Looking Forward

You’ve left the house, walked just a few steps, and notice something: Your shoulders aren’t hunched defensively against the cold. Your pores, which for months had been sealed tight, unclench and breathe. There’s no scarf half asphyxiating you, no mildly embarrassing hunk of wool on your head.

It must be spring.

Heaven. That’s what it’s supposed to be, and what it is for a lot of people. And that’s how I’ll soon experience it too. But, sometimes, at the outset, all that beauty and softness, all those rich and succulent smells, all that blooming and renewal gives me a solid week of the blues.

It’s hard to be happy on cue. Our inner mood clocks often don’t keep time with the occasion or season we’re expected to celebrate. Moments of true joy more often come unbidden and unplanned.

Anyway, here is my paradox. Spring is about birth, new life, and beginnings and, for me, brings melancholy. Autumn may be about death and endings, but for me and many others, it’s happy. How could this be?

Probably some of it is that no matter how old we are, a lot of us still move to the rhythms of the school year. September is about fresh starts—the clean smell of new leather shoes, new plans, and new fantasies. I’m gonna study really hard this year—I’m gonna be really nice and really popular—I’m gonna lose weight, make the team, run for class rep.

We remember all that, carry it through our lives, and with the change of seasons, resummon those old memories.

But that’s only part of it. Spring makes demands: Be upbeat, grateful, enjoy. Autumn, when trees turn dry and dark and the world turns muted, makes no demands. But since a certain melancholy is appropriate we, contrary humans that we are, can’t help but consider the good points. The landscape isn’t bleak, but interesting. I think I’ll pick up some cider. Let’s go look at the leaves.

A recent illustration of this phenomenon came a few months ago during the blizzard that swept the eastern part of the country. Everyone was “in crisis” and “enduring an onslaught”—cars buried in snow, schools and stores closed, no mail. Naturally, normally semisurly New Yorkers were made sweet and good-natured by the crisis, and the empty streets became winter playgrounds, with kids and parents out sledding, skiing, and having snowball fights. They were told to endure. Instead they had a party.

So often the most festive events Christmas, New Year’s, even the birth of a baby—trigger a letdown rather than a lift. I blame some of this on the Happiness Cult. It replaced the Seriousness Cult, which ended about the year 1900. If you don’t know what the Seriousness Cult was, go look at a picture of Queen Victoria. She was its poster girl. Her face says it all: Life is earnest; we weren’t put here to have a good time.

The Happiness Cult is driven by affluence and advertising and insists that everyone has to have a feeling of lighthearted satisfaction, especially at events, celebrations, and holidays. But during the days of the Seriousness Cult, happiness wasn’t the purpose of holidays. Christmas was actually considered a religious observance calling for worship and meditation. New Year’s was an occasion not for revelry but a cold night to stay in with warm cider. Autumn was harvesttime, a time to reap. And spring meant work: planting and digging and bending down in the sun. You didn’t have to be happy, you just had to get the job done.

This is what I do with holidays, seasons, and events that in our current era demand happiness: I remember that Christmas is, if not somber, at least serious, that New Year’s, birthdays, and the transition to spring are times for reflection and reappraisal. Any happiness that surrounds them comes as an unexpected gift.

Of course, the gift does come. Because it’s hard to be serious and somber when you’re supposed to be. You wind up feeling like the old English farmer who said, “I meant to be a philosopher, but happiness kept breaking through.” I try to be earnest—and wind up seeing the sweetness around me, and feeling the warmth. Happiness breaks through, if not on cue, at least always in time. And I enjoy and am grateful.