In books, movies, plays, television, my favorite scenes are often moments of transcendence—when, in the muddle of existence, characters somehow manage to break through everything to engage with each other, and with higher values.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of moments like this from Gilead, The Wire, Friends, Steel Magnolias, the play Bug which has haunted me for years…such moments are the principal subject of Flannery O’Connor.
I also look for them in real life.
For instance, a few weeks ago, I was talking to a bunch of first-year medical students about happiness—mostly, I was pestering them to get enough sleep. At one point, an older doctor jumped into the conversation. “Remember,” he said to them earnestly, “you’re going to be doctors. That work is really going to bring you a lot of happiness.”
This comment lifted the conversation to a new level. Not that I think everyone should be a doctor, but it’s true: being a doctor is a rare privilege. To be able to help heal people, and to relieve pain.
This moment reminded me of other times when I felt a moment of transcendence related to people’s work. For instance, the way I felt the first time I saw Justice O’Connor wearing her judicial robes. Justice O’Connor is very friendly and kind, but she’s a formidable person even at her most casual. Even so, when I saw her wearing those robes, I saw her transformed; I think I actually took a step backward. To be charged to do justice is a very solemn thing, and seeing her in her robes conveyed that point, more powerfully than you might expect.
And I remember when I stopped by the studio of a friend who is a brilliant painter. His studio was everything you’d imagine: skylight, canvases everywhere, plaster models, coffee cans filled with brushes, all of it.
“Wait, I just have to finish one thing,” he told me, and he added a few more strokes of paint to a landscape he was working on.
I looked around at everything, so beautiful. “Jacob, you are lucky,” I said, in a fierce voice.
“I know,” he said. “I know.”
In the rush of our daily routines, it’s so easy to miss moments of transcendence. In art, they are masterfully presented, with language and emphasis that set them apart like jewels. In ordinary life, they rush by. I try to remind myself to look for them every day.
How about you? How do you remind yourself to look for moments of transcendence in the midst of everyday life?
I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in—no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.