On Being Happy This New Year

John Mark Reynolds

On Being Happy This New Year


My grandfather’s generation faced fascism, Communism and the Great Depression. They felt blessed if they were able to attend school through junior high. Indoor toilets were not a given and success might be rewarded by a second bathroom. Kids did not expect their own bedrooms or radios. My grandmothers were born without the guaranteed right to vote and drinking fountains were still segregated.

I have lived in more peaceful times, with more educational opportunities, and with greater prosperity. The past was measurably worse in so many ways that only a fool would want to go backwards to it. My grandparents and parents made the world a better place, though they did not do so perfectly.

What they did not do is make their grandchildren and children happier. Maybe a few were foolish enough to think that winning wars against great evils or making life more comfortable could make their children happier, but we at least know better than that now.

My grandparents jolted over clay roads and complained no more than I do sitting on the tarmac waiting for my jet to fly. They made travel faster, more comfortable, but we aren’t happier as a result. What does it profit me to rush over the entire planet in comfort, only to be miserable when I get there?

What does it profit a man to gain the Internet, if all he does is pour out his misery online? Ambitions that were science fiction in their generation are now fact. Star Trek (the Original Series) computers do less on the '60s show than my phone, but access to information is not the same as joy.

That is not a complaint.

A happy man would rather see peace and prosperity in his time, but it is not the peace and prosperity that made him happy. If we ever thought they could, then we confused external goods for internal happiness.

Our daily experiences should have shown that happy men and women find comfort even in tough times, but that miserable people often ruin parties held in their honor. You cannot make Eeyore jolly in anymore than you can hold down Tigger.

Some people are ambitious and don’t seem to mind the misery if they are “winning.” The rest of us just want to be happy. Of course, if you are a Christian, there is some guilt that goes with admitting this want of ambition.

Shouldn’t we at least want Jesus stuff?

And of course that is exactly what we should want. We should want for ourselves exactly what Jesus wants for us and what Jesus wants for us is a more abundant life. An abundant life is a pretty good definition of happiness.

What about taking up our cross and following Jesus?

We must take up our cross. Jesus commanded us to do it.

Why?

A cross brings great pain and death, but God does not want to torture His children. The cross exists as remedy and like a good medicine it is precious to sick souls. The purpose of our life is not the cross anymore than medicine is the purpose of healthcare. The cross is to kill our miserable life so we can have abundant life imperfectly here and perfectly in the world to come.

God does not delight in our suffering as suffering and He does want us to be happy. Why else would a good and loving God create humans?

We cannot be happy as we are now.

Humans are not the way we were created to be. We are broken physically and spiritually. Nobody can avoid dying, physically and spiritually as a result, but we can choose the manner of our death. We can choose to die spiritually before dying physically and so being the process of healing or we can die physically before the second death and damn ourselves.

God, after all, has never needed us to do anything.

Jesus loves me and does not even require me to love Him. I should love Him, it would be good for me to love Him, but Jesus will let me say “no” to Him for all eternity. He is no cosmic lounge lizard always waiting for an answer, but a courtly lover. He woos, but He does not demand.

If I insist on seeing His love as wrath and of turning from love to lusts than He will let me go to hell.

He would prefer that I be happy ... to flourish as a human being. That is why human beings never go to “heaven.” Heaven is where God and the holy angels live now. Instead, God is making a new earth and a great city in which grownup humanity can live with Jesus. Someday humans can live on earth as they were meant to live.

Happiness cannot be found by fixing one part of a person. We have minds so we have to think. We have hearts and so we must feel. We have passions and so we must express them. We have bodies and so we must use them.

When every part of a human is working as it was designed to work by God, then a man is happy. Another way of saying this is to say that a happy man is “flourishing.” Like any living thing that gets just what it needs and uses it well, the happy human is flourishing. Virtue, excellence, produces flourishing, while vice withers us.

The greatest philosophers before Christ, Plato and Aristotle, knew this was true, but knowing was not enough. They could not find anyone who was happy or virtuous. They knew a lover of wisdom could achieve it, but lovers of wisdom are scarce! Jesus, Wisdom in skin, came down to be happy through virtue in actions and not just in theory.

Amongst the most basic human right given to people by Creator God is the right to flourish fully as a human, the right to happiness. No government is just, which prevents men from thinking, feeling or being good. There can never be a law against the fruits of the Spirit!

The founders of the United States were picking up on this classical and Christian tradition when in the Declaration of Independence. Over time the idea of happiness has been corrupted by errors and lies. Shysters continue to sell the idea that some good thing or experience can make us happy.

After all, there is money to be made selling experiences or products. Internal happiness comes painfully, and may cost all we have, but there is no money to be made in the true cross or in true happiness.

