Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness - Reynolds

The "Declaration of Independence" of the new American republic, "The United States of America," as adopted by their Congress the evening of July 4, 1776, stated that all men (sic) "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." 
Probably Thomas Jefferson and his fellows, in the optimistic spirit of the time, would have liked to consider happiness itself "an inalienable right," but they were sufficiently realistic to coin this apt and descriptive phrase -- the pursuit of happiness. 
            Ask teen-agers what they want out of life, many will reply, with shining eyes, "I don't want much.  I just want to be happy.”   And I suppose, if the rest of us are honest, we too would reply that that's just what we want -- to be "happy.” 
And yet, how elusive a thing happiness is.  So many pursue the vagrant dream, but so few seem to catch it.   
The elusive dream                      
Several hundred years before Christ was born, Euripedes, the Greek poet and tragedian, wrote (in the Medea), 
      Since life began,
Hath there in God's eye stood one happy man?
Fair days roll on, and bear more gifts or less
Of fortune, but to no one happiness. 
(What he says of "man" would apply equally or more so to women, whose lot, compared to "man," has been noticeably the poorer.)
Gibbon, the English historian, found a memorandum in the archives of one of the greatest of the Oriental Caliphs: 
I have reigned above fifty years in victory and peace, beloved of my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies.  I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to me.  They amount to fourteen. 
In the Bible is the story of the man who sought for happiness and couldn't find it, the one we call "the Preacher," Ecclesiastes.  He wrote, 
I have been King over Israel in Jerusalem, and I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.  It is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men . . . .  I said to myself, "Come now, I will make a test of pleasure and enjoy myself."  But it was vanity, empty.  I said of laughter, "It is madness."  And of pleasure, "What use is it?" (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14, 2:1-2)
And poor Job, you remember, cried, 
Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble.  He comes forth like a flower, and withers; he flees like a shadow, and continues not. . . .  Man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last, and where is he?  As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so man lies down and rises not again (Job 4:1-2). 
Strange, isn't it, that something which is such a common desire of the human heart should prove so elusive.  Strange that something we want so much should seem so difficult to claim.  
 When an epidemic of influenza sweeps through a community, or a cold through a school, it travels so fast that you'd wonder how anyone could possibly catch it.  Yet just about everyone does, without even trying. Then, just watch people chasing madly after happiness, looking for the rainbow's end, grasping desperately for that shimmering image which seems always just beyond their grasp.  Yet how few there are who seem to find true happiness. 
True happiness and the quest for pleasure 
 Of course we need to realize that there is a difference between real happiness and the thing many people mistake for happiness.  There's a difference, for instance, between the pursuit of happiness and the quest for pleasure.  Many people think that the deep desire of the human heart for happiness may be satisfied by filling life with pleasure, "fun" (a word I'm told which is not in any other language), or with merrymaking. 
  "Eat, drink, and be merry."  It sounds like a simple and straight-forward way to find happiness.  But momentary merriment is not the same thing as deep, abiding happiness.  I sometimes think of those haunting words of Norah, the wife, in Henrik Ibsen's play, "The Doll's House."  Norah, walking out on her husband after eight years of marriage, is asked by her desperate husband, "Haven't we been happy?"  She replies, "No, not happy.  Just merry!" 
  "Eat, drink, and be merry!"  The words come from a story that Jesus told, the one we call "The Parable of the Rich Fool!"  It's the story of the man who has so much money he had to build a bigger bank to keep it in.  He has it made.  "Take your ease," says he to his soul.  And God says, "You fool, this night shall your soul be required of you" (Luke 12:16-21). 
Happiness and our possessions
 So often we believe that happiness depends upon how much we have. It may be true that superficial happiness and temporary pleasure do come from "things," our possessions, our circumstances -- a nice home, a new car.
But happiness, true and lasting happiness, doesn't come from the outside in but from the inside out!  We speak of a person "bubbling over with happiness" -- "bubbling over," from the inside out.  For what makes us happy is not what's outside us, but what's inside us; not what we have, but what we are
