Each time I come to New Zealand I make a pilgrimage to the top of North Island, to Cape Reinga, the place from whence the Maori spirits depart. When I first came here, the last 20 kilometres of road after Waitiki Landing were unsealed, and the roller-coaster dirt track heavily rutted; you completed the journey leaving a cloud of dust in your wake. Now the tour buses whisk the Japanese tourists up the super highway and deposit them in the overflow carpark by the toilet facilities a short walk from the lighthouse which looks out over the sun-kissed surf, where the waters of the Tasman and the Pacific meet. I come here, but more important to me is the journey to Te Paki stream and Ninety Mile Beach. You hang a left at Te Paki Station about four kilometres north of Waitiki Landing, and take the dirt track across pleasant pasture land down to the enormous sand dunes.
When I first discovered this place more than 30 years ago, it was deserted. Nowadays it has become a tourist trap because of the craze of sand-boarding down the dunes. I can’t begrudge the local economy this bonanza, nor that the tour buses should head down the stream to drive up to the Cape via the beach. I can still kick off my shoes and slosh down the stream to the ocean. Once past the dunes, by and large, I have the place to myself. Like climbing a mountain, this is a pilgrimage of transfiguration. Your cares, whatever they may be, fall away, and you see the world through fresh eyes. Then, just as you would have to come back down a mountain, you must duly make your way back up Te Paki stream and head inland.
This time, as I walked towards the ocean, unaccountably, I found myself thinking about happiness. L’s daughter L said, “I’m so happy”, and, an ocean and a continent away, L’s exact contemporary M, daughter of G and J, said, “I’m so happy.” G being an expat Scot cautioned her, “Don’t say that!” It’s a fey, Celtic superstition – don’t tempt fate. Dick Hannay’s young wife Mary felt as much in The Three Hostages when she looked at their most pleasant haven, Fosse Manor in Oxfordshire, and shivered. Aidos.
But should we be fearful of happiness? The Pursuit of Happiness is writ into the US Constitution, as an inalienable right, along with Life and Liberty. Not only that, but that it should be so is held to be a truth self-evident. When I was at school my mother would often say to me, “I don’t care what you do, so long as you are happy.” I didn’t pay the slightest attention. I now realise that she meant this with all her heart and soul. She was completely indifferent to academic achievement, status, wealth, power, “getting ahead”.
Yet she was a lone voice. I can’t think the school was much interested in my personal happiness. It was more concerned that I turn up on time, homework done, pay attention, and conform. I suppose the school peddled a sort of esprit de corps. I went to a state school in the west end of Glasgow. I realise now its structure was modelled on that of an English public school, albeit with a tartan gloss, whose raison d’etre, the nurture of Empire, had become obsolete. There was a House system. There were four houses – Bruce, Wallace, Scott, and Burns. I was in Burns House. I was glad to be on the side of the pen rather than the sword. There were prizes for academic and for sporting achievement. You were applauded for being First – at History or English or Maths or the 100 metres or the high jump. Captain of the First Fifteen. Well done. There were no prizes for being happy.
It’s easy to state that it is more important to be happy than to be wealthy, and yet the attack on happiness can seem quite convincing. Some profound philosophers have spoken out against the pursuit of happiness and considered that happiness is a by-product of something else. You devote yourself to some kind of higher calling and perhaps along the way you will discover that you are happy. You will be surprised by happiness much as C. S. Lewis was Surprised by Joy. But if you make happiness your goal, it will just evaporate. Somebody once compared happiness to a body of water held by a riddle being pulled through the sea. So long as the riddle is submerged and moving it holds the water; but stop, and bring the riddle to the surface, and you find that it is empty.
I have a notion that this is nothing more than a piece of propaganda, manufactured by people who would wish you to take on board the values of their “House System”, whatever they might be. As the last line of the Desiderata states, “Strive to be happy.” This raises the question of what happiness is. Perhaps it is easier to say what it is not. It is not pleasure, nor gratification, nor ecstasy, though it may contain all of these at one time or another. It isn’t even the absence of pain or anxiety. Rather it seems to me to be a sense that the decisions we take in our lives, our “pursuits”, our “striving”, contain within them a sense that what we are about is fundamentally right for ourselves, that what we choose to do is not an act of violence against our own nature, but rather a profoundly natural fulfilment of that which we are called upon to do. Whatsoever things are right, and just, and true, and of good report… If you are deeply involved in your own calling, then you may by some mysterious grace know the deep peace of happiness.
At Ninety Mile Beach, I resolved to continue to read and write. At the other end of this vast shoreline, at Waipapakauri and at Lake Gnatu, this stayed with me, the devotion to Letters. It’s what I do.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste.