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Exuberance: The Passion for Lifeby Kay Redfield Jamison
"Incapable of Being Indifferent"
It is a curious request to make of God. Shield your joyous ones, asks the Anglican prayer: Shield your joyous ones. God more usually is asked to watch over those who are ill or in despair, as indeed the rest of the prayer makes clear. "Watch now those who weep this day," it goes. "Rest your weary ones; soothe your suffering ones." The joyous tend to be left to their own devices, the exuberant even more so.
Perhaps this is just as well. Those inclined toward exuberance have enjoyed the benign neglect of my field. Psychologists, for reasons of clinical necessity or vagaries of temperament, have chosen to dissect and catalogue the morbid emotions-depression, anger, anxiety-and to leave largely unexamined the more vital, positive ones. Not unlike God, if only in this one regard, my colleagues and I have tended more to those in the darkness than to those in the light. We have given sorrow many words, but a passion for life few.
Yet it is the infectious energies of exuberance that proclaim and disperse much of what is marvelous in life. Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go-across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination-and if we ourselves are not so exuberant we will, caught up in the contagious joy of those who are,
be inclined collectively to go yonder. By its pleasures, exuberance lures us from our common places and quieter moods; and-after the victory, the harvest, the discovery of a new idea or an unfamiliar place-it gives ascendant reason to venture forth all over again. Delight is its own reward, adventure its own pleasure.
Exuberance is an abounding, ebullient, effervescent emotion. It is kinetic and unrestrained, joyful, irrepressible. It is not happiness, although they share a border. It is instead, at its core, a more restless, billowing state. Certainly it is no lulling sense of contentment: exuberance leaps, bubbles, and overflows, propels its energy through troop and tribe. It spreads upward and outward, like pollen toted by dancing bees, and in this carrying ideas are moved and actions taken. Yet exuberance and joy are fragile matter. Bubbles burst; a wince of disapproval can cut dead a whistle or abort a cartwheel. The exuberant move above the horizon, exposed and vulnerable.
Exuberance keeps occasional company with grief, though grief may command the greater mention. Blake's belief that "Under every grief & pine/Runs a joy with silken twine" is a received theme in folklore. Our greatest joys and sorrows ripen on the same vine, says the American proverb. Danger and delight grow on one stalk, maintains the English one. Intense emotions inhabit a correspondent territory: joy may be our wings and sorrow our spurs, but the boundaries between the moods are open. Wings and high moods are shivery things; the joyous do indeed need shielding.
Exuberance is a vital emotion; it demands not only defense but exposure, for despair far more than joy has found sympathy with poets and scholars. Joy lacks the gravitas that suffering so effortlessly commands. Joy without reflection is evanescent; without counterweight, it has no weight at all. Or so one would think.
Yet joy is essential to our existence. Exuberance, joy's more energetic relation, occupies an ancient region of our mammalian selves, and one to which we owe in no small measure our survival and triumphs. It is a material part of our pursuits-love, games, hunting and war, exploration-and it is a vibrant force to signal victory, proclaim a time to quicken, to draw together, to exult, to celebrate. Exuberance is ancient, material, and profound. "The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things," wrote Louis Pasteur. "They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language-the word 'enthusiasm'-en theos-a god within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears a god within, and who obeys it."
Like many essential human traits, exuberance is teeming in some and not to be caught sight of in others. For a few, exuberance is in the blood, an irrepressible life force. It may ebb and flow, but the underlying capacity for joy is as much a part of the person as having green eyes or a long waist. For them, as the psalm promises, a full joy cometh in the morning. Not so for most others. Exuberance is a more occasional thing, something to be experienced only at splendid moments of love or attainment, or known in youth but lost with time. The nonexuberant lack fizz and risibility: they need to be lifted up on the enthusiasm of others; roused by dance or drug; impelled by music. They do not kindle of their own accord.
Variation in temperament is necessary. Exuberance, indiscriminately apportioned, is anarchical. If all were effervescent, the world would be an exhausting and chaotic place, driven to incoherence by competing enthusiasms or becalmed by indifference to the day-to-day requirements of life. Our species, like most, is well served by a diversity of temperaments, a variety of energies and moods. Exuberance is a fermenting, pushing-upward-and-forward force, but sometimes fixity is critical to survival. The joyous, and the not so, need one another in order to survive.
I believe that exuberance is incomparably more important than we acknowledge. If, as it has been claimed, enthusiasm finds the opportunities and energy makes the most of them, a mood of mind that yokes the two is formidable indeed. Exuberant people take in the world and act upon it differently than those who are less lively and less energetically engaged. They hold their ideas with passion and delight, and they act upon them with dispatch. Their love of life and of adventure is palpable. Exuberance is a peculiarly pleasurable state, and in that pleasure is power.
"Why should man want to fly at all?" asked Charles Lindbergh. "People often ask these questions. But what civilization was not founded on adventure, and how long could one exist without it? Some answer the attainment of knowledge. Some say wealth, or power, is sufficient cause. I believe the risks I take are justified by the sheer love of the life I lead." Man's exuberant spirit of adventure, Lindbergh argued elsewhere, is beyond his power to control. "Our earliest records," he said, "tell of biting the apple and baiting the dragon, regardless of hardship or of danger, and from this inner drive, perhaps, progress and civilization developed. We moved from land to sea, to air, to space, era on era, our aspirations rising."
Psychologists, who in recent years have taken up the study of positive emotions, find that joy widens one's view of the world and expands imaginative thought. It activates. It makes both physical and intellectual exploration more likely, and it provides reward for problems solved or risks taken. Through its positive energies, it heals as well. One joy, the Chinese believe, scatters a hundred griefs, and certainly it can be an antidote to fatigue and discouragement. Into those set back by failure, joy transfuses hope.
Exuberance is also, at its quick, contagious. As it spreads pell-mell throughout a group, exuberance excites, it delights, and it dispels tension. It alerts the group to change and possibility. Ted Turner, who would know, believes a leader is someone with the ability to "create infectious enthusiasm." This is a defining quality of great teachers, statesmen, and adventurers. Put to good use, infectious enthusiasm is a wonderful thing; used badly, it is calamitous.
Mostly, exuberance is a bounty and a blessing. It has its dangers, and we shall examine them in depth, but it is, all told, an amazing thing. Amazing and, on occasion, transfiguring. This was indisputably the case in May 1903, when two bounding enthusiasts hiked together in Yosemite. One was the President of the United States, the other a Scottish celebrant of the American wilderness. They were both, by temperament, utterly incapable of being indifferent.
Life for Theodore Roosevelt, said one friend, was the "unpacking of endless Christmas stockings." This would have gotten no argument from Roosevelt, a man who well into his fifties delighted in Christmas as an occasion of "literally delirious joy," and who believed that the entirety of life was a Great Adventure. The man "who knows the great enthusiasms," he held, lays claim to the high triumphs of life.
Born in 1858 into one of New York City's wealthiest families, Theodore Roosevelt seems to have burst into the world a full-throated exuberant. For this, he owed a considerable debt to his father. "I never knew any one who got greater joy out of living than did my father," he wrote, and the seasons of his childhood, so beholden to his father's love and enthusiasms, "went by in a round of uninterrupted and enthralling pleasures." From his earliest days he exulted in life. At the age of ten, he wrote to his mother with breathless enthusiasm: "What an excitement to have received your letter. My mouth opened wide with astonish [sic] when I heard how many flowers were sent in to you. I could revel in the buggie ones. I jumped with delight when I found you heard the mocking bird."
Roosevelt, years later, was still jumping. One debutante said he did not so much dance as "hop." Another recounted his "unquenchable gaiety" and his unerring ability at formal dinner parties to send her into such uncontrollable fits of laughter that she had no choice but to leave the table. His Harvard classmates depicted him as a fast-moving, rapid-talking enthusiast who often wore them out with his boisterous exuberance. He held his far-flung interests with delight and stocked his college rooms with piles of books, a large tortoise, sundry snakes, and a collection of lobsters. He zoomed, he bolted, he boomed and gesticulated wildly as he went.
