The Power of a Joyful Life… or Revisiting the Notion of Happiness

I’ve mentioned before (at least I think I’ve said it here… if not I know I’ve said it elsewhere), that I dislike John Piper’s notion of Christian Hedonism. It strikes me that any philosophy based solely or primarily in what brings me the most pleasure is problematic, regardless of the ends it espouses. If my pleasure is the ultimate goal, then I am putting myself at the center of all things, and this is a place that I should never be. That being said, for the past two years God has been teaching me about joy, and I feel like I’m finally getting to the heart of the lesson. For most of my life happiness has been… unimportant. My goal was to be strong, or to be powerful, or to be righteous, or to be good, or to be spiritual (kind of in that order actually), and happiness was something that I always saw as an addendum at best, or a distraction at worst.

A few years ago a friend of mine was lecturing me about the way I approach life and asked me, ‘don’t you want to be happy?’ The only response that I could give was ‘Eh, maybe I guess…’ I want to stress here that my goal was not to be unhappy. I’ve never seen misery as a sign of righteousness (or at least I don’t think I have), but I also never made it a goal to be happy. Over the past two years God has been slowly changing this.

So, recently my bible study (yes, I’m part of a bible study now… yes, I realize that I haven’t posted in ‘like forever’ which translates to a couple of months in real time… thus proving the theory of internet relativity:T=CPI or Time=Care exponentially multiplied by the Perspective of the Individual)… anyway, my bible study has been studying the book of Ecclesiastes, which is a book that I’ve loved for a long time, but recently I’ve had a new perspective on. I think that, at its core, Ecclesiastes is an admonition to joy. The author repeatedly points to the pointlessness, injustice, and repetitiveness of life, and then responds to himself by arguing that true purpose can be found in God.

In chapter one and two he shows that none of the things we normally cling to: labor, love, wealth, knowledge, and pleasure, can possibly serve as the purpose of a meaningful life. All of these are fleeting, ephemeral, and ultimately vanity. However, in chapter 3 he shows that, while none of these things is the point of life, all of them have a point in life. This is an important distinction. A life lived for the pursuit of any of these things will ultimately be unfulfilling, because they are, in themselves, vane. However, all of them are gifts given by God to bring pleasure to life and add to its ultimate purpose. Solomon argues that everything happens for a reason, and that God is the ultimate arbiter of that reason, so should we argue that he got things wrong?

Chapters four and five continue in this vein, showing the vanity and injustice of everyday life when we live it without God, but the pleasure that God can bring through that same vanity when we place him at the center of our lives. I have long been somewhat enamored by the mystic ascetics (or ascetic mystics… whatever you want to call them). And I think that true joy can be found in the ascetic pursuit of God, but this is not the only way to glorify him.

Whoever we are, whatever path God takes us on (and I’m not trying to preach Universalism here, if you think God is calling you to be a Buddhist Monk you need to revisit the scriptures), we can and should find joy when we truly place him at the center of our lives. This is something that I’m currently working on. For a long time I, like the Pharisees, turned moral virtue and righteousness into an idol, all too often replacing my worship with God with a worship of goodness. Even when I left this behind, I didn’t seek to enjoy God, but simply to endure with him.

My circumstances haven’t changed much in the past few years. I’m still single, still poor, and I still have debts that I’ll probably never be able to realistically pay (though this is in God’s hands). I still struggle with depression, fear, doubt, worry, etc. However, I’m struggling less and enjoying more. I’m learning to find my joy in God and truly, thoroughly worship him.

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The Importance of Dreams

A couple of years ago I had a dream. Yes, I’m going to tell you about my dream, but first I’m going to tell you why that dream was important. Most of us don’t remember our dreams, some of us don’t remember that we did dream. I generally fall into the latter category. Most mornings I wake up assuming that I didn’t have any dreams the night before (even though I probably did), and even when I do wake up in the middle of a dream, within five minutes I can’t actually remember what the dream was about. However, the particular dream that I’m thinking of I can still remember specific details two years later. When I awoke from this dream, I was completely confident that it was important, and I knew what some of the aspects of the dream symbolized. It was the kind of dream that you pay attention to.