We sometimes say, with a high degree of astonishment, "Why kids are no happier today than they were when I was young.  Yet look at how much more they have."  Exactly!  For deep, lasting happiness is not derived from externals, no matter how many "toys" one has, child or adult.  Lasting happiness comes from within. 
Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, once wrote, 
Today the all important thing is not the state of mind but the state of the environment.  Happiness and moral progress depend, it is thought, on bigger and better gadgets and a higher standard of living.  The popular philosophy of life has ceased to be based on the classics of devotion and the rules of good breeding and is now moulded by the writers of advertising copy. 
Certainly this is the great delusion, the besetting sin, of our culture in the twentieth century.  We have believed, even in our so-called "Christian culture," that material prosperity will bring happiness.  We are discovering that we have been wrong, very wrong.
Have you noticed, at election time, that the talk is all about economics and prosperity, about taxes and trade, and so seldom about moral standards, or our social responsibility as a nation, or the ultimate purpose of human life, or the will of God. "The king was sick …."  
Jesus said, "Be not anxious about your life, what you shall eat.  Nor about your body, what you shall put on.  For life is more than meat and the body more than raiment" (Matthew 6:25f.) 
The paradox of happiness
In fact, the paradox of happiness, as I speak of happiness, is that it can be known in spite of want, or sorrow, or even pain.  Remember the beginning verses of The Sermon on the Mount, those saying of Jesus we call "the Beatitudes:"  "Blessed are they ...."   J. B. Phillips translates it, "How happy are they …." 
The paradox is that we may find comfort in grief : "How happy are those who know sorrow, for they will know comfort...”  We may know peace in the midst of strife: "How happy are those who have suffered persecution in the cause of goodness."  We may find fulfillment even in hunger: "How happy are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness ...."  Even the poor may know the riches of the rule, the kingdom, of God. 
How do we find happiness?
How then do we find happiness?  How do we catch the elusive dream?  The secret, it seems to me, is that we don't find happiness, at least not by looking for it.  Happiness is like steel.  You don't find steel by exploring, prospecting for it by digging in the ground in the hope of finding it.  You look for something else -- iron ore and from the ore you make the steel.
So happiness itself is not the goal of our living, never was intended to be the goal of our living.  It isn't an end in itself, it's a by-product.
Henry Van Dyke once wrote,
It is the law of God that they who will to be happy never shall be; never shall clasp the phantom after which they run so eagerly, never shall feel the deep, sweet calm of a contented soul, never shall rest in perfect peace, until they cease their mad chase, forget and deny themselves, and are lost and absorbed in some noble and unselfish pursuit.  Then and only then, happiness comes, as the angels came to Jesus in the desert . . . when he renounced all hope of joy. 
This is not a new thought, not even in the first place a Christian thought.  It was Aristotle who long ago concluded that humanity was not made for happiness but for "action," and that the way to attain happiness was to submit oneself to the highest work of which one was capable and to do it in the way that called forth the best one had to give.  "Happiness," he said, "is a bloom that lies on the life of goodness." 
We don't find happiness in the pursuit of happiness.  We are happy when we are interested in something, absorbed by an interest.  We are happy when we love someone, when we are building or creating something which we consider important.  In short, we are happy when we lose ourselves in something beyond ourselves.
Remember Jesus' words:  "Whoever would save his life (or her life) shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel's will find it" (Matthew 10:39). 
I suggest to you that there is a happiness we find in seeking the will of God, in giving our very selves into the grace of God, that provides for our consciousness, for our souls, for our very lives, a deep and abiding happiness that nothing can replace. Faith, committing ourselves to the will of God, to the grace of God in Christ, may bring us that which we have sought, in so many ways and sometimes in desperation, and never found.
Seek first God's kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well  (Matthew 6:33).

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Alan, thank you for this rich and insightful essay, with bright gems casting their special light on your subject.

Popular Posts