A Strange Answer to an Old Question

“To be sure, it does not automatically follow that a man is happy, just because he enjoys what he has set his heart on; many are miserable because they are in love with things that should not be loved, and they become even more miserable when they enjoy them. But it remains true that no one is happy without the enjoyment of what he loves. Even those who set their heart on the wrong things do not suppose their happiness to consist in the loving, but in the enjoyment. If anyone then enjoys what he loves, and loves the true Supreme Good, only the most miserable would deny this happiness. Now the Sovereign Good, according to Plato, is God.” – St. Augustine, City of God, Bk. 8.8

Recently the New York Times ran a story about a course at Yale. This course, titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” not only boasts an enrollment of a full 25% of the university’s undergraduate student body, but is also the most popular course in the university’s 316-year history. The facts of the story are quite interesting. The course began, interestingly, in a former place of worship on campus – Battell Chapel – before being moved to Woolsey Hall, which normally plays host to events such as symphonies. A grand stage for a grand course, it would seem. Yet, even while the course offers promise, it also betrays itself. On the surface it sounds like the latest offering from the “spiritual but not religious” generation, yet beneath the surface there is something very interesting happening.

A Thirst for God

Sometime within the past year, there were a few stories passed around the major news and current event sites about a curious speaking tour featuring a couple who operate a podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. The idea is simple enough. Within the several thousand pages of Harry Potter canon there can be found the sort of moral lessons that are also found in the world major religions in some form or fashion. Therefore, though not a religion unto itself, Harry Potter can be seen to its millennial audience as a form of religious expression or study. If this sounds like nonsense, that is only because it is. However, when once digs just beneath the surface, what does one find? One will find a generation of souls desperate for God. So desperate, in fact, that it will latch onto any shred or hint of the divine that it can find.

Are the Harry Potter books a divine revelation set in a magical world? Absolutely not. But as Lewis, Tolkien, Guardini, and many others have argued over the centuries, there is truth to be found in myth, even if it is not divine revelation. It was Lewis who said that myth is simply God revealing himself to man through the images he finds waiting in our minds. As such, what these young people describe as sacred dimensions of an otherwise secular saga may, in truth, point toward God, even if they do not reveal his glory.

What has Harry Potter to do with this Yale course on happiness? Just this, that it reveals what this Harry Potter speaking tour revealed – we want God. Yet, how does it reveal this? The course, after all, is about happiness, not salvation. First, it demonstrates that there is still an awareness in the minds of our young that there is more to life than money and possession-driven success, that the way they have been living up to this point – imposed, little doubt, by parents and teachers – has proven ultimately meaningless; it may have gotten them to Yale, but at what spiritual cost? What good is success if one’s life lies in gold-plated ruins? Just as those young people wanted to be in contact with the sacred by way of Hogwarts, so too do these Bulldogs of Yale want to be happy by way of intellectual pursuit rather than commercial transaction. That is encouraging.

In his essay, Myth Became Fact, C.S. Lewis set out to make the case that from myth one my derive truth. Certainly not the full truth of divine revelation, but truth nonetheless. If it is true that all truth traces its source back to God, then myth may become a means of finding God. To wit, he wrote:

I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other. A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”

Let us hope, then, that this moment is not wasted.

Two Flaws

Still, even while the course offers reason for hope in today’s youth, the course itself is fundamentally flawed. There are two constants in all human life. What are they? The first and most obvious is that all human life must come to an end; we all must die. Memento mori, as was once said (and as it being said once more). The second is like the first, and arguably worse, namely that we all must suffer. I would go so far as to say that life is suffering. Tolkien described it both to his son and through the character of Galadriel as “a long defeat” albeit with glimpses of glory. In life, we all must suffer, and anyone suggesting otherwise is trying to sell you a product, or perhaps an undergraduate course. With death, one is released – hopefully – from their suffering. However, in our temporal suffering we may only endure. Sometimes death seems preferable, and it is down this dark path that all too many wander much too far.

The flaw, then, as it seems to me, is that this course offers an introduction to positive psychology, but does not seem to give consideration to perseverance. Who is the happy man? When one suffers, one is miserable, and the miserable man is by definition not happy. To be happy, then – to be truly happy – one must know how to endure his suffering. A man who is happy in his suffering, is happy; and to be happy amidst the turmoil, travails, and tempests of life requires strength. Positive affirmations and counting one’s blessings does not require strength. Anyone can be taught to do this. Strength is characterized not by its commonality, but by its extraordinarity. We marvel at the man who can lift 500 pounds precisely because not many men can. Strength is both rare and cultivated. It is intentional. No one is accidentally strong, but only comes to their strength through discipline and perseverance.

There is a second flaw to the course, which is the conflation of the “good life” with happiness. The question of what constitutes the good life is a question as old as the human mind itself. To our oldest ancestors, it was the ability to make fire and no longer live in literal darkness. Our Greek fathers took up the question as well. Aristotle addresses the good life in his Nicomachean Ethics, and Plato before him. Both concluded, unsurprisingly, that happiness was the ultimate end of life. St. Augustine, as shown in the prelude of the present essay, points out and agrees with Plato, that this mysterious thing we call happiness is only the pursuit of the Summum Bonum – the highest good – is in fact God. It is thus a question that has captured the minds and motivated the endeavors of all human history and pre-history, but it is all connected by a single question – what is good?

Science has no answer for this, and in our materialistic, scientistic age, wherein all that is knowable must stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific method, no other mode of knowing is valid. Immeasurability is impossibility; form follows function; seeing is believing. These are not new paradigms, but they are more dominant and ingrained now than ever. It is into this black hole of objectivity that happiness has almost been sucked; indeed, it has been sucked, but it seems to be the only object to have been spat back out. Science cannot prove happiness, so it has instead reduced it to the firings of neurons and the transmission of neurochemicals. Happiness, then, is alleged to be measurable, and if it can be measured, it can be studied; and if studied, then replicated; and if replicated, then produced; and if produced, then manufactured; and if manufactured, then monetized; and if monetized, then ultimately corrupted.

And yet… and yet, this course shows what science cannot, which is that there is something deep within each of us, a dichotomy, something that paradoxically governs our minds and is governed by them. There is an innate understanding of happiness. Does anyone teach an infant how to laugh, or what to laugh at? We may be “taught” right from wrong as children, but take away from a child his favorite toy without cause for doing so and you will make him cry. Why? He cries because he knows that he has been done wrong. A parent does not teach his child when to cry, but when not to cry.

Is happiness always good? Is that which is good always a happy occasion? To both, the answer is a resounding no. To the former it may be said that one may be entirely happy in making the wrong decision, and the wrong decision is characterized by resulting in an outcome that is counterproductive to that which the person desired. To the latter it may be said, again, that life is suffering, but life is also good. How can this be? This can be, because life is ultimately not about how we choose to live it. No more radical statement can possibly be uttered that that, but it is true – one life is not about oneself.

So we come to it at last, that the answer to one of the oldest questions is, in fact a paradox. The question now becomes, can we live with that tension? In an equally paradoxical way, one will find that the further into the tension he wanders, the more at peace with the tension he grows.

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