So, what was my dream? Well, to start off, it was extremely nerdy. In the dream I was a student at a school for wizards (not like Hogwarts, more like one of the Arcane Academies in Tethyr from the  Forgotten Realms D&D setting… except, you know… not evil…). Anyway, I was a student studying in this academy and I was doing well, but one day I decided to leave the school to explore the world. I wanted to see the town nearby, to visit the fighter’s guild, and to practice what I’d learned. So, I left the academy, which appeared as a huge tower sandwiched between a small lake and a swampy plain, and went to the town. I explored for a while, and then returned to the academy, but I couldn’t find it. The tower had disappeared and in it’s place was a small stone slab with writing on it that I couldn’t read. I was confused, hurt, and frustrated, and I did everything I could think of, but nothing made the tower reappear. Denied access to the place I was supposed to be, I returned to the town and joined the fighter’s guild for wont of a better option.

At this point the dream jumps forward an indeterminate amount of time. I knew that I’ve been in the fighters guild for sometime, but I wasn’t sure how long. I found myself in a party at the fighter’s guild, but I wasn’t particularly enjoying the party. I was bored, lonely, and I didn’t particularly want to talk to anyone, so I left the brightly lit guild building (I remember that it had large doors set in a massive wooden doorframe. The frame itself was wider than my hand. In the courtyard there was a fountain depicting some ancient hero of the guild, and on the fountain sat a beautiful woman. She was obviously a member of the guild, but I’d never met her before. I sat down and started a conversation with the woman, and though I’ve never been able to remember what we talked about, we fell in love. I told the woman about my time in the wizard school, and I wanted to show her the spot where it had disappeared. So, I took her by the hand and led her to the stone slab with the writing I couldn’t read, but she could read it (though I couldn’t understand what she said), and when she did the tower reappeared and we went in. I found myself back where I belonged with a beautiful woman whom I loved, and that’s where the dream ended.

When I first awoke from the dream I knew that the wizard’s school symbolized grad school. I believed at the time, and see no reason not to think, that the beautiful woman represented a romantic relationship, and I think that the fighter’s guild represents life in general. Honestly, I had almost forgotten about this dream (it has been a matter of years, not days), but I’ve recently started talking to a young woman on eHarmony who is not only awesome, but also related to one of the deans at a school that I would very much like to attend. Honestly, I don’t know if this is likely to go anywhere. It’s entirely possible that nothing will happen, but emailing with her brought this dream back to the forefront of my mind.

All the Little Things

So, I’ve been following the Mark Driscoll plagiarism controversy since it first came out, and if you haven’t heard about what’s going on, it’s well worth a good look. However, as I was reading up on this controversy, I came across several articles about Driscoll’s views on women, focusing specifically on his highly questionable teaching that Esther was, among other things, a selfish slut who seduced King Xerxes into making her the most powerful woman in Persia. This interpretation has a number of obvious flaws, probably the most egregious of which is the idea that Esther had the option to deny Xerxes anything. However, after reading some of Driscoll’s personal testimony about his own history with women (excerpts from his book Real Marriage), I can understand how his views were formed. Driscoll relates that every girl he dated cheated on him, including his wife (though he didn’t discover this until after they were married).

Right or wrong, the way we are treated forms our opinions of people. If you’ve only ever known blacks who were angry gang members, then chances are that you don’t much like black people. Similarly, if you’ve only ever know women who cheat, then chances are you assume that women cheat. We’re often told to avoid forming such prejudices. The problem is that avoiding such prejudices isn’t really possible. What is possible is handling such prejudices. See, if you’ve only ever known hypocritical, selfish Christians, then you’re going to see all Christians as hypocritical and selfish, and interpret their actions in this way. Recognizing this kind of basic assumption is difficult because the assumption itself is such a small thing, but its a small thing that fundamentally shapes the way you see the world. Changing this kind of fundamental assumption is incredibly difficult and often we need help to do so. I’m not convinced that we can actually change them without meeting positive examples of whatever group we are prejudiced against, and even then we must be open to allowing our minds and hearts to change.

