03/18/2011 12:16 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

'A Thousand Twangling Instruments'

What would your superhero power be?

As far as parlor queries go, this isn't a bad one. It's a question that challenges the respondent to crystallize his or her philosophy of life, society and the meaning of the universe into one concentrated notion. Yes, really. Think about it. Seekers dig deep, cynics get strategic, humorists go creative and hedonists grab for gusto. Even a refusal to play along divulges something of a person's character and outlook.

Being a flagrant exhibitionist when it comes to baring the naked contours of my Pollyanna soul, I risked certain ridicule in answering recently: "the power to make smiles." Indeed. Totally smacks of saccharine sentiment, but I kind of meant it. I'm driven almost to frown at the common phenomena of complaint -- people griping about this or that problem when frankly they are luckier (on the surface at least) and more in control of their destinies (including, choice of perspective) than 99.9 percent of the beings on this planet. So, why not swing wide those doors of perception with a little happy dust around edges of the mouth?

Well, who knew? Two shakes, and you could knock me over with a wand -- I've tuned in and turned around to a more expansive landscape. I don't want to harsh on my own happy parade, as I still see the value in silver linings and stiff upper lips, but there's another side of this picture. Smiles are good and well when the issue is making the most of what we have and sharing infectious good will with others. But what happens when a static state of blissful "happiness" is all we seek? As we are pondering the fantasy realm of superheroes, we can fairly take a fresh wander through the dystopian life of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." I just finished rereading this classic, brilliant novel, which now seems so much more real, and thus more terrifying, than George Orwell's "1984."

The premise of Huxley's novel is that science and social engineering have advanced to allow for the suppression of all sources or sensations of human woe. For this future generation, born in test tubes and raised on feel-good mantras, there are no parents. The passion and pain of romantic attachment have been replaced by State-promulgated, meaningless, incessant recreational sex (trust me, it's worse than it sounds). Anytime something slightly unpleasant rears its head, citizens are encouraged to quickly pop a few tabs of "soma," a hangover-free hallucinogen (again, trust me, it ain't good). Solitude, spiritual introspection, communion, compassion, morals, philosophy, literature and independent thought are shunned, scorned and, in extreme cases, lead to banishment.

My compulsion to place so many parentheticals above is part of the point. This world does sound beckoning. We humans like distractions and easy indulgence. We like to feel good. But the novel illustrates how counterfeit these pleasures can be in the absence of any true meaning or depth of experience. As John "the Savage" -- the only character in the novel born of a real mother and reared outside the plastic environs of the "Brave New World," with a treasured old copy of Shakespeare's complete works his only possession -- cries, "Nothing costs enough here ... I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want goodness. I want sin." The ruler, Mustapha Mond, responds, "You're claiming the right to be unhappy." Indeed, he's begging for it. He's crying out for something to actually matter.

When you think about the events, experiences or people in your life who have been the most important, there's likely some pain there. Things that move us do so because they shake us from the superficial hum of daily doings. They touch us at a different level, resonate in our souls, and take us outside of selfish cares and indulgences. Suffering is not the opposite of joy -- they are foreground and background. One unfolds and magnifies the other. When a smile can be forged from anguish, then it's a thing of beauty and truth. The rest is just pixie dust.

W.H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" says of the great man, "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." This is a real superhero power -- the turning of torment into art of the whitest heat and purest ecstasy. Yeats hurts so good. I can't stop myself. Braver be and free:

In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.