should, then, make an effort to be happy. But how? “Our obligation is to give meaning to life and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life,” wrote Elie Wiesel. “We must make every minute rich and enriching, not for oneself, but for someone else.”Compassion and kindness are the keys. “The only possible good in the universe is happiness,” said the Civil War veteran, orator, and noted freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll. “The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to try to make others so.”

So what if 2014 wasn’t all you hoped for? In that case it can be helpful to remember a simple trick of perspective: take the long view. As Charlie Chaplin believed, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” What seems terrible right now will seem less so, later. Or, as Caitlin Moran puts it: “Life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES.” Either way, you’re covered.

And if you are among the one-fifth of Americans who claims no religious affiliation or the one of the growing number of the nonreligious, the mere fact of our existence can itself inspire, whatever the time of year. “Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small,” wrote Lewis Thomas, “that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. Atheists don’t look to the supernatural for wonder; we can see it all around us, whatever the season. As the English playwright Laurence Housman said: “Find something that isn’t a miracle, you’ll have cause to wonder then.”

Our time here on earth amidst its deep forests, its crowded sidewalks, and in the company of the people we love, is limited. “That it will never come again,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “Is what makes life so sweet.” So enjoy the sweetness of this New Year’s Eve. And “if you ever start taking life too seriously,” comedian Joe Rogan reminds us, “just remember that we are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship flying through the universe.”

Now pour the talking monkeys some Champagne.


Foostering: A review of NORA WEBSTER, by Colm Tóibín

Review: NORA WEBSTER, by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, 2014). 237 pp.


(This book review originally ran in the Boston Globe, October 10, 2014)

Colm Tóibín’s new novel, “Nora Webster,” is simply a quiet, microscopically-observed character study of a recently widowed woman in the small Irish town of Wexford in the late 1960s, but as Tóibín proved in previous novels “Brooklyn” and “The Testament of Mary,” the emotional lives of ordinary women can contain as much drama as any tale of war.

We meet Nora just after she has lost her husband, Maurice, a respected local teacher, to a painful illness. She is coping not only with her own grief, but that of her four children. Nora is also endeavoring to hold on to her only recently achieved financial stability; Nora’s mother had been a domestic servant, and Nora is grateful for “the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom, once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read . . . [t]he day belonged to her.” With Maurice gone, Nora knows she must return to work in the office job she held before her marriage. “Now her day was to be taken from her,” she thinks. “Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.”

Nora lives in a world of female surveillance — daughters, sisters, aunts, neighbors, nuns — all watching her actions, her outbursts, any changes in routine in Nora’s newly-widowed life. The book opens on just such a scene: a neighbor knocking on Nora’s door, paying her respects, checking in. “You must be fed up of them,” another neighbor — a man — says: “Just don’t answer the door,” he advises. “That’s what I’d do.” But this is exactly what Nora cannot do, despite that all she craves is solitude, privacy. As a woman, Nora cannot shut the door on the women who watch her without risking her reputation. In this small town, a woman choosing to be alone and independent is the ultimate transgression. “Your mother was the same,” a busy-body nun tells Nora. “It was the pride, or the not liking people knowing her business, that made her difficult. And that did her no good.”

Although the plot of “Nora Webster’’ concerns a widow’s quiet but determined path to independence and personal fulfillment, the story is really that of Nora’s dramatic emotional life roiling beneath her calm surface. Readers who loved (or loved to hate) Elizabeth Strout’s peevish heroine Olive Kitteridge will appreciate the vinegar-tinged humor and pathos of Nora Webster, too.

We follow Nora as she finds a new way to be in this “world filled with absences.” One day she finds herself staring at a record player, transfixed. As the clerk plays a Dvorak recording for her, “[w]hat she felt now more than anything was a sadness that she had lived her life until now without having heard this.” Yet eventually Nora finds the strength to pursue her love of music even to the point of taking singing lessons, literally finding her voice for the first time as a grown woman.

Nora is aware, in a way others around her seem not to be, of the numberless expectations of women in her society. As the men in the house make themselves comfortable, she notices that her mother and sister “hardly ever sat down . . . [they were] always bustling about . . . their mother disapproved of women sitting down when there was still work to do.” Nora has a word for this: “foostering.”

In one of her many silent forms of rebellion, “[a]ll her married life Nora had made sure that she stayed sitting down for as long as possible each evening once the washing-up after tea had been completed.”

Set against the background of the early days of the Troubles, Nora finds herself and her country awakening to a new and uncertain future. A deeply moving portrait of the flowering of a self-liberated woman, “Nora Webster’’ tells the story of all the invisible battles the heart faces every day.