So, why am I talking about this? Because sometimes I see women as nothing more than deceptive harpies who live to destroy good people. I know that this image isn’t true, and there are examples of women who are fundamentally not the above, which helps me in my struggle. However, I’ve also been influenced by a lot of women who were exactly that, add to this the fact that almost every woman I’ve dated has left me feeling lied to, betrayed, and broken and you begin to understand where this particular struggle comes from. While I have some experiences that tell me that women can be good, honest, beautiful people, I have a lot more experiences that tell me they are not.

Does this make me a misogynist? No, it doesn’t. It does mean that I sometimes struggle with misogyny though, and that I probably need more examples of good, caring women in my life to help me in that struggle. The problem is, I can seem to find any under 35…

That’s probably a post for another time.

A Culture of Fear

I generally take Tuesdays off. I might log into my classroom to answer any questions that students have posted, but beyond that I don’t touch it. On my days off I generally do a fair amount of reading. Grading papers all day, every day is not conducive to reading (either scholarly or otherwise), and so on days when I am working I generally have to do what reading I intend to actually complete before I start working. However, on Tuesdays, I can read all day if I want to (every so often I actually do). As part of my reading today I found this article. While I agree with the post as a whole (though I do keep a facebook album of my nephew’s baby pictures, I’ll probably take it down (or at least make it unviewable) when they turn five or so. However, there is one specific point that she makes in the middle of her article that I think is particularly important to keep in mind.

We live in a culture that promotes fear. Every day we are told by various news outlets that crime rates are rising exponentially. Friends, churches, various celebrities, and recognized national speakers all warn us that we are in danger, or our children are in danger, or our homes are in danger. Commercials actually play a big part in this now. Security companies sell their services by warning us that, without their protection, our homes will be broken into (of course, I could just buy an ADT sticker, put it in my front window, and achieve much the same effect as actually hiring the company). Drug companies warn us that if we don’t take their new phramaceutical miracle we will inevitably die of a heart attack (of course, the warning that their drug might actually cause said heart attack is rushed to the point of being unintelligable). Facebook news feeds  and twitter are commonly filled with claims and articles (many of them easily falsifiable) that both infuriate and terrify us, such as the ‘scandal‘ a week or two ago concerning Costco’s ‘attack on Christianity‘ and the outrage from fearful Christians, which then sparked outrage in response from equally fearful liberals. Of course, when someone actually bothered to ask Caleb Kaltenbach (the pastor in question) what he thought, his response wasn’t directed at Costco. All of that hubub over a labeling error… it boggles the mind. Whether our response is to be outraged or to quail in the corner, the response is inspired by our fear of what the reported situation means.

However, much of this fear is utterly without any realistic foundation. Jennifer Doverspike (author of the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post) isn’t technically correct that our children are ‘safer than they’ve ever been’. Children in the mid-1950s enjoyed one of the lowest violent crime rates in US history, and they probably were a little bit safer (at least from criminals), but the intent of her message is perfectly accurate. We are fairly safe, our children are fairly safe. In the last 100 years the homicide rate (the near-universally recognized best indicator for violent crime rates) has remained fairly steady. At it’s lowest (the mid to late ’50s) the homicide rate was four murders per 100,000 citizens. At it’s highest (the early ’80s) it was a markedly increased 10 murders per 100,000 citizens. That’s right, in 1980, the most dangerous year in the past century, you had a 0.0001 chance of being murdered. Personally, I can see how that would terrify everyone. Really, I mean, the idea that I might be selected out of a crowd of 100,000 people is utterly terrifying. If you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic.

Since the early ’80s violent crime rates have actually fallen drastically. They stayed high through the ’80s and early ’90s, then dropped in the mid ’90s, only to rise again. Then, in the early 2000s violent crime rates plummeted to a mere 6 murders per 100,000 citizens. Needless to say, this isn’t something that any of us should be overly terrified about. Now, obviously, local crime rates differ. At the moment, if you live in inner city Chicago, IL then you certainly have more reason to be cautious than people who live in Wake Forest, NC. However, in general our culture pushes us to an utter and abstract terror of everything that is not even remotely justified. Doverspike’s points about how we have let this fear affect our children are well founded (and, as I said above, I agree that we need to treat their online lives with a little less fear and a little more respect).

