Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hello, America. I think you lied: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of... Whaaa?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are crated equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." 
--As adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776
Well, thank you, forefathers. I do appreciate all you have done for our country, but is the pursuit of happiness really an unalienable "right" that you can, or want, to promise me? For, even if this profession is legitimized and regarded, is not one man's pleasure another man's pain? When my pursuit of happiness infringes upon my fellow patriot's own pursuit of happiness, whose unalienable rights will my country defend? And perhaps more importantly, even if I am promised the liberty to pursue happiness, and my country tells me I deserve this pursuit, is happiness actually a worthwhile endeavor, among the ranks of Life and Liberty?

And my beginning is really where I end. This rebellion against the most-quoted phrase of our country's most-cherished document is not a spawn of anarchy or separatism, but my skepticism stems from several recent experiences with this idea of the pursuit of happiness and it's validity.

Just over a week ago, a friend from work was showing me some exercises her daughter and husband had completed together in a little bonding activity. Each was to answer a few questions about the other, and one of the questions asked for the thing his/her daughter/father wanted out of life. The daughter, 13 years old, answered that her dad probably "just wants to be happy." Noble enough. And at the time, I actually sighed with a gentle smile of tenderness because this seemed like a precious analysis on part of her daughter and a healthy desire for her husband.

Later on in the week, I was in a discussion among peers, and we were contemplating life plans and unknown futures and possible adventures. As of late, I have also been exploring the intriguing power of vision (a clear, precise idea of a preferable future). So after sharing this idea, I asked--not where they saw themselves in 5/10 years--but who they wanted to be, and what they really wanted out of life. There are so many answers to this question. People want certain jobs, distinct lifestyles, set family structures, and sometimes checks on a bucket list. These are all wonderful things to want out of life. However, we all know that the most enlightened answer to the Life Goals Question is the simple, pure, respectable response... happiness. So I was curious to receive their responses. And the unanimous heartfelt-reply from among my circle of cohorts was, in fact: sustained happiness. I want to guard against belittling this reply. I see no fault in such a responses, and I am thankful even, for the thematic repetition--these occurrences led me to explore new frameworks of thought. Yet, with each recurrence of this expressed desire, I became increasingly uneasy with the ideal I had always regarded.

And the culminating experience came as I was scrolling through my Podcasts on my way in to work. An episode entitled, "The Problems of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" caught my eye. Anti-climatically, the context was actually regarding the plagiarism within our country's founding documents. Yet, even so, the title struck me in a profound moment of clarity and/or realization. If there were ever a light-bulb moment in my life, this may take the cake.

Follow me here. You see, when we identify our goals and expectations for our lives, we begin to see how many of our conscience and/or unconscious decisions have been aligned (or maligned) to these desires. Thus, working to identify our desires becomes valuable in beginning to understand our behaviors. In turn, learning to recognize our behaviors helps to analyze our attitudes and assessments in the context of our life goals and actions (harmful or helpful) in the pursuit of these goals. Therefore, knowing what we want from Life is very important. And if we all want/hope for/and deserve (through the promises of our country) happiness, why is this "simple" state so elusive?

And then it hits me. There seems to be a fundamental misconception underlying the constitutional pursuit of happiness.

Now, before I am branded a cynic, let me be the first to say--I am in no way harping on the fundamental state of happiness. To be happy is a beautiful, blissful gift--certainly to be desired, treasured, and cherished. I have no criticism of the enjoyment, or even aspiration, of happiness. My concerns lay in the promises of happiness which have penetrated and infiltrated our society and the expectation of happiness in our culture, which lead to the misguided emphasis of happiness in our lives and the dissatisfaction when our highest desire remains unrequited.

But I digress... When our world, our government, and our society all seemed fixated on providing, protecting, and pursuing happiness, it is only natural that we individually take on this value as virtue. Happiness seems to be the most simple and most universal form of pleasure. At times, I would even classify the nature of happiness as frivolous because of its conceptually jolly and light associations. Our government finds Happiness important enough to recognize its necessity within humanity among the ranks of Life and Liberty. And our media bombards us with the promises of achievement--if we buy this product, or do that workout, or donate to this organization--then, we will find happiness.

The media is no dummy. Such propaganda is not explicit, but the media recognizes our often futile efforts in pursuit of an answer to happiness. And then they exploit the expressions of our desires by using images of sunny days, smiles, bright gardens, beautiful faces, and perfect families to remind us that happiness is indeed something we really want. And their messages are aimed at telling us that what they have will help us find what we really want. Thus, the cycle of the Virtuoso Happy perpetuates. The more we are reminded of what we want, the more we actually want it. And the more we actually want it, the more we are willing to pursue it. For, the more intent on our pursuit we become, the more we will be willing to explore and sacrifice. And the more willing and desperate we become in our quest, the more their marketing becomes effective. Repeat cycle.

