If your high school yearbook was anything like mine (yes, they did have printing presses back then), many of the earnest and hopeful pictures of the seniors were autographed. We took them around to friends, who at the time seemed destined to be inseparable, and exchanged heartfelt good wishes for each other’s lives. Most would include their best expectations for their own lives in a line under their picture stating their goals and aspirations. A majority yearned most notably for happiness. I doubt there were many that interpreted that longing with a clear definition. Prosperity? A beautiful spouse and loving family? Good health and a long life? Multi bedroom houses and an expanse of weed-less lawn? A Porsche, a Harley or a Catalina 315 in Newport Harbor? Wilderness camping? A career with high earnings, fulfilling achievements and social recognition? A lot of fun, however construed, with multiplying diversions and entertainments – dances and concerts and travel to exotic places?
For some an adolescent meaning for happiness persists with inherent disappointment baked in – perhaps even to become pathology with a grinding need for distraction whether in sports or sex, drugs and rock & roll or toys of any stripe or a consuming career and pursuit of the accrual of wealth and stuff or celebrity and the praise of others. If the unrecognized intention is distraction, then distraction from what is the relevant question.
“Anyone that chooses to look back on his past excesses will perceive that pleasures (typically) have a sad ending: and if they can render a man happy, there is no reason why we should not say that the very beasts are happy too.” “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Boethius, (sixth century)
The ancients had a much different understanding of happiness and thought much of happiness a choice, not good luck or successful effort for what we moderns accept as achievement. For Aristotle, human happiness did not consist of satiated desire or momentary contentment, but living daily lives in quiet pursuit of first knowing objective truth, virtue and honor, then to instill virtue in our decisions great and small. He agrees “The highest good attainable by action is happiness,”[i] but defines what that means poles apart from contemporary interpretation. Happiness is not dependent upon the ephemeral or somebody else’s opinion; happiness is not to be sought as a goal unto itself, but something revealed and familiar in silent reflection, nurtured in our daily thoughts, words and actions.
For Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, Aristotle’s definition is self evident, but they refine it further. Aquinas dedicates a segment of his Summa Theologica to happiness. “Since the last (final or primary) end is stated to be happiness, we must consider the last end in general.” [ii] He accomplishes this in great depth for an entire, beautiful section of his exposition on Ethics. Augustine in his letter to Proba wrote, “We must search out the life of happiness, we must ask for it from the Lord our God. Many have discussed at great length the meaning of happiness, but surely we do not need to go to them and their long drawn out discussions. Holy Scripture says concisely and with truth: Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.” To be truly happy, it is necessary to first know God, and in so knowing, learn truth and virtue, then to live that life. This brings us to Christmas.
“You first loved us so that we might love You – not because You needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be, except by loving You.” “On the Contemplation of God,” William of St Thierry, abbot.
“The end of the ages is already with us. The renewal of the world has been established, and cannot be revoked.”[iii] We could come up with a better plan than God did for reconnecting His creation with Himself unless that was the only possible plan: that the Bridge had to be of flesh and blood, born of a very young woman in a very remote area of the world. The mystery is not that this actually happened in Bethlehem. If we contemplate the reunification of man separated from God, God, Who is pure Truth, Love and Beauty could not do other than this loving reconciliation for it is His nature, His essence. How it was and is done is a wonder, but what else would it be?
Once genuinely knowing that truth within ourselves, trying to live a life worthy of it, a life of virtue, seeking to understand ever more deeply and love ever more fervently leads like gravity leads running water in a woodland stream to an inner peace and happiness[iv], to that “perfect and sufficient good.” “So be good for goodness sake.”
“Above all things keep peace within yourself, then you will be able to create peace among others. It is better to be peaceful than learned.”[v] So if in the context of this peace imbedded in an abiding happiness, we should feel offended or ignored or forgotten or taken for granted or hurt or angry or resentful or vainly knowledgeable in an ignorant world or upset with incompetence or obtuseness or arrogance we perceive in others, then these are opportunities for virtue and great peace. A gift of opportunity is granted to reclaim peace, to recall the sufferings of others, to know that we cannot see into their souls and what grave secret burdens they carry. We can understand that our feelings may well up from a reservoir of hurt carried within us all that we can allow to drain off. Peace is better than to be right. Mercy and truth, but mercy first. Peace and right, but peace first. Humility before offended pride, which always is rooted in our own faults. God bless you and yours this Christmas season and a Happy New Year.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our Father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is man, His child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
“The Divine Image,” William Blake
[i] The Nichomean Ethics, 1.4, Aristotle
[ii] Peter Kreeft in Summa of the Summa, states in his notes, “’Happiness’ (eudaimonia in Greek, felicitas in Latin) means not merely subjective contentment, or rest of desire, but also real blessedness, the state of possessing the objective good for man.”
[iii] “Lumen gentium” from the Second Vatican Council.
[iv] “As Plato pointed out (Republic, Bk 9), all who have experienced both the greatest bodily delights and the greatest spiritual delights testify to the same results of this dual experiment: that the soul can experience far greater pleasure than the body. (It can experience far greater suffering, too.) All who doubt this simply prove they lack the experience and are in no position to judge.” Peter Kreeft, notes from Summa of the Summa.
[v] From “Imitation of Christ,” Thomas à Kempis.