For those fortunate enough to experience love’s first physical touch, the accompanying rush of joy is unforgettable. Whether it comes as the the warmth of a newborn child held against a parents chest or the first time hands are held between partners who will spend a lifetime together, the accompanying shiver of ecstasy etches an indelible memory.
I put up a wren house behind our place last fall, hoping to reproduce a childhood experience of being awakened by the energetic song of a pair nesting in the woodpile outside my bedroom. This spring a cascade of lusty trills broadcast success. https://www.almanac.com/content/bird-sounds-house-wren A pair of house wrens were romping about like a pair of smitten lovers. Hopping from branch to branch, their trembling bodies radiated ecstatic energy. Every few seconds one of them would pop into the box entrance, stay inside for a bit, then pop back out. Then they both would do a whole body shiver. It was a scene of pure joy.
Some would dismiss that description as baloney. Alexandra Coughlan in her review of Richard Smyth’s book A Sweet Wild Note reflects common wisdom: “Birds sing not for joy or exultation, as the poets would have us believe, but for immensely practical reasons. They need to advertise for a mate, mark their territory or warn other birds of danger.” She may be right, though I believe something more was going on with those two wrens. First, they’d already found each other. Second, there wasn’t any other bird around against which they needed to protect their discovery of a perfect nest site. And third, there was no danger in the vicinity. Those birds certainly looked as though they were celebrating their discovery of one another and of finding the perfect place to raise a family.
Quintessentially joyous events – falling in love, experiencing the birth of a child, hearing one’s true love say “I do”, learning of a loved one’s recovery from a serious illness – are mostly even more about the future than the present. Pleasure is feeling good now. Joy is certainly pleasurable now but it is multiplied by the anticipation of intense pleasure in the future. Happiness is a toned down version of joy. Ecstasy is joy spiritualized.
One isn’t smitten by pleasure or even happiness but one can be smitten by joy. It often comes unexpectedly and typically evokes a physical response at the smiting moment: hopping, dancing, clapping, shouting – for joy. The word apparently has its roots in the Latin – gaudere – to rejoice – and the Oxford English Dictionary says of rejoice “To feel or show great happiness.” (italics mine). Assuming those wrens were experiencing great happiness, they were clearly showing it.
Some scientists – Richard Dawkins prominent among them – theorize that all of existence consists only of matter and energy as we know them. He and his fellow evangelical ontological materialists urge us to believe that ideas and feelings are exclusively explained by electrical discharges careening along a network of biological wires. Joy, for them, is fully explained by a physical brain some of whose hypercomplex connections have been made super-efficient by a sudden dopamine bath. Watching those wrens, and reflecting on my own firsthand experiences with the undeniable substantiveness of a flush of joy, I find that explanation hard to swallow.
Philosopher Thomas Nagel comes at the issue from a different direction, arguing that the most undeniable element of reality is the primacy of our own perceptions, thoughts and feelings. The physical stuff follows. That goes down better for me.
Stephen Hawking says that a theory is basically a model for making predictions. He’s given some thought to how to tell a good theory from a not so good one and offers up four criteria which the ideal theory should fulfill. “1. It is elegant. 2. It contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements. 3. It agrees with and explains all existing observations and 4. It can make detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.”
Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmology, he says, was a fairly satisfactory model of reality given the mathematics and instruments of his time, though it required some arbitrary tweaking to create an accurate calendar. Then Copernicus, using more sophisticated math and more careful geometric measurements, demonstrated the superiority of a heliocentric view of the solar system in predicting the movement of the planets and producing a calendar with fewer illogical fudge factors. Copernicus’s view, Hawking says, better fulfilled the four elements of a good scientific theory.
Nagel’s view fulfills the Hawking criteria a lot better than Dawkins’. Elegance? For something to be perceived as elegant, it must create a feeling of rightness in the observer. Adjustable elements? The face reality of a perceived intense feeling requires no arbitrary or adjustable elements. Explaining all existing observations(aka perceptions)? Well yeah! But when it comes to making detailed predictions about the future, our ideas and feelings do fall short, as efforts to time the stock market prove time and again! The evangelical materialists miss all of Hawkings’ criteria. At least Nagel gets three out of four.
I got used to the happy avian couple singing and dancing around their little house for a couple of days, but then they vanished. A cat on the loose had been prowling the neighborhood and I suspected that one of the wrens had fallen prey to that critter’s feline instincts. I was sad that the pair didn’t complete their nest but I imagine the remaining mate felt much worse. Grief comes to mind.
The high altitude thrill of a joyous event undoubtedly risks grief should tragedy befall the object of one’s delight. Viewed from 100,000 feet, the trajectory of my own mortal span (for which I don’t recall signing a contract) ends in some pretty significant losses and goodbyes, at least as we currently understand things. In the meantime, though, knowing how fragile and ephemeral joyous things are makes them all the more precious.