Instead of being sucked into a culture of fear, we should be exploring the nation we live in. (Oh, and by the way, I have actually lived in close proximity to drug dealers for an extended period of time. Sometimes they wanted to shoot each other, but I never found one who wanted to shoot me. This isn’t to say that drug dealers aren’t dangerous, but they don’t generally go around willy-nilly shooting potential clientele.) We should be exploring our neighborhoods, getting to know our neighbors, meeting people at local venues, and enjoying our lives. If we weren’t so busy being scared and then mad and then scared again, we might actually succeed in both finding meaning in life and sharing our faith with friends who don’t know much about it, rather than trying to ram it down the throats of strangers.

So, my point? Isn’t it obvious? Plato set out four virtues: Courage, Wisdom, Justice, and Temperance. As a culture we encourage none of these. Personally, I think it’s time to man-up.

Simple Complaining

I am moderately overweight (30-40ish lbs).  I’m actually smaller now than I have been in a long time. I’ve been fat since I was 10 years old. It took a diet (caused by poverty, not choice) of one can of green beans a day and some pretty intense exercise to drop fifty pounds and I’ve managed to keep most of it off (I’ve gained back about 10 pounds). This month I’m doing a planned semi-extreme diet (not as extreme as a can of green beans a day) to hopefully drop another 10-20 pounds. Here’s the thing though, I gain weight if I eat much over 1500 calories a day for any extended amount of time. At about 1500 calories a day I can maintain my weight, at 1000 or less calories a day I might (key word here) actually start to lose weight. It’s definitely a losing battle and sometimes I wonder: what’s the fucking point?

It’s not that I don’t want to look good. I’ve even at a point now where I have several forms of exercise (martial arts, lifting [sometimes], elliptical machines, and yoga) that I actually enjoy. However, 1000 calories a day and 2 hrs working out a day is hard to maintain on a busy schedule. Of course, this is also when thoughts like ‘there’s no point, no one will love me anyway’ start to worm their way into my consciousness and wiggle around inside my head. Little thoughts like that can cause huge problems for my battle against my weight, my health in general, and my emotional life at large. Nonetheless, they are there. The fears, the worries, the negative self-esteem, all present and accounted for.

That being said, I’ve talked about self-esteem in general before, and I view negative self-esteem the same way. Just like positive self-esteem, negative self-esteem is a bad thing, not because it builds a poor self image, but because it isn’t based on anything real or true. Self-esteem is, at its core, an over-focusing on ourselves, and an under-focusing on others. Whether that self-esteem is negative or positive doesn’t actually matter, both are equally bad. Both equally over-focus the mind on the self, and both are built on lies that we tell ourselves, not on actual experience that reflects who we really are. Self-esteem is fragile precisely because it is fragile and selfish. The fact that it doesn’t have any basis in reality makes it much harder to disprove (no, seriously, try to actually prove that Unicorns or Dragons don’t exist sometime). The experiential evidence of life doesn’t matter, but at the same time, anything (whether experiential or equally as unreal as self-esteem itself) that throws our self-esteem into doubt is immediately counted as a threat and attacked.

I fall into this the same as anyone else. I fight back against the idea that there might be a point to trying. I argue that I’m worthless, stupid, pointless, and undesirable. I make a point of convincing myself about these things precisely so that I can convince other people. Honestly, I’m doing a lot better about this than I have in the past, but its something that I still struggle with. My ‘self-esteem’ isn’t based on any kind of reality. Honestly, a lot of it is based on the fact that women keep rejecting me. However, the fact that I’ve had a lot of rejection doesn’t actually say anything about my value as a person. The only thing that it might provide real evidence for is the claim that I’m undesirable. It certainly says nothing about my worth, intelligence, or purpose. Not only is my self-esteem unrealistic, but it is entirely self-involved. I can get so busy throwing myself an idiotic pity party that I forget to consider what’s around me and miss opportunities to actually be a worthwhile person.

