Family, work, delight

Our Russellian topics today, in Happiness, as we near the end of Conquest: family, work, and what he oddly calls “impersonal interests” – I call them personal delights or enthusiasms, “those minor interests which fill [our] leisure and afford relaxation from the tenseness of more serious preoccupations.”

Our avocational interests may seem minor, but they can have a major impact on the quality of our lives and the extent of our happiness, and not just our own. Noticing how others embrace the sources of their own delight is an important step on the road to a deeper empathy, a step away from mutual blindness, hostility, and aggression. Or so I have long contended.

What objects of enthusiasm can imaginably promise so much?
Any we can imagine, and then someóbaseball, say, or the Beatles,
beer, Great Britain, literature, science, science fiction, Monet,
Mozart, Kentucky whiskey, Tennessee walking horses, walking,
running, tilling the soil, raising kids, healing, praying,
meditating, thinking, teaching, learning, and on and on. Whatever
disparate items may show up on anyone’s list (these are a few
that crop up in my own family circle), their crucial essence is
to point at, but not to replicate or make transparent to others’
grasp, the depths of experience and personal significance they
attempt to name. I can tell you that I love baseball, but I
cannot begin to convey precisely why or how or the extent to
which baseball is important for my peculiar ways of experiencing
and living in the world. By the same token your account of the
joys of macramÈ, soccer, or cat-dancing will leave me in the
dark. But it is a darkness rimmed by the glow of a phenomenon we
should all recognize and treasure. Springs of Delight

“Raising kids” is on my list, and Russell said it was on his. But he paints a bleak picture of family life, c.1930. Were relations between parents and children really as unhappy (99%!) as he says they were, with so many demanding and despotically possessive parents, so many rude, disrespectful and churlish children? Expectations must have been very different on both ends, and tough economic times (though they probably wouldn’t have noticed this in the Russell manor) tend to breed generational tension. But still.
Russell’s remarks on women again give some discomfort, especially the claim that women in general have a harder time cultivating “impersonl interests.” But his point that for lots of women the choice to pursue a vocation imposes spousally-unmatched domestic compromises is still relevant, even after the choice for most has become no choice at all. As for the quality of domestic life, and speaking as a former Dad-at-home, the charge that it can make you “fussy and small-minded” may be true to an extent, but it’s definitely not gender-specific. And  “spinsterhood”? Is that still a thing?

I agree with Russell, feeling “part of the stream of life” is for many of us inseparable from family. I don’t agree, though, that “death ends all” for the childless. We can invest ourselves emotionally and tangibly in the future of our species, whether or not our own “germ-plasm” is afloat downstream.

“The production of satisfactory children is a difficult constructive work capable of affording profound satisfaction.” Yes, but don’t take too much credit for the production process – especially if you employ a nurse and nanny. And consider Uncle Albert’s observation: “Being both a father and a teacher I know we can teach our children nothing.”

As for work: I do feel sorry for those whose work does not challenge, who must “prostitute” themselves to corporate “Philistines,” or who simply find themselves devoting long hours to labor that seems Sisyphean at best. But as we’ve noted, he coped and found happiness. We shouldn’t quit either. (But maybe some of us should quit one rock and seek another, they’re not all the same.)
Speaking of Einstein (and Spinoza.. though for me it immediately conjures neither of them, but Sagan instead): Russell is again at his best when he evokes the cosmic perspective, with its appreciation of the calendrical brevity of life and its mind-opening, soul-expanding promise that “if you have attained to this outlook, a certain deep happiness will never leave you.” With this outlook, when I can manage to muster it, I too am in church and in the spirit of A Free Man’s Worship.

5:40/6:34, 31/59

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