Whatever happiness is, you can’t pursue it. It may happen to you, but you can’t make it happen.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – we like them all; and if the Americans and their Declaration of Independence are to be believed, we can have them all. When Macdonalds first opened in Russia, the biggest problem they had was to persuade the staff to smile. Russians didn’t expect to be happy in the way that Americans did.
( I feel the jaws of the new anti-racism laws pressing against my ankles, but I am hoping this passes for a narrative of fact rather than value judgments that can trigger the weight of the state).
I suspect in fact, that the weather has a lot to do with the levels of my own cultural and emotional expectations. There is so much cloud and rain in Northern Europe; and in England particularly where the weather plays tricks on us several times a day, with each one being less generous than the last, I have grown more and more confident that our English phlegm and sang froid is essentially a way of coping with the weather. But beyond that, I have never entirely believed in the possibility of being happy as a kind of emotional steady state theory.
Whatever happiness is, you can’t pursue it. It may happen to you, but you can’t make it happen. I have often thought that not having toothache is a very good reason for deciding to be cheerful, since I remember those times that when I did have it I would have given almost anything to be free from it. But then being cheerful is not the same as being happy. Being cheerful is more about deciding that good can come out of whatever you are doing and trying to achieve. St Francis said that Christians had no right to walk around looking gloomy, since they above all people had reasons to be cheerful, because they knew that God loved them and wanted to use their lives to make the world a better place.
Love is a bit like happiness. You can’t make it happen to you either. You can give it, but you can’t always get it. So perhaps trying to be cheerful and give a little love is more manageable that trying to be happy and get a little love.
The new Francis, pope this time, rather than the saint, said much the same thing to 90,000 young people in Turin in the third week of June. The news channels didn’t seem to make very much of this extraordinary event; but there in the main square in this Italian city, the pope had a question and answer session with them. It was mind-bogglingly wonderful. This very cheerful elderly bachelor, answering questions about love and romance thrown at him from 19 year olds.
Clara said to him
“All of us in one way or another are looking for love. We want to be loved and want to love, even though we sometimes end up by being disappointed.” Pope Francis suggested to her that the best way of finding love was to keep away from the hedonistic life style that the media inflict on us.
“Often advertisers want to convince us that something is beautiful, and that it is good. They make us believe they are selling diamonds when in fact they are only peddling glass.”
He went on to explain that if we pursue happiness by falling for the priority of pleasure, we end up by not being able to give love. We are in ‘take-mode’ when we need to be in “give-mode”. Love comes from sacrifice and generosity. He urged the youth to rebellion. He insisted the only way to make love the centre of one’s concerns was to rebel against the culture we live in, so that we could give it rather than pursue it.
“We have to swim against this current and not be naïve. Let’s not buy the trash the they are trying to sell us as diamonds.”
I love the picture of this determinedly cheerful bachelor warning 90,000 kids, the age of his grandchildren if he had had them, to rebel against the subtle and sophisticated media men and business interests that create our remorselessly hedonistic culture.
“The challenge” he said, “is to overcome these pressures with courage and creativity, for true love is born out of respect and service, and not using the other person for your own pleasure. It’s a love that recognizes the life of the other as sacred. It says ‘I respect you, I don’t want to use you. …. Forgive me, if I say something you weren’t expecting, but please, I ask you to make an effort to live a chaste love.”
It’s the responsibility of young people to rebel against the dying of imagination and vision that middle age too often slip into. What was unusual in Turin the other day, was this radiant elderly bachelor, telling them how to rebel; and that they would find real happiness, true love and an antidote to anxiety in self giving service and chastity. It was no great surprise that the men and women who run the media and feed us our headlines, decided it wasn’t worth bothering us with.