Sunday, September 9, 2012

On the Pursuit of Happiness

What would you do if you had every material thing you ever wanted?

If your stuff could talk to you...
Seriously though.  If you had each and every urge and desire fulfilled, every material pleasure given to you, every material desire presented to you, what would that do to you?  Endless food and drink, endless pleasure, endless luxurious stuff, etc. etc.  Would you be happy?  Would you stop wanting, or at least want less?

Before any of you jump to say yes, consider the following:  The United States is, without question, the most affluent society in the history of mankind, possessing the largest array of mind-boggling distractions, entertainment, and pleasures that any society has possessed since societies started caring about such things.  Put to scale, we have almost everything we've ever wanted, and we have it with such ease and non-nonchalance that its almost criminal.  So, we should ask ourselves:  Are we, as a society, happy?  I'm going to go out on an unscientific limb here and say no, mostly because we've got a mass shooting nearly every week, the economy is a wreck, riot police now come standard with any sort of political shebang, and depression rates ever increasing.  Not statistically valid, I know, but call it a reasonable hunch.  Point is, we, as a people, are affluent, wealthy, spoiled, and ultimately discontent.

We exist to be happy.  The ultimate purpose of human beings is to be truly, deeply, residually happy.  The pursuit of happiness drives us, it moves us unlike anything else.  We will do many great and terrible things for happiness.  When I say happiness, I'm not referring to those brief passing moments where you sit down and think "Hot snot, I'm happy."  No, I'm referring to the sort of happiness that occurs when, now and forever, you have satisfied your life's purpose.  The happiness you receive when your very essence has been satiated, when every question you've ever asked has been answered, when the fundamental mysteries of your existence are no longer mysteries.  Yeah.  That kinda happiness.

We want happiness.  We want it more passionately than anything else because, simply put, its the only reason we are wanting.  Want exists because there is something wanting, because we have a void and it needs filling.  No one asks questions if they have all the answers.  Nobody seeks what they have already found.  No person hungers when they have their fill.  The most evident principle of human nature is that we are an imperfect creatures.  We are creatures of deficiency, our very nature is to be lacking, all of our actions are geared towards filling that fundamental lack.  Being imperfect probably wouldn't be such an issue if we didn't process in terms of perfection.  Human beings think perfection, we desire it, and thus are painfully aware of imperfection.  Had we been unaware that such a thing as perfection existed, we'd find imperfection bearable.  However, because we desire perfection, we suffer our own imperfection.

"What's my purpose in the midst of an ordered
universe" said no dolphin ever
What is perfection then?  Why do we strive for what we do not have?  Why do we hunger for something we can give no example of?  Why am I asking all these redundant questions rather than getting to the point?  Humans are perfectionists because we were made for perfection by Perfection.  Lions don't experience moral outrage.  Dolphins don't find themselves in existential crises, horribly distraught at the discrepancy between the state of dolphin-hood and the ideal image of dolphin-hood.  Yet humans do.  We do ask the big questions, we do seek perfection.  Human beings want perfection in the form of the three Transcendentals:  Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  We are constantly driven towards good things, towards true things, and towards beautiful things (often, they are all one in the same).  Why?  Because we were made in God's Image, and God is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty itself.  Perfection is Infinite Goodness, Infinite Truth, Infinite Beauty.  Perfection is God.

This is why we enjoy the pleasures of the world, like good food and drink, entertainment, sex (!!!  He said the 's' word!!!), and all other sort of good things:  Because they have with in them a touch of goodness, truth, or beauty.  Many Christians like to decry these things, calling them evil and what not (I'm talking to you, Prohibitionists)  There is nothing evil about beer itself, or sex itself, or whatever other pleasure you might conceive of.  What can be evil is the means and consequences of those pleasures, and that is what we ought to be wary of.  Now I could go into the abuses and misuses of any number of pleasures, but that'd be a long and relatively boring list of things everyone already knows and still chooses to ignore (much to the chagrin of this author), so instead, I'm going to explain why those things, while good, aren't good enough.  And for the sake of examples, I'm going to use coffee.

He doesn't make ridiculous
political statements either.
I love coffee.  I really really do.  Drink it black and strong and slowly, savoring the flavors.  Personal favorite at the moment is Gevalia Kaffe House Blend.  But I digress...  I like coffee, because coffee is a beautiful thing.  The way it smells, its rich flavors, its warm, invigorating qualities.  These are all good things, and they are the reason I like coffee.  I don't like coffee for its own sake, I like it because of the qualities it possesses, specifically the good and beautiful qualities it possesses, they point me towards Goodness and Beauty (and, by association, Truth).  These things are fine and dandy and actually extremely good for the spiritual life.  They go wrong whenever people fail to move forward, whenever they fail to recognize that coffee and beer and whatever else are goods, and instead think of them as Goodness.

You see, whenever we find ourselves 2 bites into a delicious steak, or halfway down an excellent beer, or 4 months into a beautiful relationship, we have to look to the heavens and recognize where this all came from.  We must recognize the world full of good, true, and beautiful things and let them remind us of the Good, True, and Beautiful Creator.  They must inspires us to love God, rather than be distracted from him.  All the goods and pleasures of the world exist to serve this purpose:  to remind us, to inundate us with the message that God is Good, True, and Beautiful.

Happiness is the progression towards God, and it need not be done in total austerity.  Its not about the goods you enjoy or don't enjoy, but the how you enjoy them, the reason you enjoy them, and how much you actually enjoy them (as opposed to be reliant upon them).  Returning to our original question ("If you had everything you ever wanted, what would you do?") we see that what you'd do would have nothing to do with what you had or the quantity that you have it in.  You can have a pint of Guinness or a brewery of it and it will make little difference in how happy you are (Although it may make a considerable difference in terms of sobriety, liver health, and ability to carry on a coherent conversation.  You might also find this blog much more baffling.)  Happiness is not a matter of what you have, but how and why you have it.

Many people think, either explicitly or implicitly, that by having more stuff, or different stuff, or more different stuff that they will be happy, and these are the very unhappy people.  These are the people who, whether they own a house or a planet, will never be satisfied, because they fail to see the goodness, truth, and beauty present in what they have and who they are, here and now.  Happiness isn't something eventual, because happiness is eternal.  There is the age old adage "Count your blessings" and that is very much applicable in this situation.  We ought to understand blessings as they are here and now, not the blessings we are hopefully going to get eventually.  God loves us now, not eventually.  So be happy already, recognize the marvelous world around you, most especially in how it radiates with the message that the God of the Universe is Good and True and Beautiful and He loves you.

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