We begin with a question: “Are you happy?”
In typical rabbinic fashion you answer with a question: “Well, what do you mean by happy?” Do you mean, “Am I content? Satisfied? Cheerful? Optimistic? Positive? Grateful?”
‘Happy’ is a funny word, like one of those little smiley faces. It is rooted in the verb ‘to happen,’ and ‘good fortune,’ or ‘luck.’
I remember a winter day some thirty-five years ago. I was on a ski trip in Vermont with a church group. I was not a skier, but I borrowed the necessary equipment, learned to snow plow on the lower slopes, and how to stop-which often meant sitting down, and sometimes rolling around. After a couple of hours managed to get on the chair lift and wend my way down the easiest trails.
I was covered with snow, my beard coated with ice. On one of the rides up the chair lift I sat with an experienced skier, a retired Harvard professor, who was also with the church group. We knew one another only slightly. As we rode the lift he looked at his snow-covered, ice-crusted lift partner and smiled a warm, friendly, knowing smile and he said, simply, “Life is good.”
I knew what he meant. He could see I was having a great time. I never did learn to ski much beyond the snow-plow. I can count the number of times I’ve been down-hill skiing on my fingers. But that day, ‘giving a loose to my soul,’ to borrow a line from Robert Frost, I was in seventh heaven!
Carl Sandburg wrote a little poem he titled, Happiness:
I asked professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me
what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work
of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile
as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the
Des Plaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and
and a keg of beer and an accordion.
Happiness is something you can capture in a photograph, better than a video.
Robert Frost said, “Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.” When I ask, “Are you happy,” I mostly mean, “Are you grateful.”
Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
The Psalmist wrote, “My cup runneth over.” It’s the most well-known of the Psalms.
My father was brought up in an orphanage from age four, when his parents died in the flu epidemic of 1918. The 23rd Psalm was his favorite. He often quoted the line, “My cup runneth over,” and in his later years he would say, “I’m the richest man in the world!”
He had no money. No material possessions, at the end. His wealth was his family-the nine children who had filled his cup to overflowing. His gratitude was great. He understood what Rev. Ralph Helverson’s line in the Responsive Reading meant when he said, “We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.”
I was intrigued with a book by Gregg Easterbrook, which he titled: “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.”
He delves into the intriguing question: “Why, when we have more, do we enjoy it less?”
Have you ever wished you could have a one-on-one conversation with some historical person? I’d love to sit with Thomas Jefferson and probe the deeper meanings of the phrase he used in the Declaration of Independence: ‘the pursuit of happiness.’
You remember. He said that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, (rights that cannot be transferred to others) and that among these rights are ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
In one of his earlier drafts of the famous Declaration he used a different phrase: ‘the pursuit of property.’
There’s an extent to which we humans are like all the other life forms on earth-we are endowed by Nature with a drive to survive.
The drive to survive pushes us to find enough food and to make and keep our shelter-to survive. Mother Nature endows us with the drive to procreate-to people the earth. We also have a natural drive to compete-the survival-of-the-fittest kind of drive, if you will.
What is it, then, that lifts us, or allows us to be lifted, above those basic survival instincts or drives?
If my conversation with Jefferson was to take place in his time, not ours, I’d ask him what he meant by ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ I’d want to know if he meant that we are endowed by our Creator with the inalienable right to pursue happiness, rather than to reach a place of contentment. That’s a religious question, really.
I’d ask, “What about slavery? Did you have a plan? Hope? What about women’s suffrage? What about extending democracy beyond men with property? Tell me about the use of the word ‘pursuit,’ in the Declaration.”
There’s a line in a Sandburg poem where he talks about a ‘rich, soft wanting, without rich wanting nothing arrives.’
There’s a fine line between a ‘rich soft wanting’ and greed-the insatiable desire for more, never satisfied, or beyond being satisfyable.
If my conversation with Father Thom were to take place in our time-let’s say in Westport-I’d be able to ask what surprises him.what astounds him.what pleases him. what confounds and troubles him.
Imagine what our world would look like to him:
He would be pleased that slavery was abolished, as he said it should. He would be surprised that women got the vote-though I don’t remember any comments about that from him. He would be pleased with universal public education, and concerned, at least, about the ongoing attempts to tear down the wall of separation between church and state.
He would be astounded at religion in America-tickled pink that we’ve become the most religiously diverse nation ever to exist on this earth. I’d give him credit for that, since he drew up the Virginia Statute of separation of church and state.
