Sixteen years ago an old friend sent me a letter in which she asked, “Dave, are you happy?”
Of course sixteen years ago was still, for most of us, pre-Internet and pre-email. Her letter was old-fashioned, hand-written (how nice it is to receive hand-written letters), and expressive of her emotions. I believe I could sort of sense the desperation behind her question just by examining the slight variations in her hand-writing as she broached the serious topic of happiness. I could tell she offered the question out of her own unhappiness, her own dissatisfaction with her current state in life. It was a melancholy question, accompanied by a deep and troubling hope that my answer would be an emphatic “yes”.
I tried to answer not as a minister or theologian, but as a friend. And so I shared with my old friend the insights I had discovered, such as they were, from my own life; guiding concepts for my own life, as far as I could understand my own life or life in general, mysterious as it of course is! I started by asking my despairing friend if her question was the right one to ask. “Are you happy?” Then the personal application – “Am I happy?” Happiness.
In my experience happiness, the feeling of being happy, the awareness within that we are, at one particular time, happy, is a fleeting thing. It comes and goes, doesn’t it, as as does the wind, as does the rather harsh winds we’ve been experiencing this winter in Banff? Isn’t the desire to possess happiness for extended periods of time, even the idea that we might have it for life, a continually unsatisfied desire? However we understand the word, happiness is evasive, like trying to grab snow flakes with our bare hands, only momentarily possessed, indeed fleeting.
I would have preferred my old friend to have asked a different question, one with perhaps more relevance to life, the following question: “Are you fulfilled?”, “Am I fulfilled?” How would you answer the question, not happiness but fulfillment?
Jesus never spoke of happiness but did speak of fulfillment, often in terms of his preaching on the kingdom of God (there is a poor Bible translation out there of the Beatitudes, perhaps in the Good News Bible, which replaces the word “blessed” with “happy”, but this is not a helpful translation of the Greek term found in Matthew 5:1-12).
It’s interesting to note that most often Jesus’ insights into fulfillment, experiencing the fullness of life, run counter to what we might expect in our modern culture. As you know, he encouraged forgiveness without any limits, love of enemies, inclusion of the “least among us” and those living on the margins of society, but he also offered advice on how best to live this life – in service, service to God, service to others, allowing the compassion, grace and mercy of God to flow through us into the world. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me,… For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, will find it.”
Servanthood. In a time of infinite commentaries through YouTube or other Internet sites on how to be happy, Jesus offers another perspective – servanthood. To love others, not emotionally but actively, by seeking their well-being; to show mercy; to unleash compassion; to burst forth each day into this sometimes challenging world with random acts of kindness and a spirit of generosity, and to be willing to serve, as the Good Samaritan in Luke, are not these the things that lead us to greater fulfillment, greater sense of purpose, and for fleeting, and if we’re fortunate, not so fleeting moments, greater encounters with happiness?
Are you fulfilled in life? Are changes necessary?