Most Americans are confused about this truth. They believe the right to happiness in the West should promise a free trip to Las Vegas, if that is what they wish. There is, however, not right to vice.

Government or society cannot justly stop a man from doing good, but they may stop him from doing evil. I may wish to do things that are wrong or unhelpful, but that does not matter. Human experience shows that we are very good at knowing what we want, but very bad at knowing what we need.

When I wish to eat more than I need, I think it will make me happy. Indulging wants proves a bad way to happiness. One reason the Bible exists, I think, is to show us through examples what people need. The Bible is full of stories of indulgence turned to vomit and restraint becoming pleasure.

David followed his heart and harmed all he loved. Joseph followed God’s heart and gained all he needed.

People have minds, so they must think. Plenty of people with little formal education, like Abraham Lincoln, learn to think well and plenty of the rest of us go to much school, but gain only credentials. Four years of Spanish credentials will not get you through Madrid, but Spanish will.

My grandparents had little access to formal education, but they maximized what they had. Reading the King James Bible every day, and working to understand it, was intellectually transformative. They were wrestling with one of the sources of the English language while reading this translation of a great book: the Bible.

My grandparents could not “relate” to this book. Seventeenth-century English was no more their speech pattern as country folk in West Virginia than it is for my college students. The difference is that they did not ask the Bible to relate to them, they grew in order to understand it.

All four of my grandparents would have made excellent college students, but they were not given that option. Instead of being bitter, they kept learning so that in the end they gained more wisdom than most folk who have been to more school.

They learned the language of knowledge, if they never got the credentials.

In the same way, their jobs in and out of the home demanded a level of physical fitness of them. They walked, they made and they gardened. They had to do so. Advertising had not yet utterly overwhelmed common sense so they had fewer body image issues. They hated their bodies less and used them more.

Music was not free to download or pervasive in the background of every place they visited. If you wanted music, the cheapest and easiest way to get it was to make it. The same thing was true of clothing and furniture. They sang, wrote plays, gospel songs, and built homes. This did not just exercise their minds, but their passions and their spirits. The quilts my grandmothers made were art and the houses my grandfathers built were architecture.

Talking on the porch in an evening, arguing politics and theology, was a longer pursuit of the dialectic, Socratic questions and tentative answers than most college graduates now do after college.

Relative poverty demanded they do what we all should do and protected them from the vices of wealth. They lived in no golden age. Poverty is not good and it dulled much that could have been better. Ignorance as harder to dispel and sometimes was not. While they learned to love their neighbors, they sometimes lacked experiences to love more distant folks.

Nobody would return to that time, especially my grandparents, because they saw the evils clearly enough to fight and defeat many of them for us.

Instead of continuing and improving on this accomplishment, too many of us (though not all!) coasted. We spent what they left us and a good bit more. Our passion for social justice declined and we were content with “better.”

J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and other penetrating stories from the 1950s and early 1960s, does condemn my grandparents' generation for one thing. His adults, men and women of my grandparents' age, often thought that their sorrows, and they had many sorrows and made many errors, were the result of their struggles.

If they created a world of order and affluence for their children, then their children would be happier. Most had been protected from poverty from the errors of the 1920s, the Gatsby belief that money could renew hope, but when they had money made it for their children. Fortunately for my parents, my grandparents' Christianity kept them from this mistake, but many children of the '60s were not so blessed.

My grandparents became better people and parents the older they got. Many of their peers just got old and comfortable. Technology started giving them the riches that only the wealthy enjoyed in earlier times, but nobody educated that generation in what to do with the power. They were already formed, but their children were not. Just the radio gave them power of choice in music that even Queen Victoria would have envied.

Rich people of earlier ages could have warned my grandparents' generation that indulgence would not make happy children, but my grandparents were not rich. Rising technology had given them wealth, but they did not know it, because they still measured riches by their bank account.

As a result, my grandparent’s generation too often allowed too much self-indulgence and so received the result Oscar Wilde would have predicted in earlier times of the children of overly indulged idle rich: shallow, credentialed, bored brats. The only difference was that the children of the middle class in the '60s were less cultured.

Still despite this folly, my grandparents and their friends were personally happier than their grandparents' generation.

Why?

They would have said, because of Jesus. And they would have been right, but following Jesus in some ways was easier (though harder in others), because of their situation.

My grandparents were happier, because given little they made much of it. Given much, I have made too little. My waste overwhelms my tiny accomplishments.

My grandparents were happier, because most never expected to get their reward in this life. They mostly did not, so they were not disappointed. Nobody remembers my grandparents outside my family today. They are not in Wikipedia and cannot even be Googled.

When my grandfather died, he heard the bells of heaven at the end of a life well lived. He was a happy man. That is enough for me.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and professor of philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rochester. Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

Publication date: January 6, 2012

Comments

Top 25 Topics

PARTNER SITE FEATURES