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.

Being Yourself

I have a friend that I deeply admire. She’s actually a barista at my favorite coffee shop, but I’m there so much that I consider most of the barista’s friends at this point, or at least close acquaintances. This particular young woman, let’s call her Michelle, impresses me because she is always herself. I… am not always myself. Don’t get me wrong, I always try to be myself, but there are times that I wind up being someone else, or trying to be someone else, to impress someone, or to hide some insecurity, or to protect myself from getting hurt. I think that I can honestly say that I am usually myself, but not always.

I’ve never seen Michelle be less than herself. She has a unique personality that is inspiring both in it’s confidence and in it’s openness. I can’t say that she’s not afraid to share who she is (I don’t know the inner workings of her mind), but if she is afraid, she doesn’t let it stop her. Michelle doesn’t seem concerned with impressing people, and in being unconcerned she is impressive precisely because she isn’t trying to be unconcerned. I’ve written a fair amount about striving. Striving for success, for coolness, for likablility, for wealth, for attraction, for godliness, for… whatever… we strive for the things we want, we push, we fight, and weep, and we are never satisfied. Michelle strikes me as a person who is simply satisfied.

I’m probably wrong in this, at least to some degree. I’m sure that she has her share of problems, and I’ve certainly seen her on off days when she wasn’t particularly happy with something. I’ve seen her on days when she’s down in the dumps, on days when she’s still asleep, on days when she’s bright and chipper, and on days when she’s just plain frustrated with something. I’ve seen her struggling with problems she didn’t know how she was going to handle. So I’m not trying to say that Michelle’s life is perfect, or that she handles life perfectly. However, I can say that she handle’s life honestly.

I am forced here to think of another young woman I met at this coffee shop, a very pretty young woman to whom I was quite attracted… until I spent a little time talking to her. I honestly don’t even remember her name, but we’ll call her Red Dress… it was what first attracted me to her… unlike Michelle, my few conversations with Red Dress have seemed… less then genuine. She strikes me as a person who forces herself to be happy, even when she isn’t, because it’s the Christian thing to do. I remember one of my first conversations with Red Dress, she put on one of the most plastic smiles I’ve ever seen, and told me that I too could be filled with unbelievable joy… the only thing I could think was that if the ‘joy’ I saw in her was the joy she was offering, I didn’t want any part of it. Michelle is joyful, even on her crap days she exudes a sense of wonderment about God and the world around her. Red Dress is… fake.

One of the most important things that any of us can do is to be honest with ourselves. If we are not honest with ourselves, then we cannot be honest with others. If we cannot be honest, then we cannot be ourselves. We will put up fronts, masks, falsehoods without even realizing it, and all to often, people can see through these into our actual selves. Masks are a natural part of being. A natural part of living. That doesn’t make them good.

push… Push… PUSH!

I slept for eleven hours last night. It was wonderful, and I think very much needed. I tend to push myself fairly hard, and every so often my body just says ‘nope, that’s it, I quit’. Then I get sick and have to spend a few days sleeping and eating a lot. Yesterday, I could tell that I was starting to come down with something, and I still did my best to get all of my work done, but I also tried to take some time to relax and enjoy myself. As Americans we tend to have a habit of forgetting to take care of ourselves. We’re not as bad as some *cough* Japanese *cough*, and we tend to be much harder workers than others *cough* Spanish *cough*.

All in all, I think we’re close to having a good balance. There are some people who work 80, 90, 100 hour weeks and this isn’t a good thing, but then there are some who work 20 hour weeks and think that they spend too much time at work, which is ridiculous. Work is important, it’s part of being a grown-up and taking responsibility, which is also a good thing, but it’s very important to find time to just relax and enjoy yourself as well, and it’s important to know how you enjoy yourself.

There are lots of different ways to play. Some people like to play with action figures, or to play video games. Other people like to play football or soccer. Other people like to just lay around and watch movies, and some people like to go out and start fights. I have to admit that if I can find a good person to fight with, a person who knows how to really enjoy a good, clean fight, then it’s a lot of fun. Those people are fairly rare though.

So, all in all, I’m actually a fan of the ‘American’ work ethic (not that every American has this ethic). Work hard when its time to work, and relax well when its time to relax. However, our priorities are way off base. We seem to have taken the motto ‘If something’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right’ far too seriously. I was raised with the idea that if I can’t be that absolute best at something, then there’s no point in even trying. The goal was not ‘do your best’ but ‘be the best’, and as I drill into all of my students, but especially my martial arts students, ‘there will always be someone better than you’.

I think that a better motto for us to live by is ‘if something’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing badly’. I tend to want to do the things that I’m really good at. I’m good at fighting, I’m good at teaching, I’m good at deep conversation, and I thoroughly enjoy all of these things. I seek them out because I enjoy them. However, the things that I’m bad at… making money, paying bills, math, romantic relationships, small talk, bananagrams, etc I often find myself avoiding. I find excuses for not doing things that are absolutely worth doing, because I’m not very good at them. That’s a dumb thing to do.

If something is actually worth doing, then it’s worth doing it badly. I spent the other night with a group of friends (… all girls actually) just hanging out and playing games. We played volleyball, frisbee, bananagrams… all things that I’m pretty bad at. There was no deep conversation (this group actively avoids that), and obviously there was no fighting. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening because I just let myself suck. I didn’t try to win, I just tried to have fun, and I did. So, the moral for today: stop trying to be the best at everything! Do your best, absolutely, but don’t be afraid to lose a game, get a B (or a D), or just fail at something that’s worth doing. If it’s worth doing, then it doesn’t matter if you succeed. It’s not about succeeding, it’s about doing.

Eudaimonia

I’m jealous of people who seem like they have it easy. This isn’t a good thing, but it is a thing. I have a few friends who work hard, and they’re good people, but it always seems like things just come to them. I don’t really know how else to put it. This is a meanness in me, and I realize that, but I see these people who are happy and successful and together, and I get frustrated sitting on the outside looking in. Partially because I don’t know how to be that person. Happiness has never been particularly important to me. A year ago a friend of mine tried to coach me, well… she called it coaching, but it was really counseling in disguise. She kept trying to convince me that I could just choose to be happy, that I should go to a happy place, which has always struck me as a cop-out. There is a difference between having a peaceful confident joy that comes from God and running to some imaginary happy place that lets you hide from real life. However, she finally got around to asking me, ‘don’t you want to be happy?’ And this honestly should have been her first question. My answer… “I don’t know. Happiness is… meh.”

I’ve always striven to be better. There was a time that I was a very bad person, and I think a lot of this striving came from that. I want to be good more than I want to be happy. I want to be like Christ more than I want to be happy. However, I think that I’m coming to the realization that part of being better is learning to be happy (and by happy I mean joyful). Joy is one of the fruits of the spirit, perhaps one that me make to much of (after all it isn’t faith, hope, or love), but still it is one, and if I am devoid of joy (and I have been devoid of joy at times), then I am missing an essential part of what Christ is trying to make me.

I’ve said for a long time that Americans are far to obsessed with happiness and pleasure, and I think this is very true. However, running in the opposite direction and avoiding happiness and pleasure entirely isn’t any better. It’s like saying that Americans are greedy, so I’m going to give away everything I own and live on welfare. It might be a noble gesture, but it isn’t really the right response. So… I think I know my answer, a year later, but still I know my answer. I do want to be happy, or rather I want to be joyful. It’s something that God’s been trying to teach me for a while, and I tend to have a really hard head. I don’t listen well, but he always get’s through to me eventually.

My happiness actually does matter. It’s not the only thing that matters. Obviously it has to be held in balance with temperance, love, peace, patience, kindness, virtue, etc. Nonetheless, my happiness does matter, and I should be working to be happy. I don’t want to say that I should be working to make myself happy. I’m honestly not even sure what that would look like… a wife maybe, a few kids, an income of $50-$60 thousand a year… or maybe two or three wives and an income of several million a year… or maybe living in a monastery where I don’t have to worry about women at all… honestly, I’m pretty sure that (if it were up to me at least) happiness would revolve around women in some way.

Instead of trying to make myself happy and running from one thing to another to another, I want to be happy where I am, with what God has given me. I want to be happy with myself as the man that God has made me, even if I can’t have the things that I want. That… is something that I’m still working on. Too often I still want to be someone else, and that does nothing to help me be satisfied with him, and I think that the kind of happiness that I’m describing here, Plato’s eudaimonia, is part and parcel with satisfaction. Still, at the moment, beyond the fact that satisfaction comes from God… I have no idea how to actually be happy. Plato argued that eudaimonia comes from living a virtuous life. However, my life at present is fairly virtuous and I certainly don’t spend a lot of time in eudaimonia. So, while I agree that virtue is a part of eudaimonia, there is another part… or probably a few other parts, that I haven’t found yet.

Right now God has me waiting… on pretty much everything in life, and I think I may have just realized why he has me waiting. Of course, I could be completely wrong. This might just be another rabbit trail, he knows I’ve gone down plenty of those, he’s even led me down a couple. That, however, is a story for another time.