Searching for Happiness

Searching for Happiness
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I recently went to Amazon's Kindle store and searched for "Happiness." There were more than 75 books offering advice, but none of them looked especially appealing.

Maybe because I don't believe we can grasp happiness as a commodity. It seems to me to be an outcome of the way we live our lives, the quality of presence we become in this world.

A parishioner sent me David Brooks's latest offering in the New York Times, "A Moral Bucket List." Here's one of his insights: "I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born -- that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments."

That's about right. Some people are brought up in an environment that teaches them the simple wisdom of living, but I've met many more who have found their way through their struggles and attempts to love with total sincerity. These are people who brighten our day just by their presence.

Humility. I've found that humility always shows up hand in hand with gratitude. It's an awareness that the most important gifts in our life are just that -- gifts. They come from beyond us. But to come to this point means accepting that fact that we are not all that we are expected to be or expect ourselves to be. No one of us exists on our own. Every one of exists as part of a greater whole, a family, a culture, a God-given universe.

To come to this we need absolute honesty with ourselves. We have to see ourselves as far more than our own expectations. We have to see the unrealistic qualities our ego tries to bestow upon us. These are not our true reality and, until we can accept ourselves for who we are, we will know ourselves as inflated ideals that we are neurotically driven to defend. No one of us live up to our expectations and ideals. And there is no reason we should. They tend to be shallow because they don't make room for the wholeness, complexity and messiness of our humanness. To do this we have to get to know how our ego defines us and how unreal this definition is. We have to learn to pay attention to our ego games with a sense of humor, laugh at our foibles, and love our reality. This is simply living the path that Jesus laid out through his living. It's not an easy path. It's our basic human woundedness, and until we deal with it, we are living in a hell of destructive behaviors.

Truly ourselves. Brooks puts it this way: "External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness." We learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes. Difficulties, suffering, betrayal, and helplessness as just as much a part of our lives as they were of Jesus' passion and death. Jesus' suffering and death don't take away our trials. But they do promise resurrection - in the midst of our life.

I don't believe that God sends these things to test us or help us grow. They are simply part of or a chaotic universe and our wounded humanness, a universe that works out its evolution and healing through our lives. However, these experiences are often the place where we meet God most intensely. When we are brought low, when we lose the illusion of being in control, we begin to realize that something much greater than ourselves is alive within us.

Self-Defeat. "External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with you own weakness," Mr. Brooks calls this "self-defeat," but I find that whenever I feel that I've overcome myself that is actually my ego gloating because it feels in control. Self-defeat leaves us with a bigger, although unconscious, helping of our self. I've found that developing the ability to be aware and accept the realities of my life leave room for divine grace to guide my life. As the book of Genesis tells us "The breath of God hovered over the waters of chaos" and brought creation out of that. God is breathing within us, bringing creation out of our chaos.

The Dependency Leap. We've been sold the lie that our life is an autonomous journey. We've been taught that it's up to us to pull ourselves up by our boot straps, master certain skills, learn from our experiences and develop through our challenges. But this is one of those half-truths. I am proud of my ability to read and reflect on the inner workings of my life. But I learned this from other people and by being with other people who were learning to reflect on their life. And I know I would have never gone to school as a child, never taken the opportunity to learn, if my parents hadn't woken me up every morning and moved me out the front door.

At this time in my life I'm gratefully aware that my closest friends continue to teach me through their lives, their sharing and their integrity. When I get stuck in my head I end up going round and round in neurotic and more tightly wound circles. We need each other. And we need the God given courage to be vulnerable enough to honestly share our lives. True conversation relies on the willingness to accept that that of the other might change our point of view.

The American Dream is just that and it often becomes a nightmare because it pits us against one another. It teaches us that we are separate, on our own and in competition with everyone else. It leaves us imprisoned by our fears. Instead of conversations we engage in monologues in which we try to convince each other of our point of view. However, if we're not listening to the other person, how can we believe they are listening to us? Democracy works when there is conversation.

Energizing Love. I've witnessed the reality of this in couples who have children. Suddenly their life shifts from focus on each other and they are taken over by love. We are created in the "image and likeness of God / Trinity." Trinity is about relationships, mutual vulnerability, and this allows love to be given and received. And love teachers us humility. For no matter how passionately we love our love has only the power of goodness given. The reception is up to the loved one. Ask God about that. Pay attention to how hard it is to accept the reality of God's love in a way that actually affects the quality of our living. The greatest power that love bestows is not the ability to do good, but the ability to be good.

The Conscience Leap. In most of our lives there is a moment a great truth, a losing of our usual blindness and an awareness that our lives aren't as satisfying as they are meant to be. We realize that our ego has created a brand for us that doesn't really matter, that the status symbols and prestige that we've sought, isn't making us happy. This is often a moment of breaking through our fears, and self-defensive point of view, and awakening to a much deeper call.

This awakens us to our deep meaning, our gift as a gift to Creation and Community. It doesn't necessarily mean that we do great things. That is the gift of a few. What it does mean is that we give the quality of our life, a life learned through all that we've gone through. A life developed out of the chaos of this world because Trinity always hovers over us and guides us in the evolution of creation. We find the satisfaction of love that we've been seeking since the moment of our birth into this wondrous Universe.

Fr. Ken Sedlak, C.Ss.R. is the Associate Pastor at St. Michael's in Old Town, Chicago.

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