A Beginners Guide to Happiness

Norman Vincent Peale popularized the idea of “the Power of Positive Thinking” back in the 50’s.  Since then the positive psychology movement has saturated many sectors of society.  From the fortune 500 company to the United States Military, we are all expected to think happy thoughts.  It is widely assumed that if we think happier, we will be happier.  We could call this the Tinkerbell philosophy of life.  Many recent studies, however, show a correlation between this positive psychology and a tendency among many to depression and even failure.  People are expected to be happy, and when they are not, we try to perk them up with a nice bumper sticker platitude.  People are expected to walk around with a plastered smile and a bubbly frivolity.  Why?  Because that is more productive, and we like productivity.  Productivity pays.  Like in Huxley’s Brave New World we strive for “Community, Identity, and Stability.”

And yet, ironically, positive thinking often yields negative results, non-productivity.  This is because many people cope positively through a bit of negativity.  Not all negativity is bad.  The writer of Ecclesiastes knew this a long time ago.  Ecclesiastes is supposed to be a dour and unhelpful book, one that is to be avoided once we’ve truly seen the light of positive thinking.  But nothing can be further from the truth.  Ecclesiastes reveals the ephemeral nature of our lives but also our need to recognize life’s limitations.

The power of Ecclesiastes is this reminder about the rough edges of life.  Nothing in this world can ever deeply satisfy.  Also, even the ethical quest to better the world will only yield meager results.  “What is crooked cannot ever be straightened.”  If we still think we can find satisfaction, we are kidding ourselves.  If we think we can put an ultimate end to evil and suffering, we haven’t tried hard enough and failed yet.  It’s almost as if we were made for something greater than these temporary diversions and ethical crusades.

We were made to surrender to a being “than that which nothing greater can be thought.”  If we tap out to lesser created beings, we will always have this gnawing suspicion that there is something greater, something happier out there.  Ecclesiastes reminds us that it is only to God that we must give an account.  That is the relationship that we can really lose ourselves in.  We lose ourselves only to gain ourselves back.  But which God, you say?  That would require a completely different article, but I will say this much: the God must be able to fit the key lock of our souls.  He must be able to humble us to the depths and also lift us up in infinite love, to show us our lowliness in his shadow but also conquer us with his humility.  Assuming that there are not multiple options that would work, who are the best candidates for the job?  Another question is whether we are able to slow down, turn off the tube, and cease from our clamor.  Are we able to create space for ourselves to listen, study, or pray in order to find out if there is a God and who he may be?  Or are we too busy trying to think happy thoughts in this modern never-never-land?

Earth Mother Strikes Back

The other day I took six middle schoolers on a field trip to the Denver Art Museum.  One of the strangest and most wonderful pieces we saw there was the earth mother sculpture called “Mud Woman Rolls On.”  It features a very large, clay womanlike giant.  She is sitting with four children between her legs.  Each child has another child between his legs and so on.  It gives one the impression of a giant Russian Nesting Doll.

According to our tour guide, the artist wanted to convey a sense that we are all from the earth and are responsible to it and to one another.  We are all called to be earth mothers of a sort.  We must teach our children good ethics.  Each generation must continue this chain of teaching.  The artist herself writes, “To hurt one part of the chain of life is to disrupt the flow that nurtures the generations to come. I believe this story is certainly one that needs telling at this time.”

I find it fascinating that this lesson continues to resonate with all kinds of people.  Indeed, it is impossible for human beings to really abandon ethics altogether.  C.S. Lewis in his book the Abolition of Man discussed this topic.  Every culture has a traditional understanding of what is valuable.  The similarities between human cultures regarding value far outweigh the differences.  Things like “don’t lie, don’t steal, respect your parents, don’t commit adultery, love the good and beautiful” and so on are universal.  This is true even though they may be practiced in different particular ways in some cultures.  At the end of Lewis’s book, he points out a list of moral precepts from around the world that all agree.

Of course, today, we often recognize this, but then at the same time, some people want to say that morals are culturally relative, that they are completely subjective to different cultures.  Some even say traditional morals are oppressive.  They say this in a completely non-evaluative and non-oppressive way of course.  Others state that the differences between moral values in various cultures prove that morals are relative.  Yet, differences can’t really show that.  If I think cannibalism is right and you think it’s wrong (in the same time and sense), how does that lead to the conclusion that it is both right and wrong?  If I say the skyscraper is vast and you say it’s little, does that mean there is no skyscraper?  There could still be a right answer.

