‘Happiness is a right, but you have to catch it yourself’ said Benjamin Franklin of the American Constitution. It was a very English thing for an 18th century American to say. We English have traditionally held that pulling yourself up by your own boot strings is a moral imperative. This is why Pelagius, writing in the 5th century, was a very English heretic. Pelagius argued that human beings did not need divine grace in order to fulfil God’s purpose for them because they could perfectly well fulfil it through their own efforts and character. Part of his argument entailed the denial of original sin, as it was then understood. Original sin was seen as a stain on a person’s soul that could only be eradicated by the grace imparted through baptism.
In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argues that original sin would be better termed original selfishness; our natural propensity for the furthering of self interest at the expense of anyone or anything that gets in its way. Original selfishness, Dawkins argues, has its origins in the instinct for survival which we have inherited from our earliest humanoid ancestors. He has a point. But it also creates complications, or at least invites a redefinition of the notion of inherited sin. However, one thing seems obvious; in modern society unredeemed original selfishness leads to a state of personal and collective loneliness.
In terms of the individual, those who have led selfish lives often find themselves alone and unvisited in their final years, a situation exacerbated, perhaps, by the selfishness they have passed on to others.
Added to this, what is becoming increasingly obvious is that the tendency to individual selfishness, along with collective greed, will lead to the demise of our species within the next couple of centuries. But this increasingly obvious fact does not seem to be making us less selfish, either in terms of how we think about the planet we are bequeathing to the next three or four generations, or how we conceive of our own happiness at this moment.
Perhaps the difficulty lies in the significance of the moment itself, the moment in time which is now. Time has become a kind of currency. We are used to thinking about disposable assets, but isn’t time itself a disposable asset? We never seem to have enough of it. Disposable time, and how it is used, is central to the question of happiness and to that of loneliness. Too little disposable time forces us to compress our lives into a rapidly shrinking time framework, usually at the expense of our relationships and of our mental and physical health. Later in life, the sacrificing of relationships will lead to us having too much disposable time, too many hours to fill and too few people left with whom to share them.
Do we simply dismiss this future scenario as the inevitable price we pay for living in the times we live? Or can we change it? or, better still, is there a way for re-connecting with the source of true happiness in the disposable time that is given to us? This brings us to the core question; If we want happiness, can we find ways of being present to stillness, and the peace it brings, from within any one transient moment in daily life? Only in allowing stillness will we be able to re-order our happiness priorities.
There are two stories from the Gospels which hint at how we might re-think our happiness priorities. The first is that of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God. (Matt. 19:16-22) He has led a good life but he is afraid of parting with his possessions. This is understandable. Material assets impart a feeling of safety, so to let go of them willingly is frightening. This was the young man’s problem. He found it hard to come to terms with the fact that his assets were truly disposable. Like many of us today he also felt that he was defined by what he owned, or by what he had achieved, and that his happiness depended on these things.
The other story concerns two sisters, Martha and Mary. (Luke 10:38-42) Jesus is having supper at their house and Martha complains to him for allowing her sister to sit listening to what he is saying instead of helping her with the meal. (Why is her brother not being asked to help, one can’t help wondering?) But Jesus replies that Mary has ‘the better part’. The story concerns the proper deployment of disposable time when it comes to what makes for real happiness.
This is not to say that spirituality (whatever that word signifies) is more important than practical action or rational thought, but that there are deep human needs which take precedence over everything else. Denying these needs leads to unhappiness. The deepest of these is our need for God, and meeting our need for God requires time, rather than money.