The school year recently began. Last week I introduced an initial list of guidelines that a priest friend of mine provided to the students on the first day of class. His insights apply both to the classroom as well as the cubicle. There’s some good suggestions for parents, students and adults as well. Part 2 follows:
The Pursuit of Happiness in Class (Part 2 of 2)
The metaphysics of pursuing happiness. Happiness is not fully attained in this life (See Baltimore Catechism, Lesson 1: Number 3 and I Corinthians 2:9). Happiness is pursued. The pursuit entails seeking the things which complete us. A happy person is a complete person. “I am completely me. I am glad to be me. I am glad I exist.” Pursuing happiness necessarily involves an admission of being incomplete. “I want to get the things I do not yet have, the things that will complete me.” Admitting one is incomplete is humbling because of what one lacks. However, admitting to being incomplete is more affirming than humbling. “Though I am incomplete, I am fundamentally good, and I am on my way. I am growing in goodness.” The pursuit of happiness begins with a positive core belief about the self, a belief which is the virtue of humility itself.
Bad actions are bad for happiness, at first. Doing something one knows to be bad is a self-contradiction. A bad choice is an obstacle to happiness. “I choose to do what I know is bad. I reject the choice which would complete me.” You pay for bad choices (even those that give you initial pleasure), either in the short term – or in the long term. Bad choices baffle us. “Why did I do that? Why did I want to do that?” All adversity, and especially the adversity we create for ourselves, happens within the context of being a good person who seeks more goodness.
When we recognize bad actions in our lives, we arrive at a point of decision. How shall we relate to the evil in us? Am I good or bad, a fraud or the genuine article? The answer is “yes.” A person pursuing happiness is mostly genuine, and growing more genuine, though being in part a fraud too. We must either make peace with the evil in us and be patient with our own growth, or despair and seek oblivion rather than happiness. “I am not giving up. I’m still fundamentally good. I am broken, but I am more intact than broken.” Dealing constructively with the evil in us brings a bad action to strange results: wisdom and compassion. Our bad actions humiliate us. “I can’t believe I did that. I guess I am a person who sometimes does evil. I’m not yet completely good.” Nothing so advances us in the pursuit of happiness as this humble admission. We are closer to happiness having acted against it and then repented. We emerge with a more realistic, more genuine sense of who we are, with a deeper patience with ourselves, and a renewed vision of the loving person we now seek to become.
Through this, we become compassionate, too (from the Latin “Cum – Passio” which means “to suffer with”). A person running away from personal faults is usually cruel to others. “I’m fine. I don’t need to work on myself. What’s your problem?” A person who does not regularly examine their faults is quick to find faults in others, and sees no common ground with imperfect people. Conversely, a self-examined person identifies with everyone. “You’re weak? Me too!” That one person struggles with a bad temper and another struggles with honesty is no obstacle to friendship. The Breakfast Club is a great movie. The only thing the five characters have in common is weakness, but because they are weak they discover each other. Take out the weakness and there is nothing to bring them together. There is no larger story, not bigger and noble narrative.
Doing bad can lead to a greater good but it is still bad to do. Even though a broken bone may grow back stronger than before, one still doesn’t want to break another bone. The pursuit of happiness is complicated by the evil we do, if not stopped. And too, there is mercy. Among humans, mercy is helping people to deal constructively with their evil and its effects, or what is better, actually relieving a person of what burden of evil can be helped. Another part of mercy is helping those who have been hurt by someone else’s evil, and those hurt by accidents and natural disasters. These mercies resemble God’s mercy, but God’s mercy is infinitely better. His mercy can do for us what human beings cannot do for themselves or each other. What, precisely? Ask Him, if you want to.
Heaven or hell? Being or nothingness? “Existence is good,” says St. Thomas Aquinas. A person pursuing happiness teeters between saying “yes” to being and “no,” between “I’m glad I exist” and “I should not exist.” The Christian (or Judeo-Christian) idea of heaven is not a location, not a place. It is simply the idea of being with God and each other outside of space and time, in eternity.
God does not send anyone to heaven or hell. Rather, He judges. Any time we make an “is” statement, we are judging. One looks at an apple and judges it: “this apple is red.” St. Thomas Aquinas points out that we know things by an act of judgment, such as “that is coffee.” The word “judgment” naturally has a negative connotation because we rightly condemn bad judgments. The judgment “that apple is a cube of uranium” is an error. The judgment “you are a morally bad person because you have blue hair” is wrong because hair color does not cause a person to be morally good or bad. Only free choice does. Good judgment is accurate judgment, judgment grounded in reason and relevant evidence. God judges accurately. “You are who you are. You are the moral person you have chosen to be.”
The Christian (or Judeo-Christian) idea of hell is simply being in eternity (where God and others are) yet somehow being separated from God and others. The nature of the separation is hard to investigate, but it certainly consists in a free choice, or the result of a free choice. One way to describe hell is this: hell is a frustrated attempt to stop existing. We may picture a person standing before God, raising a fist and shouting, “I should not exist. You should not have made me. You do not exist.” But the person cannot stop existing, any more than a person can make himself/herself exist in the first place. God, meanwhile, smiles on the person and says, “I’m glad I made you. I love you. You cannot shake your fist at me without acknowledging that we exist. You exist, and your existence is good. Even when rejecting me, you glorify me because I love you in spite of your rejection. You try to convince me not to love you, but you cannot hide the goodness of your being from me. You are merely proving my love. I am not love up to a limit. I am love.”
Take a hint from broken people. There are fine people who, outside of school, have done a lot of drug and alcohol recovery work. They have known many people who came back from the brink of death to recover and live energetic, contented lives of service to others. In an appendix of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the authors recall how long they wanted to change but could not. However, they also recall their thorough transformation by a spiritual experience. “What often takes place [in AA] in a few months could seldom have been accomplished by years of self-discipline.” They conclude with a quote from Herbert Spencer: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
So we close with some questions: Who am I becoming by my actions? Who do I want to become?