‘Happiness is a right, but you have to catch it yourself’ said Benjamin Franklin of the American Constitution. It was a very English thing for an 18th century American to say. We English have traditionally held that pulling yourself up by your own boot-straps is something of a moral imperative.
Pelagius, writing in the 5th century, was a very English heretic. Pelagius argued that human beings did not need divine grace in order to fulfil God’s purpose for them because they could perfectly well fulfil it through their own efforts and character. Part of his argument entailed the denial of original sin, as it was then understood. Original sin was seen to have been inherited from Adam’s wilful disobedience to God, his perceived lack of need for God.
Today, original sin manifests itself as original selfishness, our natural propensity for the furthering of self interest at the expense of anyone or anything which gets in its way. Self reliance has become a moral imperative, so that to be poor is to fail, and failure today is easily confused with sin. The original selfishness which has ‘spawned’ this philosophy has its origins in the instinct for survival which we have inherited from our earliest humanoid ancestors, as argued by Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’.
In modern society unredeemed original selfishness leads to a state of collective and chronic loneliness. In terms of the individual, those who have led selfish lives often find themselves alone and unvisited in their final years, a situation exacerbated, perhaps, by the selfishness they have passed on to others. This is not to say that all lonely people, whatever their age or circumstances, are inherently selfish and therefore paying a price for how they have failed others. Loneliness is the price many of us will come to pay, sooner or later, for the climate of selfishness we, in our western society, have generated and grown used to. Furthermore, our collective greed and individual selfishness suggests that its ultimate casualty will be ourselves, the demise of our species within the next couple of centuries, ultimate loneliness. But our denial of this increasingly obvious fact does not seem to be making us less selfish, either in terms of how we think about the planet we are bequeathing to the next three or four generations, or how we conceive of our own happiness at this moment.
Perhaps the difficulty lies primarily with the way time itself has become a kind of currency. We are seldom sufficiently present to the present moment to appreciate its unique value. We have more important things to do than to stop and think about it. The present moment is disposable.
We are used to thinking about disposable assets, but we seldom think about disposable time. Disposable time, and how it is used, is central to the question of happiness and to that of loneliness. Too little disposable time forces us to compress our lives into a rapidly diminishing time framework, usually at the expense of our relationships and of our mental and physical health. Later in life, the sacrificing of relationships will lead to us having too much disposable time, too many hours to fill and too few people left with whom to share them.
Do we simply write this scenario off as the inevitable price we pay for living in the times we live in? Or is there a way for re-connecting with the source of true happiness from within any given moment? Can we find ways of being present to a greater stillness from within any one transient moment in daily life?
There are two stories from the Gospels which hint at how we might re-think our happiness priorities in this respect and so arrive at such a mental vantage point. The first story is that of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God. Like many religious people, he has led a good life but he is afraid of parting with his disposable assets. Material assets may not constitute happiness, but they do impart a feeling of safety, so to let go of them willingly is frightening. This was the young man’s problem. Furthermore, like many of us today, he felt that he was defined by what he owned, or by what he had achieved (which often amounts to the same thing), so his happiness depended on maintaining his ‘profile’, or its equivalent, and this required time.
The other story concerns two sisters, Martha and Mary. Jesus is having supper at their house and Martha chides him for allowing her sister to sit listening to him when Mary’s time would be better spent helping her with the meal. (Where is their brother, one can’t help wondering?) But Jesus replies that Mary has ‘the better part’. The story concerns the proper deployment of disposable time when it comes to what makes for real happiness.
This is not to say that spirituality is more important than practical action, but that there are deep human needs which take precedence over everything else and meeting them requires time. The deepest of these needs is our need for God.
Once this need is recognised for what it is, it alters the way we think about disposable time. It also radically alters the way we experience happiness. If what we have in the way of disposable time does not allow us to be at peace for at least a part of each day, what is it we lack, or, better put, what are the time-wasting preoccupations that create an obstacle to this mysterious, unnameable and elusive happiness?