Whatever Makes You Happy
Written by: Paul Lickteig
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
I remember when I told friends that I planned on joining the Jesuits, one friend responded “Whatever makes you happy…!” I remember thinking at the time that there was something about that statement that did not seem quite right. I know that, along with life and liberty, happiness is something we Americans are given the rights to pursue. As a result, her words seemed strangely patriotic, almost like an entitlement. Along with this thinking came other thoughts like “I deserve to be happy!” and “If I am not happy, then that must mean that something is wrong with the world.” Now, there is also the more ascetic and pious part of me that reasoned, as far as happiness was concerned, when compared to the more substantial sense of Joy that Christians are supposed to embody, “happiness” is really nothing more that the “simple sugar” of life. While simple sugars taste good and make life sweet, well, “painted cakes do not satisfy.” Pursuit of happiness is just selfishness and vanity, frosting and “feel-good” with no substance. Joy, on the other hand, is an eternal good! It is the whole grain of graces, sustaining us by providing lasting energy and strength. It is one variety of the bread of life that offers the strong persistent willingness to remain kind and compassionate. As I reasoned at the time, no mere sense of happiness (or lack of it) should ever sway me in my decision to do the right thing.
Turning to the present day, more often than not I fail to find myself in a state of happiness. When looking at an economy in decline, the violent rhetoric of zealot atheists and fundamentalist theists, as well as politicians campaigning to the audible chagrin of loud-mouthed critics (who can always find ways to say nothing), I sometimes find myself in a state of philosophical desolation. At work, almost every day I struggle to present new material in a new way, and when dealing with an adolescent crew that may or may not be interested in religion (one never quite knows when dealing with young men), this can be alternately edifying and aggravating, with emotional adumbrations sometimes coming within moments of each other, simultaneously tinting one interaction with the same student. Add to this the sense of dislocation I feel due to the constant moving I have done as a Jesuit, the friends I have made and lost, the relationships that have started and ended abruptly with various superiors and formators, the yearly departures of good men from the Society, and the loss of loved brothers and mentors to death, and things begin to look bleak. I feel as though I have lived in a persistent, yet undulating, state of mourning for the last five years. Sometimes there is less sadness than others, but ultimately, and according to the dictates of “our way of proceeding,” there does not appear to be an end.
The problem with all of this is that, if one does not feel happy, finding a sense of joy can become extremely difficult. When speaking to one trusted mentor, the response was “maybe you need to stop mourning.” I remembered thinking at the time, and still do, that if it were that simple, we would all be a bit better off. However, there is a hint of something in those words that I found consoling. There is the awareness that, while I cannot choose how I feel about something, I can decide how to pray with it. I can either dwell on my sorrow or continue my attempts to let it go. Furthermore, if I want to be happy, I can encourage my awareness of the things that make me feel that way. This is a choice we all have. While we usually cannot choose what happens to us or decide which thoughts will enter our minds, we can choose what we will celebrate in our lives and whether or not we will seek to cultivate thoughts when they enter.
“Whatever makes you happy” can be seen as commentary about the thoughtless pursuit of bliss at any cost, but I am coming to realize that the pursuit of happiness is not necessarily a self-centered egotistical pursuit. I would not be happy if I sought to live in a state of perpetual happiness, nor should I expect that a good life is only one in which a person walks around with a smile lacquered across his or her face. Rather, persistently finding things that make me genuinely happy fills me with a sense of mirth and calls my mind to the deeper Joy that I profess as a Christian. I find that my mind will be drawn to the “evil of the day” easily enough, but when I can find reasons to laugh, even as I am made regularly aware of so many reasons to lament, I become aware of the goodness that is kneaded into my day and I take one step closer to experiencing Joy rising in my heart. It is not inevitable that I become either disconnected and happy or cynically aware of the world. I can find reasons to be happy that lead me to share my Joy with real people in real situations. It is partly this desire to share happiness, even in the shadow of the cross, which helps illustrate the paradox of our Christian calling and explain the mystery of a people who live in the world, but are not of it.