Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Happiness Is ???

Every student of American history, even those who did not pay particularly close attention during class has heard the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These things are the inalienable rights afforded to us by this country’s Declaration of Independence. I am clear on what life is and I am fairly clear on what liberty means. What the heck does “the pursuit of happiness” really mean? If this is a right, guaranteed to all by virtue of being a citizen of the United States, why are there so many unhappy people in this country?

As I sat thinking about this, it suddenly dawned on me that when we think about this phrase, we focus on the wrong word. We tend to think that these words of John Locke entitle us to life, liberty, and happiness. Wrong! We are not guaranteed happiness. We are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness. Herein lays the answer to why there are so many unhappy people around. We know what it means to pursue something, to chase after something until we have caught it. The question in this case is what is “it”? What are we chasing? What is happiness? Most people have no clue; thus we are a nation in utter distress and utter dis-ease.

Yesterday was the first day of school. For both Weber and I the day was not bad – a few of the first day glitches with student schedules and so on but for the most part, it was a good day. We had to stop at Wal-Mart on the way home, along with thousands of other people who were buying last minute ingredients for dinner and baskets full of school supplies, to get dog food and diet coke – basic staples around here. Our fellow shoppers all seemed to be fairly cheerful even though the lines were long and many of us were obviously tired. As we stood in line we talked about things like who had the dog food coupon, how many watermelons did we really think that we could eat, what the rest of the week looked like, and how it was going to take a while to get used to getting up at 5:30 again. The other thing that it is going to take getting used to is being apart all day. Though teaching doesn’t pay as well as other careers, having nearly three months off together over the summer is worth a few zeros on the paycheck. The point here is that at 5:00 yesterday afternoon after having been at school all day, we were glad to be together.

We had been in line about five minutes when the gentleman in front of us turned around and said, “It is so nice to see two people our age (he was fiftyish as well) so happy to be with one another and still in love. Many of us rush through life and miss it.” We quickly admitted that it was “Take Two” for both of us but that yes indeed, we were very happy together.
Once we made our way through the line and were wheeling our groceries to the car, we, almost in unison, asked each other what that man in front of us saw. How could he tell from a conversation about coupons, and course loads, and classrooms with leaky ceilings that we are blissfully happy? I must admit that he is not the first person to make such a comment to us though in most of these other instances our affection for one another was much more obvious. So, what does happiness look like?

I don’t know. I have a better grasp on what it does not look like. It can’t be seen in stuff. If you are unhappy, no thing will ever make you happy. It may temporarily mask the pain of being unhappy, but you will still be unhappy. Power and control will not make you happy. Unless you take control of your own unhappiness, power over and control of others will not do it either.

I think that real happiness is only possible when you truly love yourself. To love yourself you must accept who you are - the good person that you are as well as the imperfect person. It is only when we can love ourselves that we are able to accept the love of another person. It is these two things, love of self and love shared with others, that create happiness. Life is not a solo journey. We are meant to share it with others. Pursuing happiness means surrounding ourselves with people who love themselves, not in an egotistical but a realistic way, and who spread that love beyond themselves.

As I think back to yesterday and our time in line at Wal-Mart, I find myself thinking that the comment made by the man in front of us may be the greatest compliment that a person can give another. To be told that our happiness is obvious means that we have achieved the American dream - something that eludes so many.