Saturday, July 18

We Are So Happy

I am deeply suspicious of people who sing about being happy. They are, as a rule, either liars or scoundrels. It’s not that I doubt that there are people who are truly happy in this world, I’m often one of them, but I am skeptical that the people who are truly happy are singing about it, and I am certain that they are not singing well about it.

While most of these joyful minstrels are liars, some of them, the ones who actually are happy, are just jerks. If one is genuinely happy and feels the need to express it in lyrics over a snappy beat, how can he be anything but a jerk?

Things are great for you? That’s terrific. It really is, but have you looked around at the world lately? To a lot of people, maybe to most people, the world is a kind of rotten place. Sure there are flowers, but flowers cause sneezing; there is love but love leads to heartache. And those are just the things with an upside. There are a whole host of other clouds that have linings made of soot. Try finding the upside of hunger, war, poverty or Dave Matthews fans. Singing about how happy you are floating on your cloud of good fortune is to giving a swift kick in the kidneys to the rest of us who are mired in the mud of this fallen world. Please, be happy. It’s good to be happy. Just don’t put it to music and play it on a boom box on the subway.

Besides, the jerks’ music is lousy. Happy people don’t write good music. The good stuff comes from liars. Good music comes from negative emotions: pain, resentment or even just plain melancholy. The creative process is a way to deal with negativity and struggle and to, if not overcome them, at least manage them. To a creative soul happiness only comes, if it ever comes, after laying down a nasty 12 bar blues. So if you hear a catchy song about happiness, rest assured that the singer, no matter what he says, is at least miserable as you and probably more so.

This is a good theory on happy music. It is functional—it denigrates people who are happier than me as musical incompetents; it is logical—it explains why the evangelicals, who are so happy to have been born again, are so utterly incapable of producing decent rock; and it is coherent—I have yet to find any music that seriously challenges the findings. Happy music is either heartfelt, bad and preformed by an SOB, or good, insincere and performed by a secretly tortured soul.

Until yesterday, I had not found anything to undermine my theory, but as we all learned from Annie, orphans have a way of derailing the best-laid plans.

The orphans kept singing “We are so happy” over and over again. For my theory to hold, these orphans either needed to be either unhappy or dreadful singers and awful people. They were clearly good people and competent singers, which means that for my theory to hold, they had to be deeply unhappy. And here’s where we run in trouble. These kids were genuinely happy. I can smell phony a mile away. I’m like Holden Caufield without the pretension or stupid name, and I didn’t smell it on these kids.

By all rights they shouldn’t have been happy. The kids at Providence House, a rehab and vocational training facility in Nkokonjeru, Uganda run by the Little Sisters of St. Francis, had every right to be miserable. On paper, they should have been perfect candidates for a Sally Struthers commercial, little urchins with flies in their eyes. Yet there they were singing.

“We are so happy.”

The lucky ones were just orphans, healthy young people who’s parents had succumbed to the misfortunes that plague an impoverished people. Others would have been lucky to be orphans. Their parents had sold them for use in witchcraft and their bodies bore the scars of the occult. Still more suffered from heads swollen by hydrocephaly, legs shriveled by polio or minds hobbled by retardation.

“We are so happy.”

They meant it.

These kids had lost the birth lottery. Born in a poor country, with poor health care to poor families, they were destined for lives of misery and hardship. But somewhere along the line there was a second lottery, and their tickets came out winners. In the rough heart of a rough continent, somehow they had found a place for them, a good place.

It is a place where the priest says mass to the thump of African drums. It is a place where the sweet smell of baking bread and the sour stench of the piggery combine to form the piquant bouquet of schemes to keep just enough money rolling in. It is a place where children who have no one can have, at least, each other. It is a place, where, contrary to everything I have postulated, decent, happy people can sing decent, happy songs.

The nuns call it Providence House because the funding plan relies heavily on divine providence. While the sisters follow the biblical dictum that God helps those who help themselves by planting gardens and teaching trades, they have a quiet confidence that when the red ink turns a deeper crimson, God will provide.

And so he does.

I am not a religious man. I do not believe in divine intervention in mortal affairs, destiny, or that good will always triumph over evil. I believe in coincidence, chance and, sadly, entropy.

Providence House is testing my lack of faith.

My parents, currently the only people gainfully employed in my family, asked me to make a donation to some worthy cause in my little Ugandan town on their behalf. At the recommendation of the local Peace Corps contingent, I settled on Providence.

When I went to make the transaction, Sister Juliet a warm, bespectacled nun, could not, having met me only briefly before, remember my name.

“You are called… Richard,” she said, uncertainly.

I am not called Richard.

My father, one source of the donation, however, is. It was as though Sister Juliet had seen through the medium to the source. It wasn’t as dramatic as if she had accidentally called me Susan, my mother’s name, but it remained curiously coincidental. Almost like a sign…

The donation had occasioned the singing. The children, in celebration of the donation and the contributions of time and energy by my colleagues from Duke, put on a show for us where wave after wave of children sang about how happy they are, interrupted periodically by an older child praying for us and my family.

Because of my parents they get beans, soap and seeds, because of my colleagues, they get a few precious moments of attention and affection. They need so much, and get so little, but today, at least, it is enough. And for them enough is everything. For them, enough is something to be happy about, and yes, something to sing about.

And so they sang and sang beautifully, neither jerks nor liars, neither hopeless nor helpless. They sang and proved me wrong. They sang and showed perhaps the world is not such a rotten place, that joyful music can come from joyful hearts.

“We are so happy.”

“We are so happy.”

“We are so happy.”

And I’m so happy too. I’m just not ready to sing about it.