Friday, March 16, 2007

Happiness vs Joy

While this topic is not specific to the debate of God vs No God, it is such a fundamental part of the Christian story that I think it should at least be on the table, clearly stated.

What difference does it make, really, whether God exists or not? How are our lives impacted by the question of whether we are merely an advanced animal or children of God implanted with a spiritual something called soul? Should we care whether there is any purpose to our existence, or if there is a purpose, whether a Maker has anything to say about that purpose? And in some kind of overarching way, how does any of this effect what seem to be fundamental things humans seek: food, shelter, clothing, avoidance of pain, love, significance, understanding, knowledge, etc.

Our American forefathers included the pursuit of happiness in the top three things we should be guaranteed as a people. Happiness is a good thing, and worth seeking and protecting, at least it seems so on the surface. But it can turn into the famous bumper sticker, "He who dies with the most toys, wins."

I don't pretend to be an expert at this from either a secular psychology pov or a theological one. And I find myself conflicted at times with certain aspects of the issue. But since it's my blog, allow me to indulge myself a bit.

Happiness is primarily self seeking, aimed at satisfying our own need to feel good. We might be happy when eating a favorite food, shopping for clothes or a new boat, working in our garden, or helping a charity. It is the kind of feeling that lasts for as long as it takes with a potential afterglow and a good memory. We help somebody out. We may feel happy while we are doing the work, still have good feelings about what we have done later that day or for a few days after. At some point, the happiness from that effort fades away. Months or even years later we might have reason to reflect back on that moment and get some of the feeling back.

Happiness, however, can be very fleeting, and can easily be defeated by other events, disappointment, our emotional state, fatigue, overindulgence, etc.

Now comes joy. Best stated by Paul in the NT when he said that he had been rich, poor, large and in charge, in prison, and gone through a whole bunch of other trials, but that through everything he was content in his circumstances (intentionally loose paraphrasing.) It is my belief that this is the ultimate best bet for humans, and that it has always been what the Bible has been proposing. Do this, this, and this. Avoid this, this, and this, and you will have great joy.

That would seem to be less anxiety about such things as acquiring money, things, applause, even professional success. Less drama in the raising of kids and comparing achievements with other adoring parents. Less interest in overconsumption of foods, sex, television, gossip, power, or other methods we use to lessen pain or avoid dealing with stuff. No interest in mind-deadening substances. No enticement to join cults.

Why am I conflicted about any of this? A certain level of anxiety (broadest definition of the term) should produce better results in anything we do; competition in the marketplace, for instance, or in sports, or even in this blog. Some level of pain generates a certain amount of empathy that is useful in helping others. Things like that. Enough from me.

1 comment:

daniel said...

Wow! I am responding quite a bit later.. I woke up this morning with the exact dilemma that you address in this little blog. Excellent, really. Very few even think about the two. Often, people treat them as one and the same.
Why did I seek an answer or perspective this morning?
I have fought with "feeling good" all my life. Addiction to opiates (very on and off) is the primary struggle, however, this behavior manifests itself as a general twisted perspective of mine. That is wanting to "feel good" or "feel happy".
Having said this- I tasted Joy once in my life. I had a divorce come down on me out of the blue. I had just moved to Maine from Miami. My children were with their Mom and I did not know if I would ever live with them again. To make a long story short- for some reason, alone, facing the stress of a new job, in a new place with a looming divorce- in my back yard I prayed and asked simply that a tiny bit of the weight be taken off so that I could at least go to work. And this tiny prayer led to the entrance into..... best described as conversion. There were no flashing lights or voices of God speaking to me- just... do this and this and you will get through the day. I submersed myself in the NT and other related readings and talks. Was I happy? In short, no. I still woke up terrified, I still barely made it to work. I was consumed with sadness. But this propelled me constantly to pray and beg for mercy.
I cannot expain it in words. But their was joy. A certainty of being on the right path. Less inner conflict. Sort of like being in a battle that is totally justified, but not a war battle, but rather inner. (actually I think that is the true meaning of Jihad, now that I think of it).
Little by little as things got better, I began to seek what most humans seek when they are able to function better- happiness. Most of what I sought was not that bad. But to make a long story short- I had to move back to Miami to care for my mom. It was better for my girls and high school (I ended up with them). I went from a calm life that I "felt" relatively "happy" in Maine- to a very busy life that was and is very "unhappy". I started using pain killers, which in short led to my seeking help and being placed on a drug that helps addicts avoid opiates- suboxone. It works well. But all this is a "seeking to feel ok" type of thing. Sometimes I penetrate this and struggle and experience some joy....but not really. I am no longer in the battle. I have succomed to being focused on "being ok" or "feeling happy". And in no way have I found it.
In writing this I see now what the answer is. And that is returning to battle..... suffering. I dread it.
I do not want to suffer like I did in Maine. But yet such joy and intimacy with God does this bring. Jesus comes to life, and life becomes mystery once again.
I will pray for you. Please, please pray for me brother.
Daniel- email (.fr not .com)
if you want to write. If not, thank you very much for your blog, that really helped me.