The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater
A while ago I was talking to someone who was telling me about her daughter, how she had become a born-again Christian. She was clearly not happy about that, feeling that a gap had formed between them that couldn’t be bridged, but she sighed and said, “I guess so long as she’s happy I should be happy for her.” I didn’t say so, but I didn’t agree. I want something far different for my children than happiness — not that that wouldn’t be nice, mind you, it just isn’t on my list. I want them to be upright, valuable human beings. I also want them to cherish the religious values of freedom of thought, belief and conscience. Those things are important enough to me that I would be deeply disappointed if my children failed in them. I don’t think I would care how happy they were if they failed in integrity of the mind and spirit.
At a recent General Assembly I was chatting with a couple of colleagues at breakfast. I had known both of them for many years and was pleased to hear each of them saying that they were in a place in their lives that was the happiest they had ever been. Then one of them turned to me and said, “How about you? Are you happy?” After a bit of thought I said, “Well, I suppose so, but I’ve never really thought about it. Happiness has never seemed that important to me.” And that about sums it up.
I yield to no one in my admiration for Thomas Jefferson. In spite of the moral obliquity he exhibited in racial issues, he is one of my heroes. However, I wish that he had not listed the pursuit of happiness as one of humankind’s inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. It is one, of course. No one can keep you from trying to pursue happiness if that’s what you want to do, but not only does it not seem to me to be a particularly accessible goal, it also doesn’t seem of ultimate value. It’s nice to be happy, naturally, but there are more important things to do with your life than just to be happy. People seem to forget, too, that
Although it is certainly a distorted way of looking at it, there are times when I almost believe that those who think that life is nothing but a vale of tears and that earth is not our home are more, rather than less, likely to get some pleasure out of living, since their expectations are not unreasonably high Those who are convinced that happiness is an inalienable right are inevitably doomed to disappointment.
Happiness is a feeling — a feeling of contentment and well-being. As a feeling, it is not controlled by our will. I don’t know why we are unable to be convinced of this obvious truth. We are always thinking that we ought to feel some way that we do not feel or that we ought not to feel some way that we do. We feel guilty about our feelings, since we are so sure that it is our will that controls them, and when they are such that we disapprove of, we will deny and repress them. We can certainly distort them in that way, but we can’t get rid of them.
By denial and repression, I don’t mean such things as saying you feel fine when you feel rotten, or smiling when you feel like crying. When Freud discovered the unconscious and the ways in which repressed and denied feelings can lead to neurosis, the popular reaction was to think that free expression of all our feelings was the only way to maintain mental health. It is more likely to lead to bad manners. How you behave is certainly a matter of the will, and concealing your feelings from those who will be made uncomfortable by them will not turn you into a raving or catatonic hysteric. At least the surface manifestations of this idea that we are in complete control of our emotional state may be a needed corrective to our modern tendency to share our feelings inappropriately, but to say that we can decide to have the feelings we want is a prescription for failure.
When you repress or deny your feelings, you are not concealing them from others but from yourself. You are pretending to yourself that things that hurt do not really hurt, that you are not really angry when you are angry, that you are not really scared when you are scared, that you are not really unhappy when you are unhappy. Others are more likely to see your real feelings than you are when you are repressing them, because they are still there and they will show themselves in ways that you may not recognize, but others will.
In fact, happiness is as much a matter of inborn temperament and body chemistry as it is an effect of incidents in our lives. Those of you who have associated much with infants know that they seem to be born with a particular temperament. Some seldom cry, while others seem to cry all the time. The temperament with which they are born seems pretty much to stay with them throughout their lives. It can be worked out in different ways, and certainly the will plays a part in how the temperament is shown in later life, but those who are born happy tend to stay cheerful, and those who are not never are. It is clear, too, that our body chemistry affects how happy we feel. That’s why psychoactive drugs are psychoactive. New research also indicates that what we do can affect our body chemistry, and that is why there is some believability in the argument that we can will happiness. There is evidence that we can, with sufficient understanding of the process, change our chemical balances slightly, which will affect our emotions. However, that is not really what I mean by happiness, and I don’t think it’s what most people mean when they are pursuing it. I think we mean more than simply feeling good. If that’s all we mean we can manage it with tranquilizers or cocaine. We mean having our life so ordered that we like it the way it is and expect it to remain pleasant.
