Sunday, March 23, 2014

On happiness

Dear Hannah,

It's four o'clock on Sunday morning, and I'm sitting down to write you about happiness.  I don't know why, but the UN has decided to have an International Day of Happiness, and I can't sleep because I keep thinking about it.  Maybe having a day about happiness makes them happy; writing about why they shouldn't works much better for me.

I don't know what it is about the UN that makes them so stupid: it could be that too many chefs are in the kitchen.  It could also be that so much diversity results in agreement only in things that are vague.  In the abstract, everyone would like a clean environment, and justice, and a great economy: I suppose this is why they chose International Happiness Day to talk about them.  The problem is, not everyone believes that terrorists are terrorists, or that productive and inventive and venturesome people (who are the only reason the West is wealthy) have a right to be wealthy, or that cleanliness is as important as getting the next meal.  The leaders have precise ideas about vague concepts, of course -- and all of their solutions are leftist, while pretending to appeal to everyone.  But taking a poll in an illiterate, starving world is asking for the worst possible outcome: perhaps the only worse idea, is taking a poll of an illiterate, starving world's political leaders.  You might as well ask the wolves whether they want sheep to prosper, and whether the strongest wolves should be weaker.  Of course they agree, in a sense; it means they get to eat more sheep.

But anyhow, if cleanliness and justice and economics weren't vague enough ideas for their own holidays, the UN has opted for them all at once, and declared a day of happiness.  Of course everyone wants to be happy: that's what defines what they do at every moment of the day.  Why do we go to work?  Because starving is terrible.  Why do we shower?  So that people will like us.  Why do we read books, and watch television?  So that we can be informed and do something, or entertained and do nothing.  For goodness' sake, whatever the outcome, people rape and murder one another because they think it will make them happier than keeping to themselves -- there really isn't anything anyone has ever done without a purpose, and that purpose is the advancement of our own happiness.  What a stupid idea for an international holiday!  Were the rest of the days for doing the things we believe will make us worse?  At the very least, we should be wondering what kind of things the UN is doing the rest of the time.

If I can give you one good piece of advice on this matter, aim for all kinds of good things, but never aim to be happy.   Have a good meal, read a good book, spend time in good fellowship -- never wonder the whole time you're there whether or not you're happy: you will know soon enough.  You are a happiness machine, and happiness runs on doing the right things.  The real issue, though -- and I hope this doesn't confuse you -- is whether or not you are doing the right things.

Having the right things is another matter entirely.  You'll want to be in a clean house, of course, and you won't want to be unhealthy, or hungry, or in any other state of misery.  But remember that your mind is always active, and constantly on the move: you might even say that your entire being is an existence in chase.  And if this is the case, you have to chase things, first of all, that you can get.  To spend a lifetime wanting to have a Lamborghini without any entrepreneurial vision or talent is essentially to live a life of frustration -- and I have a feeling that even if you did become rich, you would simply want to get wealthier.  But the second thing is, you have to chase something that nobody can take away from you.

I'm not saying that we should never have any kind of ambition, or that if you can lose something, you shouldn't have it.  Then nobody would ever run our government or get married.  But there's something you and everyone else can do to make themselves happy, something they can do without competing over resources or limited positions of power, and something they can do that nobody has the ability to take away, and that is doing what is right.

Think of it: you can be warmed by the sensation of buying a new car -- but the sensation will fade; and even if it doesn't fade, you will become so used to the sensation, that you will forget you are feeling it.  The same goes with romantic affections and business promotions and cocaine and whatnot; it's entirely different with doing good.  Nobody sits up at night wondering whether the act of kindness he did earlier that day will be stolen or scratched, and nobody can be bored by looking at his act of kindness on a shelf.  Acts of goodness never rust or tarnish, and nobody has ever lost them in an earthquake.  But every day you can go to work, knowing that much more than work awaits you: whether you're a widget-maker or a car-salesman or an executive officer, your very soul is on trial, and you have much more to get than money.  Every day you can come home after eight hours of work, and celebrate the fact that instead of being mean to the coworker who was rude, you were kind to her instead -- generous, even.  She has no power over you; your soul triumphed over hers.  And the next day will bring another series of challenges and victories -- if you will make them victories, whether you stay at home with the children or you're a missionary in Africa.  And you will never get tired of having them.  Nobody can make you a bad person but yourself, and if you make your life a pursuit of being a kind of person, your happiness is in your hands, so long as you carry it out.

Just think of it: even were you to become desensitized to good acts, as an alcoholic becomes too used to liquors, what would this lead to?  Greater acts of goodness?  Maybe you'll master the little things entirely -- and then move on to greater things.  Maybe you'll think that returning kindness for someone else's ugliness isn't as novel as it used to be -- and then you'll begin giving to the unworthy, as God daily gives to you.  Maybe you'll begin forgiving the unforgivable, and giving what you thought was essential, but was actually forfeitable.  Then you will be freer than before from the rest of your material existence, and you will have a great reward in heaven.  And I have a feeling that if you take this advice seriously, you will have great rewards on earth, too.

There is a sense in which this kind of thing can go wrong, and that's where pride enters the mix.  Never confuse happiness for good works with happiness in a reputation: the Bible is clear that the wicked will always hate the righteous, and the righteous will always despise the wicked (Proverbs 29:27), and if you're expecting to please everyone by doing good, you'll quickly become frustrated, and perhaps even hindered from goodness.  And never confuse a healthy pursuit of virtue with a competition for glory: if you're always looking to outdo your neighbors, and to hold your chin above theirs, what's driving you isn't virtue, but pride -- and it will eventually make you hate others instead of loving them.  Whoever you were loving will be a source of gain, like any other greedy businessperson's, and even the best of men will become enviable and almost enemies, when they should have been allies.  Remember the saying of Grotius, that pride begins in heaven.  Pride makes angels into devils, and turns virtue into vanity.  Read Cicero's orations (preferably the Phillippics or the ones against Catiline), and watch him praise himself over his every quality, and ask yourself what his motives were: whether the doing of good, or so that he could look at himself in the mirror -- and ask yourself whether this spoils his greatness (if not entirely, then still unfortunately).

There's really only one safeguard against the most-usually unexpected menace known as pride, and that is the knowledge of self, and of Jesus Christ.  Allow the Scriptures to guide you to both: read The Law, and see how poorly we stack against it; read the Gospels, and see them fulfilled in a single man, and see how poorly you compare with Him.  Confess your sins frequently and publicly.  Read books about great men and women.  Remember that even if everyone around us is practically ruined, and we seem to be doing much better, that Jesus is better than us still, and that He gives grace only to the humble, and hates the proud.  Chase virtue until you reach the heavens, but in your saintliness, never forget your imperfections and think yourself perfect. If you want praise, seek it from God, whose insight is perfect, whose morals are inflexible, who experiences no competition and has no hidden agendas. And if men praise you for your goodness, and you find yourself celebrated by the masses, remember the words of Oliver Cromwell as crowds cheered his arrival: they would be cheering just as much if we were going to be hanged.  

Your father,

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