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Pursuit of Happiness: Jefferson, Chief Seattle, Helen Keller

I’m 17 or 18 and my parents have decided to buy me a new typewriter to replace the old East German “Optima” I’ve shared with my siblings since junior high! (Not sure to this day how we got an East German typewriter during the Cold War-nutty 50s and 60s, but… it worked well, even if it was heavy as a Volkswagon!) This is to be my “celebration” typewriter—now that I’m first in my extended family to go to college! 

thomas jefferson

I spool the sheet of paper into place, a little past the new, inky red and black ribbon. Sweet, clicking sound as I roll; cold feel of metal against my palm as I slap the shiny return lever! The tactility of it all, the smell of it all!—something our electronically attuned youth will never know in their digitalized shell-worlds. I type from memory:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

What a sentence! That conditional clause runs on like a cheetah, but all the elements pounce into place with the impulsion of the predicate. I continue whirling:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. … That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

That, in my tender years, is the essence of the country I know and love, as stated inimitably by Thomas Jefferson, one of the greatest men and loftiest thinkers who ever lived. And so I memorized his words, as I’d memorized the “Gettysburg Address,” parts of Shakespeare, parts of the Bible—truth and beauty merged in immortal prose or verse.

But years and decades can abrade tenderness, and now, twice the age of Jefferson when he wrote The Declaration of Independence (assisted by Ben Franklin and John Adams), I find the words hollow as a great brass bell, ringing throatily, but with cracks to drive an SUV through!

chief seattle

Hasn’t this “pursuit of happiness” been our undoing? Whose happiness? How to attain it? The slave-holder’s happiness, but not the tenant farmer’s (let alone the slave’s)? The settler’s happiness, but not the Tribal People’s? The billionaire’s happiness or the minimum wage-earner’s?

We define happiness in very personal terms… and there’s never an end to it—not enough material goods, not enough attractive mates, not enough life and “happiness” to go around! And so, we’re on a treadmill, and wind up pursuing unhappiness, never able to sate our appetites—constantly stoked by an advertising, consumerist ethos enjoining more and more and more.

“Life” and “liberty” likewise are merely words, memes we need not analyze. Of course, everyone desires these, but what happens when my life and liberty infringe upon another’s (as has so often been the case in the story of America)?

If only Jefferson had written about the “pursuit of wisdom”—we’d have had a challenge worthy of a free and noble people. For, “where shall wisdom be found?” And, “where is the place of understanding?” we read in the world’s first great drama, The Book of Job.

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Now in this burgeoning new millennium our old republic has lost its intellectual and moral moorings, jolting from crisis to crisis. In Jefferson’s time we were all about separating ourselves from our “Mother Country,” and we have been on a rampage ever since to define ourselves as “exceptional,” with a “manifest destiny.” And we have ransacked the planet to prove it! But, if we are to survive this century, we best learn how to reconnect—with ourselves, our global neighbors, Nature. The wise words I turn to now were written in 1852 by Chief Seattle, in response to a US government inquiry about buying tribal lands.

“But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land?... If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

hellen keller

“Every part of this earth is sacred. … Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people. … We are part of the earth and it is part of us. … What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

“This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that connects us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. …

“Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all.”

When I seek words of wisdom, I turn to the woman stricken by a disease at 18 months of age, leaving her blind and deaf for the next 86 years of her life:

“It is said that success is happiness. I think good-will and service to all men are the true kind of happiness. They are things that endure,” wrote Helen Keller at 50.

And, at 56: “Some people are foolish enough to imagine that wealth and power and fame satisfy our hearts: but they never do, unless they are used to create and distribute happiness in the world.”


And, as a touchstone to her remarkably activist life: “There are no such things as divine, immutable or inalienable rights. Rights are things we get when we are strong enough to make good our claim to them.”

Gary Corseri

Tuesday, 1 October 2013