I am driving down the street in mid-afternoon and gaze about at a red light, noticing wispy striated clouds in the west, as if drawn with the finest paintbrush or exhaled with a baby’s breath. Something familiar and warm stirs inside.
On the back patio barbecuing, beer in hand, the temperature neither hot nor cold, warm nor cool, an ideal midpoint or no temperature, really, the air pillow-soft. A sparrow sits on the telephone line above, still as a statue for minutes on end, while my wife and daughter watch the ballgame on the other side of the patio slider, whooping with any hit from the home team.
This is it, I say to myself. It.
Assuming you are of able body, you always enjoy bowling and miniature golf, don’t you? Of course you do—it is impossible not to smile and laugh in multiples during these activities. Happy.
Irish music, go on, get up and do a jig, oh yes!
Happiness can be among the most elusive and relative qualities of human life. What makes a happy life can vary tremendously from person to person, as can perspectives on the importance of happiness itself.
It’s an elemental question: Is happiness the point of it all? With all these pleasures of sight and sound, smell and touch, love and communion, we were built on some kind of happiness framework, were we not? Part of the original mold, as it were?
And Jesus: Sure, he made a batch of extra wine to ensure the guests continued to enjoy themselves at a wedding party, and he multiplied fish to satiate the masses at a picnic. But he really didn’t emphasize happiness in this life all that much.
Some pleasures come cheap, but on the whole, of course, if happiness is the goal it helps to have at least some money. The comfort of a warm coat and home, sufficient food and drink, some spare time for family and friendship and the passions of the intellect or adventure or the arts.
“Of course I’m happy, I have the greatest job in the world!” says the birth room nurse or symphony conductor or river guide. “I get paid for being with happy and motivated people, doing things I’m passionate about.”
On the flip side, the Buddha: “Life is suffering.”
And Jesus: Sure, he made a batch of extra wine to ensure the guests continued to enjoy themselves at a wedding party, and he multiplied fish to satiate the masses at a picnic. But for all the theological potential in the notion that God came down from the heavens to walk on earth and become man, Jesus really didn’t emphasize happiness in this life all that much, mostly imploring his followers to keep their eyes on the prize that awaits them in heaven. Blessed are the poor, the mourners and the meek, he intoned; worry not about transient earthly pleasures.
One of his greatest later disciples who took Jesus at his word and then some was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), perhaps the broodingest of a generally dour bunch of 19th century hard-thinkers that included the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Hegel. Here’s some baseline Kierkegaard from his Papers and Journals that may not stand up to our requirements for easy breezy beach reading in what remains of the summer:
The whole of existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation. It’s all inexplicable, myself most of all. For me all existence is contaminated, myself most of all. Great is my distress, unlimited. No one knows it but God in heaven and he will not comfort me. No one but God in heaven can console me and he will not take pity on me.
And then with a little twist:
So great is my unhappiness at this time that in my dreams I am indescribably happy.
Kierkegaard was noted for his negation of objective truth and his devotion to subjective experience, and was actually humorous and even sarcastic in much of his decidedly unsystematic philosophy. But in the last line noted above, he was likely not joking at all but merely wryly observing the reality of his own life and basic sensibility.
And it brings up a curious question: Can one be ultimately happy about the unhappiness and suffering one endures or witnesses in one’s days?
The evidence seems to suggest so. A thought experiment:
Imagine yourself as an aid worker or therapist for torture victims, your days dominated by the most horrific and ghastly imagery imaginable. The suffering of your clients casts a dark pall on your very faith in human goodness. You do this day after month after year, surely not “happy” as such for the exposure. Their stories invade your dreams.
So you take stock at the end of your work life (and probably every anguished day during it) and you can hardly admit it as happy, but you tell yourself you were at least useful and engaged in a noble cause.
Would that make you happy after all? Or is that word just not quite apropos?
Our culture’s bookstores and websites are awash in advice, images and implorations to grab happiness by its slippery little throat and never let go. We are instructed to visualize our goals, adopt the right attitude or weight loss plan, buy the niftiest gizmo, finally find our bliss and even use our setbacks to move up the happiness scale—Sure, everyone has down times, but they’re the precondition…to become happier than ever!
But that’s hardly a contemporary phenomenon. What is it that philosophers have done since ancient times but turn over notions of human happiness and ultimate satisfaction, speculating on what finally comprises the good and worthy way of life?
Kierkegaard wasn’t much impressed by happiness talk, this we know. He was by any measure a strange, even maladjusted man, however brilliant and witty were his relentless jottings on the human condition. (Or was it really just his own condition he was describing?)
He was personally awkward and sickly, an outcast and social failure, who became not so much resigned but instead committed to shun everyday happiness, seeing in it falsity and capitulation in a world where true happiness is neither desirable nor possible anyway.
He died at 42, most likely a virgin, having been properly engaged at 27 to a woman a decade younger, which he chose to break off because he thought it would distract too greatly from his philosophizing and compromise his identity as an outsider who disdains bourgeois values of marriage, family and their accompanying status. (Nevertheless, he pined after his beloved “Regine” and drew inspiration from her for the rest of his days.)
In Kierkegaard’s schema of human living, people adopt one of three different sensibilities or orientations, which are largely hierarchical: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.
The aesthetically oriented person delights in the many sensate gifts of incarnate life—sights, smells, tastes, touches and sounds. One eagerly enjoys and continually pursues the many pleasures to be had in this realm.
The ethical person is devoted to right living according to universal moral principles, and does his or her best to serve others based on them.
The religious person gives up everything, all notions of personal satisfaction or pleasing the world, in favor of serving the absolute power of God. This person has the least chance (or interest) in achieving the happiness that manifests in this world; his or her eye is trained on far bigger fish.
What we might notice, however, is how this hierarchy proceeds through ever greater levels of abstraction.
The aesthetic: Pleasurable here and now, with our bodies. Enjoy the many gifts of incarnate life.
The ethical: Pleasurable at the end of the day, in summation, in our minds. We decide the denial of transitory pleasures begets a deeper joy of service and right conduct. And we evaluate our lives as satisfying and good.
The religious: Pleasurable at the end of life—and the one promised hereafter, with an ethereal spirit. Joy in this life matters not against the vast expanse of eternity. Aesthetics and ethics are chimeras, mere wisps. Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief. (Proverbs 14:13)
Kierkegaard followed with great devotion what he interpreted as the overarching spirit of his Bible—so was “content” with being miserable in this life. (Except when he was tearing into his philosophical opponent Hegel or into pretty much any text, all of which he approached with great gusto and panache in the privacy of his study, qualities which were almost totally lacking in his relationships and experiences outside those walls.)
Is Kierkegaard’s life what existence intended for us—backloading most all our pleasure into some life beyond this one, in a realm far, far away? Or are the prosperity Christians like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, with whom we can have our cake in this life and then have it taste infinitely sweeter in the next—at least closer to the mark?
I’m going to have Epicurus—a decidedly different voice from an era long predating Kierkegaard’s and our own—help us out on this matter in an upcoming post.
Now here’s a happy song! (Something tells me if it came on at a wedding, Kierkegaard would have sat on his hands at the back of the room—and he’d have been the only one…)
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Rotating banner photos top of page (except the books) courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Books photo by Larry Rose, Redlands, California, all rights reserved, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo of Kierkegaard portrait by ThomasThomas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomasthomas/
Stairs at University of Copenhagen by Thomas Cummins, San Antonio, Texas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomascummins/
Kierkegaard quote photo by Justine Warrington, Canada, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at https://www.flickr.com/photos/j_dub_warrington/
Happy couple photo by Daniel Condurachi, Botosani, Romania, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielcondurachi/