Eugene de Blaas - A Pensive Moment - 1896
A Few Thoughts On True Happiness.
Choose contentment. Be frustrated. Pause. Practice leisure. Take up your cross.
Happiness. Our world is full of cliches and bromides on the subject. “Happiness isn’t what you hold in your hand, but what you hold in your heart.” “Happiness is in your hands.” “Sometimes it is the things that you are most afraid of that will make you the happiest.” It’s built into our constitution that all human beings have the right to pursue happiness. But what is it? For me happiness has felt ever elusive, always just out of reach, a misty mythology uttered timorously from pulpits and podiums—the unicorn of Christian thought. “Don’t try to be happy, be joyful,” I’ve been told countless times by well-meaning individuals.
Happiness is defined by many people in many ways, but one of my favorites is this dictionary definition: happiness is pleasure and contentment. It is this definition of happiness I will be using throughout this post. So how do we achieve this?
As a child I thought “be content” simply meant to accept your circumstances. Contentment is a Biblical principle, a virtue, and a discipline heralded by spiritual thinkers throughout the century as one of the few secrets to true happiness. It isn’t a gut-level tendency, either. “Joy in all things” is far more like a choice than it is like an instinct. But how to reconcile the idea of learning and choosing contentment with American capitalism, American Christianity’s fixation on financial, emotional and physical “blessings”? How to reconcile it with our culturally-accepted-and-perpetuated laissez-faire treatment of ourselves and others? This is something I wrestle with on a daily basis as I watch yet another episode of a favorite sitcom without even asking myself if this is a good and happy way to spend the little free-time I have. But this is not a meditation on politics or capitalism. I merely point out that our ideas about economics seem to have bled into our ideas about contentment. Whether this is causative or merely correlative I do not know. But I feel sure they are connected somehow.
Contentment can be defined as “a state of happiness and satisfaction.” What? The definition of happiness includes contentment and the definition of contentment includes happiness? The two are linked. And since contentment is such an integral part of happiness, this next portion of the post is about how to choose contentment. The first step is to be frustrated.
In order to even realize that contentment is possible you must first experience frustration. It’s easy to feel contented when I currently have the cookie in hand that I’ve been craving, when I think of something I want from the store and I am immediately able to purchase it, or when I am walking past a bakery and I make an impulse buy. But what of the times when I am frustrated by outside forces? I want the cookie but I’ve run out and my car is in the shop: I don’t have the money for the book I wanted: the bakery is cash only and I have only a debit card with me. The level of disappointment I have sometimes experienced at these externally applied frustrations is rather shocking. I may not complain. But I fixate. I want that cookie so badly. I can’t think about anything else. Obviously I am using piddling examples of disappointment—often our frustrations are larger and more formidable. My kid didn’t get into the private school on the lottery system. Or, I wanted to go to Europe this summer and had saved money but I owed more on my taxes than I’d anticipated. The concentration of disappointment experienced as a result of these things, along with the subsequent amount of fixation on said disappointment, reveals a lot about how able we are to be frustrated, and to cope with it.
I hypothesize that there are two ways to learn to be frustrated happily. One is to have parents that deny us things, that deny to grant us our every wish and whim—not out of any sort of disordered pleasure at dashing our hopes, but out of love and concern and care for us as human beings—out of a desire to see us learn to be happy. The second way is to intentionally deny ourselves, once we are of an age to do so. Fast when we have to, according to the customs of our tradition—and when we don’t have to, as an added spiritual and emotional discipline. What if I sat down one day and drew up a plan—Monday I fast from television, Tuesday from sweets, Wednesday from coffee, Thursday from alcohol, and so on and so forth? And not only that, but what if I decided that to each thing I gave up I would attach a certain prayer? God, my fast from desserts today is my prayer for the freedom of the Chinese from religious persecution. The fruit of this small sacrifice is at least two-fold; firstly, it teaches self-denial, which, inasmuch as it teaches contentment, is one secret to true happiness. Secondly, it contextualizes our lesser desires in the larger global story of the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of individual happiness is not a bad thing: our problem is, most of us envision happiness too narrowly, all made up of plentiful food and a nice car, a comfortable house and kids going to the best schools. These are not bad things. But our refusal to be contented with less interferes with our ability to be happy.
Happiness is many things, but one thing that it is not is the instant fulfillment of our lesser longings. Defining happiness as including pleasure and contentment implies that the two must live in harmony. Pleasure must be tempered by contentment, and contentment must be ready to temper pleasure. If we are not taught this practically, and if we do not take care to continually teach ourselves this, then our response to true suffering will be less joyful. True happiness includes contentment, so if we are not exercised and steeped in the daily practice of contentment, we will never be happy, even when we are not denied our desires. And if we do not fast, we will never know how to truly feast.
Have you ever found yourself wondering how you accidentally spent four hours watching episodes of the Office on an off day? I know I have. My problem is, I don’t pause enough. If I would just pause and ask myself, do I really need to watch another episode right now? Is this going to make me feel more rested? Will this make me happy? I would probably choose differently than to spend all of those four hours on the couch. I must pause—I must examine—and then I must choose.
We are so apt to define leisure simply as “free time”, placing no boundaries or constraints on it. But in doing so we are forgetting the origins of leisure. From the Catechism:
2184 Just as God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done,” human life has a rhythm of work and rest. The institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.
Did you catch that? “…leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.” Doesn’t sound much like the lazing on the couch, absorbing television programs, that I do way too often. Many things have I mistakenly called leisure, even though they do nothing to cultivate and facilitate those portions of full, sustained life that the catechism mentions.
The practice of leisure is firmly and deeply rooted in our status as beings who bear the Imago Dei. Imago Dei means “the Image of God”, and is “a concept and theological doctrine in Christianity, Judaism, and Sufi Islam which asserts that human beings are created in God’s image and therefore have inherent value independent of their utility or function.” (sourced from Wikipedia)
If we accept this teaching (and if we are Christians or Jews or Sufis, then we certainly ought to, as it is part of orthodox thought) then we must examine leisure in light of who we are. When we spend excessive amounts of free time doing things that do not provide us real nourishment, whether that be in a religious, familial, cultural, or social way, then we are robbing ourselves of the chance to cultivate true happiness. In missing out on those things and choosing lesser things, less restful things, we are not being who we really are. If God leads and models a rhythm of rest and work, so ought we to. Even if you, as in my case, do not adhere to a literal “seven day creation” belief about the origins of life (I’m a Theistic evolutionist) the infinite wisdom of God is still painstakingly present in the way He chose to tell us the story of our beginning. If we are bearers of the Imago Dei then we should learn to live as God lives—in a rhythm of working and resting. By resting, I mean those things which the catechism mentions: the cultivation of our familial, cultural, social, and religious lives. This can include myriad things: reading, writing, preparing and eating meals, drinking wine, Church, corporate or solitary prayer, hobbies, crafts, learning a language, learning a skill.
One thing I do not believe real leisure *usually* includes is television, or at least television of a certain ilk. I’m not stating that I think sit-coms and reality television are inherently bad, and that I should never watch them. I just don’t believe they typically contribute in any meaningful way to the portions of life the catechism mentions, so they don’t qualify as actual leisure. Films and long-running series can be a different story, because they can do so much more to execute a well-constructed story arc and character development, which are two hallmarks of literature. Also, they commonly display a greater emphasis on and usage of the arts of cinematography, direction, color correction, acting, and the like.
What I really feel is that leisure ought to be chosen and practiced based on these tenets in the Catechism, so that we truly learn to rest and work in rhythm. Then, I believe, happiness (contentment and pleasure) will be more easily gained, most especially because we will be leaning into our true identities as bearers of Imago Dei. As human beings I don’t believe we should define the right to the pursuit of happiness as the right to have whatever we want. Happiness isn’t a destination or a dowry or a dream job: real, true, happiness is a discipline, and it must simply be seen and chosen and practiced.
Take Up Your Cross
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that for Christians, our best and most perfect example of the apprehension of true happiness is Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant. He modeled these things for us perfectly. He was a carpenter by trade. He worked. He was a willing wedding guest: He drank wine. He even turned water (boring) into that glorious libation that David tells us was given by God to “gladden man’s heart.” (Ps. 104:15) And tellingly, He used one of the most primordial and pervasive forms of leisure, the meal, to give us perhaps the greatest gift we have on earth—the Eucharist. He bore the Imago Dei perfectly in His life and in His death. If we truly wish to discover happiness, we need only look to His example: embracing both ease and hardship with pleasure and contentment—accepting crown and crucifixion with the same open hands. I leave you with these words from the letter to the Hebrews (emphasis mine). “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before uswhile keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.”