Do we live in a messed up culture or what? Congress is often gridlocked (aka constipated) and Wall Street seems to have terminal IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome – alternating constipation & diarrhea). Many people are vociferously declaring things God declared good, evil and things he declared evil, good. Hypocrisy abounds -- one indisputable example being the legions of married people who pledged fidelity to their spouses and can be found looking for “afternoon delight” or its equivalent online (A human failing that finds ample expression in websites devoted to facilitating adulterous unions). People in general are now so jaded and fearful that just about anything from a sour look to a child's toy gun qualifies as a deadly threat. And the boxers in the ring – that’s you and me folks – are so punch-drunk we longer hear the bell, see the canvas… or even care. To hear the most vocal among us we are either one step from becoming the Fourth Reich or else on the slippery slope to some form of communalism or communism or some ism no one seems to favor or else believes signals the advent the "End Times". In light of this, I’m pretty sure if an extraterrestrial intelligence actually visited this veil of tears it would not conclude we are “Mostly Harmless” and would stick a quarantine beacon in high orbit to warn off other space farers.
So how did we wind up so utterly messed up? I’m sure you have your own pet theories and suspicions. Me? I think it is rooted in trying to obtain and then sustain that ethereal, seemingly fleeting state-of-being we identify as “being happy” (or “being content”). There is a restlessness underlying this quest, something rooted in biology and culture and a whole lot more, which compels us to believe that we’ll be happier with the “next whatever” or “more whatever” or even “less whatever” (You fill in the whatever – be it material or immaterial or a mix of both).
This quest for happiness or contentment is not satisfied when our fundamental need for food, warmth, shelter, safety and such are met. Give an individual cradle-to-grave security in the form of an education, a job and decent income, healthcare, a home and security in all these things and more, and he or she will in no way “have arrived” (Though I have no issue with a country providing such things. Given Yeshua's share & care MO, I suspect he would advocate for democratic socialism sans some elements that run contrary to the Torah). Would that happiness or contentment were that simple! No, the quest goes on….next or more or less, please.
In this country, those extraordinary souls who birthed this experiment in democracy were also on a quest for happiness. And while they differed somewhat in how they defined happiness and how to achieve it, they included “the pursuit of Happiness” as an unalienable right. Of course, they left achieving happiness including creating a roadmap to it to individual initiative and ingenuity. Although this sounds, well, so very democratic and is certainly far better than having an autocrat dictate what constitutes happiness and how to best achieve it, it did (shall we say) free some folks to pursue happiness in ways that undermine democratic institutions, not to mention what’s moral, fair or ethical.
Of course, what are churches, synagogues, mosques, Sunday schools, Hebrew schools, parochial schools and families for if not inculcate young people with the ethical and moral guidelines and civic virtues that, while perhaps not defining happiness, at least helps point people from seeking it in crime, cruelty, abusing others, intolerance, enslavement and a whole host of other demonstrated social and religious evils?
We have had these institutions around since “day one” and they have generally helped people establish and respect boundaries (e.g., don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet, don’t cheat, et cetera) and fulfill agreed on religious and civic obligations.
Unfortunately, while many secular and religious organizations and institutions have helped constrain human nature and direct it in positive, productive directions, there was always that nagging inner “pursuit of happiness” faculty and a dark refrain to ignore “the high road” and indulge self-serving, self-aggrandizing impulses and baser instincts. Did not God himself grant those early humans (hominins) he endowed with spirit tremendous freedom with only one boundary or rule? A rule which constituted a simple “this one thing don’t do” test of loyalty, fidelity and obedience? Presumably, there was no happiness to pursue at this point-in-time – people communed with God and knew unprecedented blessings – they had happiness -- and yet temptation got the upper hand and left these early people…well, unhappy (or at least in need of filling the spiritual void within created by their rebellion with diverse pursuits and things, both material and immaterial).
While you are busy trying to figure out how temptation wrecked and continues to wreck human-God and human-human relationships, and how to remedy this, ask yourself this question: Did the Founding Fathers & Mothers do us any favors by acknowledging the “pursuit of happiness” as an unalienable right?
They did, I suppose, but one is tempted to wish they had added some boundaries and obligations to that pursuit.
Now, long before there was an America – before my own American Indian forbearers existed on this continent – stories had been created and circulated that extolled specific beliefs, behavior and goals that helped people grow, survive, thrive, and ensure their “own posterity”. Many not unexpectedly reflected the human “pursuit of happiness (or contentment)” and added fairy tale type endings or outcomes. These inspired and encouraged people, yes, but there was a downside; with the advent of filmmaking in America some fairy tales (or “tall tales”) powerfully tapped and exploited the human pursuit of happiness/contentment in ways that dovetailed with American capitalist sentiments and convictions (“More”, “next”, please). During the formative years of my own generation, the Baby Boomers, we were endlessly spoon-fed movie and television fare in which all wrongs were righted (in 2 hours or less installments, no less), and countless princesses, a puppet turned human, a talking cricket and exceedingly cute fawn and most of her family, and enumerable other mythic characters beat the odds, triumphed over every evil, and wound up somehow living happily ever after. So what is wrong with this? Isn’t it natural to seek such mental escapes from “cold, hard reality”?
Maybe so, but what I saw was impressionable children filled with a beatific Hollywood vision of happiness…..harmony, good over evil, all that biz….only to have this (ahem) violently shaken by the latest TV special on how to survive a nuclear war or a report on how many American soldiers had died in Vietnam on that particular day (“Body bag counts”).
Yes, most of the Boomers I grew up with somehow managed to surmount the disparity between “movie and TV land happiness” and “real world happiness”. Sadly, though, I knew more than a few became disappointed, anxious or depressed neurotics who “pursued happiness” by jumping from one scheme, bed, marriage, bar or what-have-you to the next, in some oft unspoken (but discernible) belief that the happily-ever-after endings of so many TV shows, movies and books could yet be realized. Sadly, a very sad few found themselves wondering if happiness/contentment is something only those in the local cemetery found…. a miscalculation that resulted in their taking a permanent stage left.
How do we then overcome or surmount this messed up state-of-affairs? Do we expunge happy endings and amend fairy tales and tall tales and the movies and TV shows they inspire? Since the “pursuit of happiness” (or contentment) is rooted in human nature, I do not count it likely that we can long suppress or redirect its expression (And what would happen to the arts if we did?) I believe, though, that we should counterbalance “happily ever after” with a greater emphasis on civic virtues, courtesy, diplomacy, sharing/caring/empathy, honesty, loyalty/fidelity and like virtues (not to mention sacrifice, hard work, persistence, healthy ways of dealing with stress, thwarted desires/goals and set-backs, etc.)
And what of holiness? Obedience -- as in keeping God's commandments?
At least by more intentionally taking the ethical & moral high road we will (perhaps) be less inclined to expect film or TV show happy endings that seldom if ever come to pass, to seek self-destructive escapes or detours in a quest for this, or to fearfully overreact to differences of opinion, though if we hang on and do what’s right and virtuous we might just get pretty darn close to enjoying the happy ending God intended for his children.
© 2013, 2017 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved.
Supplemental reading: The intimate relationship God and early humans knew long ago was violated and ruptured long ago, yes, and accounts for some of the misguided, sinful, failed ways we have looked to for happiness/contentment. Thankfully, God provided a path to reconciliation which you are invited to explore in a blog entry of mine at https://biotheorist.wordpress.com/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-post-death-decomposition-body-farm-video/