Barry Neil Kaufman who wrote a book about choosing happiness has every right to be happy. His ineducable, autistic son not only talks but went to an excellent college, and it happened because he and his wife refused to take despair for an answer. They chose — and indeed it was an effort of will — to be certain that if they worked with their son he would be able to relate to them and then to the rest of the world, that he would learn to talk and then to read and write, and be not a burden on society but a contributing member of it. They willed not happiness but faith — the faith that can move mountains. It can, too. However, the mountain would not come to Mahomet, and sometimes they will not be moved by faith. The result of the Kaufmans’ faith was more than happiness: it was joy! Their hopelessly handicapped son became normal and successful. Who would not feel joy? Their lives now are happy ones. However, though that may make them experts on the possible (though not necessary) consequences of faith, faith acted out through will, it does not make him an expert on willing happiness. And it does not mean that a life of faith, however continuously and completely acted upon, automatically brings happiness. His goal was to heal his son. The result was happiness for him. He deserves it. However, he is then used that success to spread what I think is a dangerous doctrine. He himself admits that his first goal was his son’s amendment, and that he did not begin to learn his doctrine of happiness until his son’s turnaround, and yet he says as his first rule: “Make happiness a priority before you achieve your goals.” If he never tried it himself, how does he know it will work for the rest of us? It reminds me of a colleague of mine who decided her life’s work must be to labor for world peace because she was mugged one evening. They see their connections, but it certainly eludes the rest of us.
Worse than all is the pernicious implication that, even if he explicitly denies it, is there, that simply deciding to be happy about something will work the miracle that you need. It won’t. Sometimes even the efforts of faith, and by that I mean the kind of concentrated work he and his wife put into bringing their son into a relationship with the world, do not bring about the desired end. To imply that they will is a promise that sooner or later will be betrayed. The mountain did not come to Mahomet.
When practically everyone else in the world is saying that nothing else matters so long as you’re happy, I sometimes wonder how I can be so convinced that happiness is not, in itself, a worthwhile goal. It is not merely that it seems to me that to seek it is to be almost guaranteed not to find it, but that it is, in its essence, not something worth worrying about, that it is fundamentally a self-centered preoccupation. More, I find myself wondering what is really wrong with that? I believe that our most holy duty is to fulfill ourselves, to be the best that we individually can be so that we can choose creatively, do justice, love mercy, and act in all the ways that enhance the process toward the good. Some of the ways that are important are when we accept grace — that is when we enjoy those things that are worthy of enjoyment, laugh often, love much, appreciate those things of beauty and of grace that surround us on every side. Yesterday I saw the ultimate in woodpeckers. I have never seen so red a head, so white a white, so black a black as that woodpecker sported. It is grace that allows that to bring me such joy.
That sounds like a prescription for happiness, doesn’t it? To stop and smell the roses, to enjoy the cool days of autumn, the crispness of winter, the rebirth of spring, the summer lushness, without looking back to the season before or forward to the one to come. Not just to see the rainbows that are offered, but to look for them just in case they’re there. To tell jokes and to listen to them. To drink good drinks and eat good food. Those are gifts of grace, and it is our duty as well as our pleasure to appreciate them and be mindful of them.
Nevertheless, there are losses and sorrows and even trivial discomforts which also exist, and of which refusal to accept them in all their tragedy or just unpleasantness constitutes denial. If life doesn’t hurt sometimes, you just aren’t noticing it all. All of it deserves our attention, even the unpleasant parts, and faith means to deal with it, all of it, good and bad alike, while maintaining our loyalty to what we know of the good. Whether or not we are happy in the process is pretty much on the lap of the gods.