Thursday, October 22, 2009
How to be miserable.
I've been thinking about happiness this week, preparing for this Sunday's "How to be Miserable". (Now there's a sermon title that'll really pack 'em in!)
Our country has always been based on "the pursuit of happiness". That little phrase would have been remarkable in the 18th century. Not many monarchs at the time were staying awake wondering whether their people were happy. As long as they had bread--or cake, in the case of the French--why bother?
There are some interesting assumptions in the phrase "the pursuit of happiness". First of all, what makes us think that happiness should actually be a right that we should expect to pursue? Should happiness be considered essential, or is it merely a kind of icing on our cake? But even more striking is the assumption that happiness is something that we can identify, set our aim toward, and pursue. It assumes that you and I have a pretty good idea what will make us happy, and if only given the chance to pursue them we can be happy.
But what if happiness wasn't something we could engineer ourselves? What if being happy was actually more like sneezing? If you've ever been stuck mid-sentence, your face contorted by a sneeze that wasn't quite ready to launch, you know how hard it can be to force something like that. Sometimes we're the most miserable when we're busy trying to be happy.
People often turn to the Bible to find happiness. The problem is that the Bible seems to take its time getting around to issues of happiness. Along the way there's an awful lot of taking up one's cross, dying to self and even having to rise again with the crucified savior. The Bible's picture of fulfillment often seems to be anti-happiness: turning the other cheek, giving up one's cloak, forgiving the very people who made us unhappy in the first place.
Here's the secret. While the Bible seems pretty nonchalant about happiness, it is much more serious about something else: joy. Joy is what can come when you've been so thoroughly filled by Something so completely satisfying that one's level of happiness becomes less and less important. Joy is what Paul bubbled with when he wrote to the Philippians about how it didn't really matter whether he lived or died, he just wanted to serve Christ. (He almost sounded a little Buddhist at that point, except you can tell that he cared more deeply than any respectable Buddhist would allow.)
Our nation has unprecedented freedom to pursue our own personal happiness. I don't think it's helped very much. From what I can tell, people who "have it all" don't seem to be enjoying life any more than people who have much less. They just experience their frustration while living in bigger houses.
Most of my personal fantasies still tend to aim towards "having it all", but God's helping me get over that. He's steadily weaning me from happiness and whetting my appetite for joy. On the days when I cooperate with him, I find the strangest thing happen: pleasure.
I enjoy that.