So, this idea of happiness is all around us. Yet, so many of us seem plagued in our pursuits. And even in my own experience--and I have had an admittedly blessed, and comparatively easy, life--there are times when "happy" seems the farthest impossibility for my heart. If I subscribe to the broadcasts of my surroundings, and adopt a life set on happiness, in these moments, I am failing. Not only am I not happy, but I am now a failure, as well. I don't see how this continuation formulates positively...

And I don't think happiness is meant to pervade every moment of our every day. Otherwise, how would we be sensitive the the hurting of others? Empathy would be impossible if we had no relative experience. And it would be a very cruel world if there were a lucky few that could sustain happiness, while the rest of us merely scrapped for it. Thus, on each plane of validation, I find happiness to be a misguided focus. Our life goals would be much more promising if we could somehow affect our progress by making intentional choices that would move us towards our goal. Even in Latin, "felix," the root of the word "happy," refers to luck, a good omen, favorable fortune, or fruitful blessings. All of the word associations of "felix" refer to external and circumstantial concepts. The concept of happiness does not offer individuals a lot of dominion, and the manifestation of our missed attempts in our limited capacity results in dissatisfaction and self-demoralization.

If this had not been convincing enough, I then evaluated my entitlement to happiness through the lens of my faith. Unfortunately, or not, God does not promise us the same rights to happiness as our government does. He speaks far more to the state of suffering, and the blessings therein. Joy, however, is mentioned quite often throughout the Text, yet this seems to be a fundamentally distinct experience to happiness. Also, joyfulness is certainly given distinction and included in the fruits of a follower of Christ, yet God has given His followers some very explicit goals and directions regarding His desire for us, which do not omit, but also do not specifically state joy or happiness. (I have taken a few liberties with verb tenses and pronouns as I have woven together a selection of verses to connect this concept. Verse references below.)

This is the first and greatest commandment. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like the first: Love your neighbor as yourself. Don't just pretend to love others. Really love them. Cling to what is good. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For, these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. For, those that have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. Do not seek your own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. He gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. The redemption that He brought represents both His own love and that of the Father for the whole world. You are the light of the world...Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. So live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. For His is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

[Tit 2.7 + 2.14 + 3.8]  [Mth 5.16 + 6.13]  [Jhn 13.35]  [Hbr 10.34]  [Col 3.14 + 3.2]  [1Tim 2.4]  [1Cor 10.33 + 13.13]  [2Ptr 3.9]  [Rms 12.9]  [Mrk 12.30]

So, it seems that God would have us seek a life of love and goodness. Well, this just makes so much sense. If I am fixated on a life of love and goodness, I have immediately placed my life goals outside of myself. Selfishness and entitlement are perhaps the two most toxic poisons in our culture. In directing my heart towards a state of love and goodness, I have immediately accepted sacrifice, service, patience, and humility. I think the world could handle at least a few more people with intentions as these. Secondly, God's plan for the redemption of the entire world is just that--redemption for the entire world! A life of Goodness is available to all, at all times, in any circumstance. Happiness is contingent upon so many external factors, it appeared that success would only be granted to the "lucky few." God's plan is to offer redemption and reconciliation to the entire world, and his mean of accomplishing His plan is to give us the same charge.

The third improvement underlying God's desire for our lives is that we instantly receive true liberty to pursue our goals. With the gift of free will, we become the master's of our own destiny. Our heart's desire is no longer tied to the caprice of our emotions and the circumstance of our environment, but we can make decision--directed by goodness and love--that will grant us immediate and multiple successes within our journey. Our goals can be assessed day-to-day, or within a moment's waiver. When we mess up, as we will, we can be all-the-more convicted to align our thoughts and actions with the truest desire of our hearts the next time. Our utmost desire should be to love God by loving our world in pursuing Goodness, that they may see and know the love He has shown us, which also remains in Him.

To be fair, those in pursuit of happiness often act in Love and Goodness regualrly. More than likely, they recognize a connection between this practice and their evaluation in their own pursuit--and this may offer fulfillment for a brief period. But as evidenced in the number of prescriptions for anti-depressants, the effects ware over time and disappointment and discontentment settle back in. "Goodness, for goodness' sake," is a strikingly different hue than "goodness for happiness sake." For, when the end has been mistaken for the means, the maintenance of doing good in order to be happy becomes a cumbersome burden. Mathematically, the equation is false. [Good+Love≠Happy].

By shifting our focus away from the state of self and towards the embodiment of Goodness and Love, we take on the easy yoke. For in the pursuit of love and goodness, our intentions are pure. Our hearts are free from circumstance, and we have been given all authority to testify with the faith and works of Goodness and Love. And when we sense the blessings of our intentions, I believe full-heartedly that happiness will find us. Happiness is no longer the sum of our desires, but it becomes the byproduct. Perhaps the more true mathematical statements are [Goodness=Love=Goodness], where also [Love=Happiness×F^(∞)=Goodness]. And assuming the yoke of love, we no longer have to grasp and claw at dust in the wind, but in following closely the footsteps of the Rabbi--the greatest image of the Father's Love--the dust of the His sandals will coat us so thickly that we could not scrub the happiness from between our toes if we tried.

as always, thanks for stopping by.
and quite appropriately, stay dusty.


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