Of course he would be completely flabbergasted at the huge stockpile of weapons of mass destruction that we’ve accumulated.
I assume that he would see a direct connection between his ‘pursuit of happiness’ phrase and the success of capitalism in the country he helped to found. The best part of capitalism is the incentive to strive for personal gain by contributing to the production and distribution of goods and services.
Let’s get back to Gregg Easterbrook’s comments in the book I mentioned, The Progress Paradox.
Easterbrook says, “To get what you want doesn’t bring happiness or contentment. Most people feel less happy than in previous generations.”
Most of us have what our grandparents dreamed for us. He says, “Studies show that the percentage of the population that is happy has not increased in 50 years while depression and stress have become ever more prevalent.ever higher living standards don’t seem to make us any happier.”
He concludes that what makes a person happy is optimism, gratitude and acts of forgiveness.
You can see why I’m attracted to his book, since the things he mentions are basic themes preached from this pulpit during my twenty years of occupation.
He lists some of the things that prevent people from feeling happy, or better off, or grateful. Among these are:
Choice anxiety; abundance denial; collapse anxiety; the revolution of satisfied expectations; and a shift from material want to meaning want.
Take a quick look into this list:
Choice anxiety-having so many options that you’re afraid you won’t make the best choice. It’s like eating at a nice restaurant and having to choose something from the menu, then thinking that you’ll wish you ordered what the other guy ordered, and you’ll be disappointed with your choice.
Abundance denial, he says, is when ‘millions of men and women construct elaborate mental rationales for considering themselves materially deprived, causing themselves to feel unhappy.
Collapse anxiety ‘is a widespread feeling that the prosperity of the United States and the European Union cannot really be enjoyed because the Western lifestyle may crash owing to economic breakdown, environmental damage, resource exhaustion, terrorism, population growth or some other imposed calamity.’
Revolution of satisfied expectations is the uneasy feeling one has when you actually get the things you dreamed of.
The shift from material want to meaning want is self-explanatory.
I listened closely as Mel Gibson explained to Diane Sawyer. He said, “Look, I had it all, family, fortune and fame. I woke up one day and realized that my life was empty, none of it had any meaning.”
That, he said, is what motivated his religious quest, resulting in the about-to-be-released film The Passion of Christ, which we’ll discuss, soon.
One of the reasons for ‘abundance denial’ is what I refer to as ‘the Job syndrome.’ The Job syndrome is the fear that God is watching and if you have an abundance He will do to you what he did to Job: he’s take it all away. If you are healthy, He’ll take away your health. He’ll put you to the test, the way he did with Job. To protect yourself, then, you have to cover up the abundance you have.
You remember the story of Job: Job had it all. God bragged about ‘his servant’ Job to Satan, and Satan taunted God saying, “Sure, he loves you because you have showered him with so much wealth, health and happiness. Take it away and he’ll curse you!”
So God and Satan made the deal, and Satan sent one catastrophe after another to Job, until he finally cursed the day he was born.
His friends told him to confess his sins, to ask God’s forgiveness. They needed to convince themselves that the great misfortunes Job experienced wouldn’t happen to them-that they don’t ‘just happen’, randomly.that God is just, and merciful.
The Job syndrome is the denial of abundance-to hide it from the gods, for fear of being ‘picked out’ to make an example of.
But an amazing thing happened to Job. After he ‘hit bottom,’ God spoke to him ‘out of the whirlwind,’ and put him in his place in the vast universe.’
The closing paragraph says, in part, “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.and the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than the former.and Job died an old man full of days.”
Older people tend to be more forgiving, generous and more appreciative.
The idea behind the statement, “the Lord gave job twice as much as he had before,”is the notion that Job had something in the end that he didn’t have before his tragedies: he had a sense of appreciation, which was developed through deprivation.
Easterbrook closes his list of things that get in the way of people’s happiness by saying, “New psychological research, which seeks to explain why some are happy and others not, suggests it is in your self-interest to be forgiving, grateful, and optimistic-that these presumptively altruistic qualities are actually essential to personal well-being.”
Notice: he doesn’t suggest that being forgiving, grateful and optimistic being in your self-interest is new. He says, simply, that there’s new research. We’re always doing new research on the same basic things that make us humans tick; things that are at the core of what it means to be human.
Indeed, as I’ll point out next week, the things Easterbrook talks about are the things I was taught in Sunday school as the basic teachings of Jesus-the Sermon on the Mount, the Parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son, and so forth.
