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Happiness like glass

8 May

Glass SlipperOn a whim I’ve been reading G.K.Chesterton’s nonfiction book Orthodoxy. In the chapter called ‘The Ethics of Elfland’, he talks about his belief in fairy tales:

They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense….Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old  Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.

Chesterton proceeds to tell us what he has learnt from his childhood immersion in Fairyland or ‘Elfland’: 

I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.

Existence for Chesterton is a surprise, but it is a pleasant surprise, one we do well not to take for granted, nor to probe too insistently. ‘In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away.’

Commenting on the abundance of glass which we find in fairy tales – glass slippers, glass castles, glass hills, mirrors – he adds:

This thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.

But he reminds us, wisely, that being breakable is not the same as being perishable.

Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years. Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often,  it was not obvious why you should not do.

Now, the point here is that to me this did not seem unjust… If Cinderella says, “How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?” her godmother might answer, “How is it that you are going there till twelve?”… And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture.

I’m not totally sure what Chesterton is saying about happiness here, but I think it may be something akin to the rather irritating but useful maxim, ‘If it aint broke don’t fix it.’  Just be grateful you have it.  Happiness may come to us through small but wonderful things. ‘Men  might fast forty days for the sake of hearing a blackbird sing. Men might go through fire to find a cowslip.’ But generally they don’t have to do these difficult things. They just need to pay attention. Happiness is mysterious and we should not struggle to enhance it. 

 A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.

One gate is enough.