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Volume 38 Issue 10 • July 3 - 9, 2008
now in our 38th season

Jefferson's Folly

by Robert P. Barsanti

Sometime on the fourth of July, a group of civic minded individuals will stand together at the Unitarian Church, under the town clock, and will read the Declaration of Independence to the passing trucks and cars, the water fight warriors, and the occasional patriot in search of shade.

Nantucket is an odd place to read  “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”  aloud.  Two hundred and some odd years ago, Nantucketers weren’t anxious at all to walk away from our number one customer.  If they wanted to keep the streets of Hyde Park and the West End well lit, we would be more than willing to send them all of the Winter Press Spermaceti Oil they could use.  We didn’t want independence from them and we certainly didn’t want them to declare independence from us.  No matter what we wished, Jefferson had his say, Hancock signed it, and the fateful letter made its way to King George.

Generations later, thousands of people pursue happiness to our shores.  An old colleague of mine, while she was sipping a gin and tonic at Jetties beach, would hoist the plastic seashell glass to the arriving boat:  “Some people work 51 weeks a year just to spend one week on Nantucket.”  While they are here, I’m sure it is a good trade.  They go off to the south shore, park behind a dune, and sit at the feet of the Atlantic for hours.  They chase a golf ball through the weeds at Skinner’s while cumulus clipper ships drift overhead.  They set the mainsail and reach for Great Point or the set the hook and reach for the striper.  Then, at night, they can eat free range, grass fed lobsters and listen for the Cobbletones downtown.  If there ever was a place where happiness could get pursued and cornered, Nantucket would be it. 

Happiness never quite makes up in height what it lacks in length.  Day trips sadly toss their pennies in the evening, vowing to become a weekend.  Weekends stretch for two weeks, and two-week tries to grow to a month.  A month looks to the summer, and summer looks for a realtor.  Out here, if you pursue happiness long enough, you will wind up looking at a hole in the sand, his-and-her master bathrooms, and a view that doesn’t make you as happy as that other guy’s. 

To, live, have liberty, and declare independence for that one week, or even for that one summer, has come to mean that you must declare dependence for the rest of the year.  Your pursuit is fueled by managers, executive assistants, clients and stockholders.  The more precious your happiness, the more your dependence.

Pursuing happiness, otherwise, requires a time machine.  We had it in the past, lost it today, but we hope to find it tomorrow.  The shops were cheaper, the paychecks were bigger, the roads less cluttered, and the nights were still and silent.  We were all younger too, without the mortgages or waistlines that came to us suddenly in middle age.  Gatsby ran the same race, arms wide open, racing to recreate the past.  More than that, we didn’t know how quickly it all bleeds away on us.  Every summer doesn’t have watermelon creams, boogie boards, and trips to the carnival.  The later ones have depositions, memos, and two-week training sessions in Plano. 

If we spend 51 weeks a year pursuing happiness, that one week can’t make up for the drudgery, heartache, and penury of the rest of the year.  Jefferson knew that, I would suspect.  Anyone who built Monticello, created his huge library, and messed about in the garden didn’t have the “Work 51 for 1 Week Off” mindset. 

I suspect he had more of a Greek ideal of Happiness.  One of the Greek phrases for happiness is “Eu Zen”  which is much more about living well than vacationing well.  The Reverend Peter Gomes, hard at it in Cambridge, defines happiness as “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope.” After you wash the Harvard off of that, he seems to say that you are happy doing what you love and making a difference. 

I think it takes a while before people figure out that the best work is play.  I think you have to spend a lot of time making just enough money at Dunder Mifflin so that you can have two-for-ones at Ruby Tuesdays before you realize that this isn’t the happiness you sought.  If happiness only lasts from 4-6 at the Ruby Tuesdays on the Interstate, near the Mall, maybe you have messed up your own Declaration of Independence.

Very few of us think we can declare independence the way the Jefferson and the Greeks intended.  I don’t know too many people who are pursuing the right happiness, never mind catching it.  My father, my mother, my brother, and I occasionally find moments of grace amid hours of drudgery.  Those whose kites have caught the wind are familiar to those on island.  One cuts people and another one heals them.  One builds houses and another heats them.  One paints what he sees and another writes what he doesn’t. 

The “pursuit of happiness” may not even be worth it in the end.  Neither Jefferson, nor the Greeks, had much to say about spouses, children, health or paying the rent.  The “pursuit of happiness” seems to be limited to wealthy males with supportive wives and fearless paupers.  The happy childless woodcarver freezes to death, alone, as fast as anyone else. 

I would like to believe that the “Pursuit of Happiness” produces worthwhile art, at least.  Ironically, the Whaling Museum may be the best place to see it still.  Jose Reyes, Benjamin Bunker, Charles Ray, Walter Folger, and his great grandson James all worked on what made them happy.  It didn’t build them an acre under air with black marble bathrooms and a home theater, but they never had to sit in a goal-setting meeting at a retreat with the primary stockholders.

This must be why the “pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right, not happiness (or property).  Jefferson must have realized that very few of us would be able to land that fish, but he wanted us all to be free to cast for it.

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