As children my sister and I were taught to sing: "Count your blessings. Name them one by one. Count your blessings. See what God has done!"
It was understood that as good Christian children we should be cheerful. We were surrounded by people who maintained "that all was for the best in the best of worlds"—despite our often seeing that it was not the truth. Even as children, we were aware, growing up in South Africa during the apartheid period, that there was great injustice and suffering around us. "Why," we asked, "Did all the black people have to stand in a long line waiting for hours for a crowded bus while the white buses were empty?"
Later, when I married a Jewish man, he told me I needed to learn to kvetch, which I understood was to complain. Indeed, the sort of relentless optimism of my childhood often masked great unhappiness and hidden secrets, which a child could sense and which festered beneath a surface of apparent calm and gentility. Better to speak up and air legitimate grievances. It is necessary to explore the darkest recesses of our minds.
So where do we look if we seek happiness? Where do we turn if we wish to lift up our hearts? Perhaps the great writers have some of the answers for us. So often they have turned to the beauties of nature.
I think of the great Russian writer Chekhov, who suffered so much in his short life. Born the third son of a man who had started his life as a serf, he was beaten daily and dragged to endless church services where the father was a choirmaster. After school the father made the boys work in the family store, where he had been able to eek out a living, having entered the merchant class. When Chekhov was finally liberated as an adolescent and able to visit his grandparents in the countryside, in the steppe around the town in Southern Russia where he was born, he was filled with joy: "And then you begin to feel triumphant beauty, youth, strength, and a passionate thirst for life," he wrote. His joy in the vast flat stretches of land is palpable in his work.
We turn not just to nature but to one another: to our friends, our families—children, husbands, and wives—to those mundane and sustaining relationships. And we remember surely, not just to count our blessings but to recall also our griefs: those loved ones we have lost but have continued to cherish. Joy then becomes an act of courage, a leap of faith, and we remember that the world is worth loving, that happiness is there for us to grasp.
Sheila Kohler is the author of 13 books of fiction and most recently a memoir, Once We Were Sisters.
"The Steppe" by Anton Chekhov
"Candide" by Voltaire