2006-12-22

the wisdom of the sands - antoine de saint-exupéry

Thus was it that I made a step towards the understanding of happiness, and came to grips with the problem happiness propounds. I saw it as a fruit of the choice of a ceremonial that creates a happy soul; and not as a sterile gift of bright futilities. For it is impossible to confer happiness on men, as something they can store up and possess. Thus my father had nothing he could have given those Berber refugees which would have made them happy; whereas in the bleakest desert and under conditions of the cruellest privation I have seen men whose faces shone with joy.
But think not that for a moment I believe your happiness will be born of privations, loneliness, or the desert. For these can equally well drive you to despair. But I would have you mark the example I have given, which, drawing a clear distinction between the happiness of men and the comforts furnished them, shows that their happiness depends wholly on the nature of the ceremonial in which they participate.
And though experience has shown me that a greater proportion of happy men is to be found in deserts, monasteries, and conditions of self-sacrifice, than amongst the sedentaries of the rich oases or in isles that men call "happy," I have not drawn therefrom the conclusion - which would be inept - that the quality of men's food is antithetic to the quality of their happiness. My conclusion is simply that wherever the good things of the world are most abundant men have more chances of deceiving themselves as to the nature of their joys, for these seem to emanate from those good things, though in reality they derive solely from the meaning those things acquire in a certain empire or domain or dwelling-place. Thus in prosperous conditions they may be apter to deceive themselves and hanker after riches that are but idle toys.
Whereas, being without possessions, those of the desert and the monastery can make no mistake as to whence their joys derive; and thus it is easier for them to keep unscathed the source of their fervor.
But here, once again, the issue is like that of the enemy who makes or breaks you. For if, perceiving the true source of whence it springs, you can preserve your fervor in the happy isle or the rich oasis, the man born within you of this fervor will be still greater; even as you may hope to obtain richer sounds from an instrument with many strings than from one with but a single string. And even as the excellence of the wood and the stonework, the meat and drink, could but ennoble yet more my father's palace, where every footstep had a meaning.
And likewise is it with the new-made ornaments which serve no purpose when stored in a shop, and acquire a meaning only when unpacked from their boxes and given their places in a dwelling, beautifying it.

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