Monday, February 5, 2018

The Pursuit of Happiness. . .

When reading The Christian Post a while ago I realized that the article I was perusing was a reprint of one I had read ages ago.  You can read it here as it was originally posted.  Ken Myers takes on the whole issue of happiness and how the word and the concept have changed from the day when our forefathers used the word and Jefferson enshrined it forever as an inalienable right.  The pursuit of happiness has come to mean the freedom to do as I please when I am pleased to do it. . . or think it. . . or say it.  Perhaps even more crassly, happiness has become the equivalent of having fun -- the opposite of being bored (the ultimate sin and suffering!).  Myers reminds us that the way we use the word happiness today would make little sense to the folks who founded this nation but even less sense to the ways in which happiness was viewed in ancient Greek or Hebrew culture.

Happiness is roughly synonymous with the biblical idea of “blessedness.” In classical and medieval Christian ethics happiness referred to a state of human flourishing or well-being that aligned the life of a person with the truest good. Actions, thoughts, desires, and ambitions had to be ordered in light of the proper end of mankind for a person to be truly happy. Happiness was thus an ethical, not a psychological project. To pursue happiness was to pursue the whole reason for one’s being, but that meant recognizing that one’s desires and actions were in need of correction. It meant accounting for the fact that human beings did not instinctively pursue the truest good, that some very attractive pleasures were not truly in keeping with the most essential contours of our nature. In Christian terms, the pursuit of happiness meant recognizing that God had created us to flourish in the context of obedience to Him so that our image-bearing nature might display His glory. Since our sin and consequent waywardness alienated us from our deepest, truest identity, the pursuit of happiness was only possible by grace, since we cannot by our own strength resist the disordering effects of sin in our lives.
Therein lies the problem.  The happiness we seek and the happiness we claim as our right today is not a contentment flowing from our sense of purpose and identity as one who was created for and lives within the boundaries of place within the Divine Order.  The sad truth is that as a culture we don't care what God intended or what He created or what He desired or still desires.  God is absent from our discussion of life and gender and happiness and desire -- except, of course, when we can use Him to justify and authenticate our misappropriation of that once more noble term.  We believe that this self-absorbed and self-defined happiness is the sole purpose and reason for our existence and anything and everything which infringes upon this happiness is our enemy.  So morality that in any way encumbers our free choice is deemed obtrusive and domineering just as those who would have the nerve to tell us we cannot or should not do this or that.

Good is only as deep and wide as the individual who seeks it and defines it.  The individualism that has come to characterize everything from culture to politics to religion to truth is the ultimate flourishing of the more modern definition of happiness.  So nations struggle because one of the primary threads in our fabric of identity and unity is the fact that we have a shared value system.  Yet it is only one value that we share -- the value of me.  Ultimate good is a foreign and alien concept to our culture today.  So we live in a culture of death where people have value and their lives are held sacred only if they do not inconvenience me or infringe upon my freedom to pursue my own happiness.  In the same way, if I determine that my life has become a burden to me, I demand the freedom to end my life, painlessly, of course, when I choose to (or so say those who believe assisted suicide is the most humane choice of all -- the choice not to live).

I will have to admit that when the Jerusalem Bible began to translate "Blesseds" of the Beatitudes with the word "Happy" I belittled the choice of words as a cop out.  Like Gene Veith, I see now that this was not as foolish a choice as I had thought but surely one that is even more misunderstood than the familiar word "Blessed."

Happiness will be our undoing.  We discard spouses and children and jobs as well as things when they no longer make us happy.  But in doing so we are not happier at all.  We live in a nation of people who try retail therapy, video game diversions, opioid pain relief, recreational marijuana, prozac and its kin, and everything else we can do to satisfy the itch within and yet we are among the most unhappy people in history.  Our children suffer the burdens of this angst too early in their childhood years and as adults we seem never to find the Nirvana we are searching for.  It seems we are not only unhappy, we are not blessed.


Anonymous said...

"Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter -- with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens -- a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities."

I see the first three chief parts of Luther's Small Catechism:
1. The Ten Commandments - The Fourth Commandment and Close
2. The Apostle's Creed - The First Article
3. The Lord's Prayer - The Fourth Petition

Because I'm happy...
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I'm happy...
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I'm happy...
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I'm happy...
Clap along if you feel like that's what you want to do.

Carl Vehse said...

The unreferenced TJ paragraph was taken from President Jefferson's First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801. This inaugural address came after a long and bittter campaign in the Presidential election of 1800 (sometimes referred to as the Revolution of 1800, not unlike the Presidential election of 2016).

John Joseph Flanagan said...

This article is so pessimistic. What happened to the old adage, "Count your blessings, not your woes?" Sometimes we cannot find unvarnished "happiness" in life, but we can often find peace and resignation to the state we are in. Complainers, I have found, are never happy anyway. Being a saved child of God is finding peace of mind. Sometimes the pursuit of happiness is just a futile effort to make everything in life go our own way. It is an indication of childishness and immaturity when seen in adults.