Rarely, in fact, does the moral relativist truly get rid of all her morals.  Sometimes she simply rejects some of them and accepts other ones based on enlightened self-interest or  a personal sense of what she wants to be right.  Yet the danger here is that moral relativism really means complete relativism, not partial relativism, not mostly relativism.  Hopefully, the relativist’s enlightened self-interest will lead her not to steal, murder, and cheat, otherwise there may be very odd natural consequences.

One thing is for sure, the Earth Mother is not a moral relativist.  Where does she get her values from I wonder?  That’s a question.  Obviously not directly from the earth.  The earth is very silent about values.  Believe me.  I’ve listened closely.  All I hear are worms wriggling and wind blowing over grassy knolls and so on.  Perhaps the earth mother’s morals come from a society or a religion.  Perhaps she herself is a kind of deity, doling out moral values to her progeny.  We all must meet the challenge of explaining where we get our sense of right and wrong and why we all have such a similar set of moral values and duties.   Perhaps they come from God.  Another possible source is the blind hand of chance in an unguided form of evolution.  And the latter option appears to lead to, well, relativism.

Are you Lost in the Cosmos? Part 2.

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…Percy explains a theory of semiotics, the study of how humans communicate with signs and symbols.  Semiotics shows that humans are the only creatures we know of that communicate ideas through symbols.  Chimpanzees and other higher mammals can communicate to get responses to stimuli.  That’s about as far as they can go.  Gee, that’s strange since we evolved from naturalistic, purposeless and blind forces.  The modern trousered-ape, upon encountering this conundrum, simply shrugs his shoulders and goes back to eating his sandwich.  But some of us raise an eye-brow, maybe two.  Some of us begin to breath a little more easily knowing that the men in the white coats appear to be incapable of figuring this one out.  (Don’t worry.  Just give them 500 years or so and they will eventually set us straight.)

Another idea Percy weaves together is that modern man can be described as either immanent or transcendent.  The immanent modern is the consumer.  He lives to get all the gusto he can every day while his inner life is hidden away like some back-alley abortion.  The transcendent man today is the scientist (or scientist wannabe, you know who you are) and the artist.  Both the scientist and the artist can achieve a kind of transcendent view of life through their disciplines.  Comically, however, they have difficulty re-entering the mundane world of the present without extreme difficulty.  Walker entertains with page after page of examples of aloof scientists and obsessive artists who crash and burn upon re-entry to ordinary life.  One of the troubles with being a god, you see, is that not many recognize your greatness.

Tongue in cheek, Percy says that science has relegated all forms of religion to the dustbin of history.  More’s the pity.  Science has improved our lives but ironically distanced us from anything that can seem to give us meaning, purpose, value, lasting joy, or ultimate explanatory power.  The book concludes with a narrative about a space odyssey in which two worlds are contrasted.  The first is the brave new world of eugenics and free-love to which we are headed.  The second is a free world that includes religion and normal familial life, along with people not always agreeing.  Both worlds involve limiting some kinds of freedom and allowing other kinds.  Which future would you choose?

Are you Lost in the Cosmos? Part 1

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Walker Percy, that southern writer with a biting wit and a deft style, wrote his masterpiece Lost in the Cosmos back in 1983.  The book purports to be the last self-help book.  Though a grandiose title, the book delivers, although it doesn’t really deliver self-help as much as self-perplexity.  Walker’s purpose in the book appears to be to make the reader feel that she is, indeed, alienated from her world, unable to grasp the full depths of human experience with the tools of modern science.  The modern man craves meaning and yet often embraces life-views which do cannot give meaning.  The waves of vulgar scientism (that belief that science is the only way to knowledge) breaks endlessly  on the shores of modern life.   Modern orientations to life such as consumerism or the enlightened status of the scientist or artist cannot satisfy or provide ultimate meaning on their own.  In fact, alone they are full of thorns, thistles, and endless irony.

One of the key tensions of the book (given in multiple choice questions) is why humans behave the way they do.  Why do we cheer when someone says the name our hometown at some entertainment venue?  Are we craving for a sense of individuality and home?  Why do we secretly enjoy it when another suffers? (Just think of soap operas and talk shows that exhibit bizarre and deranged people.)  Why do we secretly feel pain when another gains success?  Why can’t we be satisfied with one true love but must constantly crave more lovers in endless variety?  Why are we depressed?  Is it just faulty chemicals or is there more to it?  How would an alien respond to the odd obsessions of humans?  Why are modern people so endlessly and easily bored?  Why so fragmented?  So empty?

It’s enough to make us pull our hair right out, roots and all.  But Percy does not stop there…to be continued.