For the Fourth of July I attended a Bar Mitzvah. This was a progressive temple, and the rabbi, who was a very relaxed and happy fellow, ended the service by quoting the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. I don’t do particularly well at services of any kind, particularly services that employ a language other than English, and I was at the point where I was starting to get a little bleary and wondering what the menu for the post-service luncheon would be.
Yet when the rabbi came to the passage explaining how all men are created equal and about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I found, to my own astonishment, I was becoming a little choked up. “What a patriot!” you say. Well, not exactly. But I am a fan of democracy in general because it acknowledges the fundamental truth that life is a choice, is an endless series of choices, extending all the way to the voting booth.
But what really gets me is the pursuit of happiness. That in the sixteenth century, before the internet and psychoanalysis and Marx and public education, someone took the time to put onto paper that a function of a government is to allow its citizens to pursue happiness. Not food and shelter and mere safety but happiness.
This, to me, has always been the point of writing and the arts in general. There is nothing practical about stories or songs or paintings. All these things do is make you feel good—or not. Either way, the arts have always embodied pursuing happiness. When I was a child, I couldn’t imagine being anything other than an artist of some kind. What better job than to try to make people happy? Why, it’s not even a job at all.
But I think it’s appropriate that the pursuit of happiness is honored on Independence Day. Happiness is a thoroughly inside-out job. Without the liberty to pursue it exactly as you see fit, you will never completely know it. So light another firecracker for old Tom Jefferson. I think he wrote those words for us, not just to start a new nation, but from his heart from one person to another. That is the source of all the lights that guide us on, in politics or in love: that desire to share what it truly means to be a free and happy human being.