Like I said, I’m getting better about this. It’s still a work in progress, and still far from completion, but I am getting better, and I hope to keep getting better. So, right now my answer to the question: what’s the fucking point? Is: I want to.

Thanksgiving and Remembrances

Obviously, I haven’t posted in a while. Part of the reason is that I’ve been fairly busy lately. I spent most of the weekend and beginning of this week making sure that I had all of my papers graded before Wednesday so that I could spend Thanksgiving with my family. Part of the reason is that I did spend Thanksgiving with my family, which meant travel, get-togethers, food, etc. I also think that part of the reason, a subconscious part, is that 1) I’m still not entirely comfortable having followers on this blog and I want to get rid of all of you, and 2) the most significant thing I’ve had to say lately isn’t something that I’m actually comfortable saying yet. In fact, what I’m about to write I’ve told all of one person (my niece), and I had to force myself to tell her. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, in fact I think its a very, very good thing, but its something that is very personal, and very uncomfortable. I’m not used to it yet.

So, giving thanks. There are a lot of things to be thankful for, and something that we do at my church the Sunday before every thanksgiving is take a night to simply share things that we are thankful for. I couldn’t get up and share this, though I wanted to. There are many reasons to be thankful. Many things that should inspire gratitude in us. For one, I have a loving family that gets along well. I live in a safe town. I live in a safe part of time. I have good roommates. I like my apartment complex. I have a job that I thoroughly love. I have good friends who care about me. I have people who know they can depend on me. I have a plethora of amazing books to read. I have access to websites with even more amazing books to read. Let’s face it, even being poor in America isn’t all that bad unless you’re at the very bottom of the barrel. I could go on listing things about my church, the school I’m applying to, friend, hobbies, etc, but I think you get the point. I have a lot to be thankful for.

That being said, I haven’t always been a thankful person. Actually, for a long time I was an extremely ungrateful person. I always wanted more, no matter what. It didn’t matter what I did have. The only thing that mattered to me is what I didn’t have. (Don’t worry, I am actually getting to the point). I’ve mentioned several times that I used to be  (still am all to often) a right bastard. My lack of any form of gratitude was a part of that. There are still things that I’m working on. For instance, my last couple of birthdays have been difficult (hell, birthdays have always been difficult for me). The year before last my birthday was ignored entirely. This came on the tail end of a bad breakup in which the girl that I’d been ‘not-quite-dating’ dumped me and then jumped in bed with someone three days later. Admittedly, that was a low point, and I feel that I wasn’t entirely unjustified in being frustrated with my friends. My birthday this year wasn’t forgotten, a few friends even got together and threw me a party. Honestly, this should have been plenty to satisfy me, but the distinct lack of gifts stood out to me. I went out of my way to be profuse in speaking my gratitude, but I’m not convinced that it was entirely felt. A part of this is that gifts are my primary means of receiving love and affection. If you really want to make my day, send me an encouraging note or give me a little something with a lot of meaning.

I’m not saying that I need big gifts or expensive gifts. Honestly, how much it cost doesn’t matter to me at all. If you can get it for free, all the better. What does matter is the time, thought, and effort that you put into the gift. I have a few rules for gift-giving: 1) the gift should be meaningful to the giver, 2) the gift should be desirable to the recipient, 3) the gift should say something about the relationship between the two, 4) the gift shouldn’t be a necessity. So, the lack of gifts did actually mean something to me. However, I also think that lack of gratitude stayed with me for longer than it should have.

So, the point. One of the things that my church does on our night of gratitude is ask this question: What is one thing that you are thankful for now that you never thought you could be thankful for?

My answer to that question surprised me. I am thankful that God has kept me single for as long as he has. I’m not saying that I don’t still want to get married. I’m not saying that I’ve given up. I am saying this, and I’ve said this part of it several times. God has taught me more through loneliness and broken relationships than through any other single means. It is my utter, complete, and repeated failure with women that has taught be to love other people, and taught me about God’s love for me. This is probably the single most significant change in me over the course of my salvation, and I’ve been thankful for the changes themselves, but never for the process that led to them.

