King Solomon at the height of his greatness as a king had many profound and sobering thoughts on both life and its pursuits. One consistent theme throughout Ecclesiastes was that “all is vanity”. Among his many pursuits, wealth, fame and pleasure are the three that we can certainly identify with today. They are the things that we often presume will bring us happiness. Vanity, as he labelled them.
In Ecclesiastes chapter 2, Solomon says “I said in my heart, “come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure”; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter- “madness!”, and of mirth, “what does it accomplish?” Solomon attempts to seek satisfaction and was more often than not left wanting.
This is instructive for us in the present. Indulge me whilst I attempt to share my take on the pursuit of happiness in today’s context.
I do not dispute the fact that we all want to be happy and that the desire is legitimate, whether Christian or not. I am disputing the contemporary view of happiness as I understand it to be, and proposing what I do believe and would have others consider as well.
In C.S. Lewis’ essay, We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’, he addresses a sentiment on happiness that I believe our current culture shares. In the essay, a lady espouses the view that ‘we have a right to happiness’; and to this Lewis responds and says, “a right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic. I can understand a right as a freedom guaranteed me by the laws of society I live in. Thus, I have a right to travel along the public roads because society gives me that freedom; that’s what we mean by the roads ‘public’. I can also understand a right as a claim guaranteed me by the laws, and correlative to an obligation on someone else’s part. If I have right to receive 100 pounds from you, this is another way of saying that you have a duty to pay me 100 pounds”.
Lewis makes a salient point here that speaks to the heart of the idea behind our society’s idea of being happy. You see, happiness in one sense is too vague for the purposes of claiming the right to be happy. For example, if I were to say to you “I want to be happy”, you would probably ask, “how could I make you happy?” or “what would you need to be happy?” Those questions would be very logical questions to ask. In stating that we want to be happy it suggests that we are currently unhappy and simultaneously reveals our desire for happiness. However, it is merely a statement of desire and does not indicate the method in which the said happiness is to be attained. To what extent should this happiness be pursued? What if this happiness comes at a cost? Does the end justify the means? Lewis disagrees: “They did not mean that man was entitled to pursue happiness by any and every means - including say, murder, rape, robbery, treason and fraud. No society could be built on such a basis”.
Pleasure or pain?
We must realise that what makes us happy may not necessarily be good. As faithful Christians, both the means and the end must matter to us. Unfortunately, this does not sit well with our current society – we want to have our cake and eat it, as it were. We want a society built solely on allowance without restriction. We often regard boundaries and limitations as the antithesis of satisfaction. The sense of boundaries is foreign to the modern man’s concept of happiness, since “freeing oneself of all inhibitions” is thought to be the pinnacle of true satisfaction. Remember the mantra of the sexual revolution, with its ideology of free love and “do your own thing”? We see traces of it in today’s culture.
Do these satisfy? Consider the pursuit of happiness in the sexual revolution; where did that lead to? Inclusive sex wasn’t enough anymore, it progressed to the use of drugs to compensate for what sex could not ultimately deliver. And when one woman wasn’t enough, more women were added and then even those of the same gender.
The result of such pleasure seeking was not the initially perceived highway to happiness. Ironically, it was the cul de sac of despondency.
A deeper desire
As mentioned earlier, the desire for happiness is a normal human inclination. However, it should be a desire that drives us to pursue something of greater eternal significance instead of the fleeting. C.S. Lewis once said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world”. I would also argue that the means to happiness ought to be pursued with another world in mind. Chesterton along the same line said this which is of worth to consider, “I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant, it meant it violently”.
The violent passions and wanton desires that rage within us, crying out to be fully satiated, are tell-tale signs of our deep and utter need for a saviour. They are but spiritual bread crumbs, clues in God’ grand scheme that would ultimately lead us to the bread of life that ought to drive us to our knees with the humble realisation “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the living God”.
I close with the celebratory words of Augustine “This is the happy life, to rejoice in you, of you and for you. This is the happy life, and there is no other”.
Paul Lewis is a Staff Worker for Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in Kingston Jamaica, where he also resides. He has aspirations of becoming a Christian apologist and he loves reading, especially topics like: History, Philosophy and Theology. You can follow him on twitter @PaulAULewis
Paul Lewis' previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/paul-lewis.html