Today I would say that these are the common ingredients of the best in all the world’s religions-the Analects of Confucius, the teachings of the Buddha, Lao Tze and so forth.
What’s basic is generosity and forgiveness. Forgiveness, after all, is a manifestation of generosity-the generosity of the spirit.
It’s about gratitude, which, as Cicero said, “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
Gratitude does not require a particular theology or belief system. Expressing thanks to God (or Nature, or to specific people) is like pouring water into the well-pipe to prime the pump–what flows out is the human spirit. It’s how we create the soul.
When you prime the pump of appreciation, of gratitude, you tap into the deepest source of meaning in life. Mel Gibson is still trying to find ‘meaning’ in the same old way. He reminds me of the foolish carpenter who cut the board ‘three times and it was still too short!’ Go figure.
Cummings captured it so well in the opening line of his wonderful poem-prayer*: “i thank You God for most this amazing day!“
John Ciardi captured it so well in his poem, White Heron**
“cry anything you please, but praise, by any name or none, but praise the white original burst of those two soft kissing kites.”
Easterbrook talks about our ‘propensity to complain,’ saying that it’s one of the things that gets in the way of gratitude. He says, and his point is well-taken, that we are very practiced at complaining and finding fault, and we need more practice at expressing gratitude.
It sounds almost simplistic-far be it from sophisticated us from being simplistic-that what we would help tap into the deep place of appreciation is to keep a ‘gratitude journal.’
“In an experiment with college students, those who kept a ‘gratitude journal,’ a weekly record of things they feel grateful for, achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly, and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals but had the same overall measures of healthy, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began.”
I’ve been keeping a journal for about twenty-five years, so I tried a little experiment this week. I made a gratitude section and wrote down all the things about which I feel grateful. (You’ll be pleased to know that you made the cut-that I’m very aware of feeling thankful for those of you who have been coming to services for years, and those who come for the first time. Without people filling these chairs, what would be the point of my standing in this pulpit and preaching, or reciting poetry, or standing in that lectern to dig down into the depths to allow words to become prayers?)
After working on my gratitude journal for awhile I took a walk-the exercise proved that the gratitude journal was working. (Smile!) While I was walking I found myself thinking about things for which I’m thankful, especially people who have come into my life-my personal as well as professional life-which is an increasingly difficult distinction to make.
As I walked on the beach after writing in my ‘gratitude journal,’ the famous line from the 23rd Psalm kept coming: ‘my cup runneth over.’ It’s as if I had opened a faucet and it came pouring out and wouldn’t stop.
Let me remind you about the two parts of the 23rd Psalm. It opens with expression of gratitude to God: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” and so forth. Then a very interesting, and extremely important thing happens: the Psalmist stops talking ‘about’ God and instead starts to talk directly ‘to’ God: “For thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me, Thou preparest a table before me. My cup runneth over.”
This is the transition we all need to make-it’s a sign of religious maturity-instead of talking ‘about’ God, or arguing about the existence of some kind of imagined god, we need to give ourselves permission to talk ‘to’ God, even if we don’t believe in Him.
Does that sound like a contradiction?
Let me remind you what Emerson said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen and divines.”
It’s one thing to insist on the use of the rational mind-the use of reason, even in religious matters. It’s another thing to allow the limits of the rational mind to get in the way of the development of one’s spirituality-the source of the meaning we want and need in life- meaning that is beyond and beneath the things that too often clutter our lives, the material possessions, or the striving for those material possessions.
In the ‘pursuit of happiness’ you may run right past the most important things-the things that you would inevitably put in your gratitude journal-the people who have touched your life.the people who have inspired you and encouraged you, prodded and challenged you, some of whom you may at one time have felt were a thorn in your side but who you later came to realize (in your maturity) were essential to your growth and development. “Truly speaking it is not instruction but provocation that I receive from another soul,” is the way Emerson put it.
Easterbrook points out how older people tend to be more grateful, and less critical; more forgiving and less blaming. It’s called maturity. That’s why Paul wrote, “When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult I stopped being childish.”
How does your cup run over? To contemplate that question is one way to break through the ‘denial of abundance.’
You don’t have to deny that there are very real problems in the world-problems of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, problems that can make a thoughtful person become cynical, since it’s harder and harder to know what to believe, problems betrayed
So.there are moments that ‘stand out.’
“Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.”
Touch the joy. Be thankful. Nurture gratitude– it leads to forgiveness.and good spiritual health.
The poet William Blake said it well in this little poem:
He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
*i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky-then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.