Roosevelt's vivacity receded when his father died. He felt, he said, as though "I should almost perish." It was a devastating loss. For the rest of his life he would miss, though himself incorporate, his father's rare mixture of infectious joy and keen sense of public duty. "Sometimes, when I fully realize my loss," he wrote in his diary a few months after his father's death, "I feel as if I should go mad."
Stoked by a restless energy not uncommon in those with exuberant temperaments, Roosevelt drove his desolation into action. He rowed, hiked, hunted, boxed, and swam furiously during the fevered weeks following his father's death. With slight cause other than annoyance he impetuously shot and killed a neighbor's dog. He nearly drove his horse into the ground through reckless gallops in the Oyster Bay countryside and was no easier on himself: "He'll kill himself before he'll even say he's tired," remarked one doctor of Roosevelt's frenetic behavior. Yet through it all there remained an irrepressible sense of life: "I am of a very buoyant temper," he wrote his sister not long after their father died. It was a temper that would serve him well and ill, but mostly well.
In the years immediately following his father's death, Roosevelt fell passionately in love, married, graduated from law school, and published the first of the nearly forty books he would go on to write. In 1881 he was elected to the New York State Assembly, where, as he put it, he "rose like a rocket." An ardent reformer, and lustily so throughout his political life, he became a mercurial, unstoppable irritant to his fellow Republicans.
Roosevelt's life in politics was abruptly broken when, on St. Valentine's Day of 1884, both his wife and his mother died. "You could not talk to him about it," said a close friend. He drew a cross in his diary for the date of the fourteenth of February and wrote, "The light has gone out of my life." In a pitch of energy reminiscent of the period following his father's death, Roosevelt abruptly took off for the Dakota Badlands, where he lived out his convic-tion that "black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough." He hunted, wrote an improbable number of books, and ran a cattle ranch. The hard work ultimately made wide inroads into his grief. "We felt the beat of hardy life in our veins," he wrote later in his autobiography, "and ours was the glory of work and the joy of living." Despite his distress, he said, "I enjoyed life to the full."
He returned to the East, remarried, and threw himself back into politics with gusto. He became a gale force in Washington. President Benjamin Harrison, who had appointed him civil service commissioner, said that the crusading Roosevelt "wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset." Rudyard Kipling found himself caught up in a gentler form of Roosevelt's persuasive energies and, like most, he was completely captivated. After dining with him one evening at the Cosmos Club in Washington, Kipling knew himself bewitched: "I curled up on the seat opposite and listened and wondered until the universe seemed to be spinning around and Theodore was the spinner."
Roosevelt loped onward from post to post. He served energetically as assistant secretary of the Navy, and then led the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, the "Rough Riders," during the Spanish-American War. His zest for war, as for life, knew few limits. He had, one journalist put it, enough "energy and enthusiasm to inspire a whole regiment." Roosevelt exulted that the war was "bully," "the great day" of his life. It was, he said, his "crowded hour." He seemed to relish his brushes with death as passionately as he loved the rest of life. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor and returned to politics a war hero, a legend. He was elected governor of New York and then, within a few years' time, vice president of the United States. When William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, Roosevelt became, at the age of forty-two, the youngest president in American history. He was also the liveliest.
The new president's exuberance was captured by a reporter from the New York Times: "The President goes from one to another . . . always speaking with great animation, gesturing freely, and in fact talking with his whole being, mouth, eyes, forehead, cheeks and neck all taking their mobile parts. . . . A hundred times a day the President will laugh, and when he laughs he does it with the same energy with which he talks. It is usually a roar of laughter, and it comes nearly every five minutes . . . sometimes he doubles up in paroxysm. You don't smile with Mr. Roosevelt; you shout with laughter with him, and then you shout again while he tries to cork up more laugh[ter] and sputters: 'Come gentlemen,let us be serious.' " Another journalist wrote, "You go into Roosevelt's presence . . . and you go home and wring the personality out of your clothes."
The White House rang out not only with laughter but with the squeals of children and the clattering of their ponies going up and down the marble stairs of the presidential mansion. Roosevelt was frequently to be found chasing or being chased by his children and their animals around the White House grounds. "You must always remember," said a British diplomat, "the President is about six." Certainly Roosevelt did nothing to dispel that impression. His zeal was infectious.
From the Hardcover edition.
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