This is the thing that no one ever told me about gratitude. There are many, many levels of gratitude. It’s not simply about saying thank you, nor is it simply about being thankful for the things that you have or the things that you like. I need to be thankful for the things in my life that are good for me, even if I don’t really enjoy them.

Saying thank you and actually being thankful are two different things as well. I can say ‘thank you’ a hundred times and never mean it. However, saying thank you can (and some of the exercises on Happify.com have helped with this) actually help you to be thankful for things. Being thankful is more consistent than simply saying thank you. A simple ‘thank you’ can come out of nothing more complicated than politeness. However, being thankful comes from the heart. It reflects the core of one’s being, and it is one of the things that reflects godliness. We should rejoice and be thankful in general, but we should make special effort to rejoice and be thankful for those things that we are not at first eager to say thank you for.

So… I think at this point I’ve stopped making sense. So, I leave you with this: gratitude that is slow to appear, begruding, and quickly vanishes is less than real. It might be a good step, but it isn’t real. Gratitude that overflows from the heart, that is quick to the tongue, eager to be shared, and doesn’t disappear after being shared is the real thing. Strive for that.

Thanksgiving Part 1

So, this has been a little bit of a frustrating weekend, and before I start into my post proper there’s something that I need to put down, just to get it out of my head. I met a young woman last week, lovely lady and clearly intelligent. This was the second time that I’d met her, but the first time that I really spent significant time talking with her. After some excellent conversation about the sociological messages in Ender’s Game and Keynesian Economics, I asked her if she’d like to get dinner with me, and she said that she would very much enjoy that. I ran into her again the next day, though not for long, and on Saturday I called her to figure out a time to get dinner. I caught her at work, and she asked if she could call me back. She never did. I texted her later that night, just in case she’d been waiting for me to call her. No response. I called her again this evening, and she didn’t pick up. If I’m going to be completely truthful, which is my goal here, this young woman has lost most all of my respect, and it’s going to take a truly excellent excuse to get it back.

Now, it’s entirely possible that she’s lost her phone somewhere and is panicking about not being able to get in touch with me. However, I can’t say that I expect this. I’ve mentioned before that women have, quite often, given me the ‘yes means no’ treatment, and I have no doubt that I’m not the only male that this has happened to. Honestly, this is, in part at least, what leads me to the general conclusion that there are no honest women. Even the best women pull this kind of stuff, and it just leaves me with the impression that ‘honesty’ as an actual concept has no meaning to the female mind. As far as I can tell, women in general lie by rote. They don’t even consider it lying. I can remember, when I was in college, girls telling each other that ‘when a guy who isn’t that interesting or attractive asks you out, just say yes and then give him the phone number for the campus police’. Apparently this was funny, but honestly I just find the incredible lack of honesty and compassion appalling.

That being said, I told flowergirl this morning that we are to be thankful for everything that happens in our lives. We thank God for the wonderful, pleasant, nice things (of course, that’s easy), but we also thank God for the tears, the lies, and the hurts that are a part of everyday life. This is a part of trusting God. As I’ve said before, if I only trust God to do the things that I want him to do, then I’m not really trusting him. I’m trusting myself. Real trust begins when God starts doing things that we don’t understand, or that we don’t want, and real trust is thankful for those things: not just after I understand what they were leading to, but during the trials themselves. Real trust in God thanks him for this girl who led me on a wild goose chase. Real trust thanks him for the terror I feel every time I look at taking the next step towards applying to Southeastern. Real trust thanks God when I don’t have the money to pay my electric bill (I do right now, just an example… I’ve been there in the past though).

My point here is that when we really trust God, then we thank him for everything that he allows in our lives precisely because we trust him. We know that ‘God uses all things for good for those who are called according to his purpose… because they are predestined to be conformed to the image of his son’ (Romans 8:28-29… I’ve paraphrased a bit). The goal of sanctification is Christlikeness, and Christlikeness does not come easily. It doesn’t come through comfort and luxury, and it doesn’t generally look like a malibu sunrise (either the drink or the place). Honestly, most of the time it looks a little bit more like Sarajevo during the civil war. It’s rough, painful, dangerous, and generally doesn’t make any sense. That’s good. That’s where we’re supposed to be. So, let’s thank God for it.