A colleague had a picture of her son on her desk, a truly delightful common practice. So I asked her about her son and so forth. She soon asked whether I had kids, and I told of the typical highlights of my daughters, one of whom has what your insurance coverage calls a qualifying event. The long range implications remain, of course, uncertain, and to this my colleague remarked, “As long as she’s happy.”
I hear this often, parents commenting on their children, grandparents on their grandchildren, friends about each other, and persons about themselves. While the intention behind the phrase is good, the phrase itself has always struck me as empty at best, and cynical at worst, akin to a soldier’s abandoning of his post.
As long as he’s happy. It’s such a low bar. After all, happiness can be obtained in many unscrupulous ways. And very often the context that gives rise to this phrase is one of uncertainty in need of consolation, of lowered expectations that at least they be content, unharmed, basically healthy, and provided for. I get it, believe me. Life is full of troubles, and no one needs to be convinced of that. But then why bother facing uncertainty?
The fact is we bother a great deal about it. We spend in ordinate amounts of money and effort on university degrees. Why? Income potential. To avoid want (please read, not watch, A Christmas Carol). Women and men have essentially given up on marriage, opting for the more common, long term live-in-lover arrangement. Why? The “lease-to-own” option carries less risk. You can’t break a contract you didn’t sign. Science and its marvels (like the technology with which I write) inspire a reverence that religion can’t shake a stick at. Need proof? When you’re sick, what’s the first thing you do (after getting annoyed)? Oprah has become a sage personality in the ranks of Deepak Chopra (even my spell checker knows his name), and the Dali Lama. Yoga and homeopathic therapies, and holistic diets and lifestyles dominate the marketplace. Why? Techniques and tools assuage our fear of uncertainty.
So much effort, but, “Whatever. As long as you’re happy.” So I ask again, why bother? Being happy is not enough, that’s why. Sure, it can be achieved through Buddhist discipline, shedding all expectations and desires. But that requires effort over a long period of time, which again introduces uncertainty. So we spin it: Technology can maintain a base level of comfort—mass produced material needs and wants—a platform to try the techniques of metaphysics. We cover our bases, physical and metaphysical. We’re in charge and carry less risk. Right? So it seems.
Maybe for many this is what happiness looks like. I see a systematic attempt to escape pain and trouble. And it all adds up to a web of compelled activity we can scarcely account for. And still where’s the meaning? Is contentment that much effort?
Our Priest last Sunday pointed out the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22 NASB). He then asked in a wry way, “doesn’t that seem like a pretty good life?” I sure thought so, especially since it has meaning. These things are fruits not ends in themselves. “As long as he’s happy,” has no resonance to these. Meaning is teleological, driven by purpose. And the purposes that yield these fruits are those of God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. Effort and activity will still be required, but instead of techniques and technology each of us will obey, rely on, complain to, implore, and thank this Holy Trinity who made us. This effort builds a relationship with our Maker, in which we become what He intends us to be, which is a far better thing than we intend for ourselves. It’s way more ambitious than happy. It’s beyond happy.