Saturday, November 20, 2010


I have found the secret to happiness.

I was talking to a co-worker the other day, and the conversation finally turned to the subject of what gave us pleasure. We had already decided that talking politics was a surefire way to lose whatever happiness or peace of mind we might have had. Talking religion, even though we didn't directly speak about that, is the same kind of subject - you are almost certain to be more agitated after the conversation than before it, and not in a good way.

Since we're both grandparents, we both agreed that playing with the grandchildren is a good way to get a smile plastered back on our faces. More than that, it will probably be a crooked, goofy-looking smile, if our experience is any guide.

So - what is this secret of happiness, and how does it relate to playing with your grandchildren? And what if you're too young to have grandchildren; what's the secret for you?

The secret to happiness is this - you are going to die.

You are mortal - you have a limited number of days to live on this Earth.

One day you won't wake up.

Owning this one fact, at a visceral level, perhaps at a cellular level, is the key to finding happiness.

This is nothing new - it's classic wisdom, and has been expounded for thousands of years.

The Rule of St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, has this statement of the secret in Chapter 4, Verse 47 (from RB1980) - "Day  by day remind yourself that you are going to die." St. Benedict lived from 480 to 547 AD, so this is pretty old wisdom.

As ancient as St. Benedict's words are, there are far older statements that proclaim the same wisdom. From the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Holy Bible we read this, in Chapter 11 - "How sweet light is, how delightful it is to see the sun! However many years you live, enjoy them all, but remember, the days of darkness will be many: futility awaits you at the end." (This, and all other Bible citations, are from the New Jerusalem Bible.)

In Psalm 90, we read this - "All our days pass under your wrath, our lives are over like a sigh. The span of our life is seventy years - eighty for those who are strong - but their whole extent is anxiety and trouble, they are over in a moment and we are gone."

This is ancient stuff indeed! So how does this knowledge lead to happiness?

First, if you know the reality of your situation, you can start living appropriately. If you know that you have a finite lifespan, you might be less inclined to fritter time away.

Or maybe not...

Your reaction to this whole idea might be along the lines of this - Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!

Or this - Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.

What determines which course your "appropriate" reaction follows?

I think it's what you expect at the end of that life. Restated, do you expect something afterward, or do you expect nothing - literally nothing!

If you expect that when you die, you cease to exist, for all time going forward, then you might be inclined to party like there's no tomorrow, because, in your mind, that's just the way it is.

If, on the other hand, you believe, at a level just as foundational as your knowledge of your mortality, that you will see life again, in some form, then you might be more inclined to work out your salvation, as Paul puts it, with fear and trembling. Since we don't know exactly what awaits us, if there is an afterlife, fear and trembling sound appropriate as well.

Of course, there are other reactions to this knowledge as well.

For instance, you might figure that you can just trash your environment, strip mine the earth, deforest the Amazon Basin, because you know that you're going to heaven, and this world is disposable.

You might figure that you can party like there's no tomorrow, even though you believe there is, because you know that you're saved, and what you do between now and the day of your death will not revoke that salvation.

Or you might just sit back, sponging off everyone around you, just chilling until you die, because you believe that "all dogs go to heaven."

The Apostle Paul has sharp words addressed to people who subscribe to these life strategies in his various letters to churches collected in the New Testament. In summarizing those words, they boil down to this - "No, that's not the way it works!"

Let's get back to the secret to happiness, though.

If we know that we will die, and that there is something awaiting us afterward, then we can begin making our days of life count, both in the world we inhabit and in the life that awaits us beyond our own death. If happiness is to be found in anything, it is found when we realize that what we have done, what we are doing, and what we will do, make a difference, and that every day is holy and sacred, because there are only a few of them.

Let the words at the end of Psalm 90 close this post out:

"Teach us to count up the days that are ours,
and we shall come to the heart of wisdom.
Come back, Yahweh! How long must we wait?
Take pity on your servants.

"Each morning fill us with your faithful love,
we shall sing and be happy all our days;
let our joy be as long as the time that you afflicted us,
the years when we experienced disaster.

"Show your servants the deeds you do,
let their children enjoy your splendour!
May the sweetness of the Lord be upon us,
to confirm the work we have done!"

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