Another Kind of Happy

November 30, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

 

READING                            The Soul's Code                 James Hillman         

Each person enters the world called. The idea comes from Plato, his Myth of Er at the end of his most well-known work, the Republic. In a nutshell: The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. This soul-companion, the daimon, guides us here; in the process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe we come empty into this world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is the carrier of your destiny.

A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also possess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will out. It makes its claim. The daimon does not go away.

THE SERMON                  "Another Kind of Happy"                      Rev. Victoria

There is a character from "Saturday Night Live" created by comedienne Molly Shannon that particularly tickled me when I first saw her some six or seven years ago. The character is named Helen Madden, and she is a self-proclaimed "licensed joyologist."  She appears on talk shows burbling on about joy and happiness all dressed in ridiculously colorful outfits, writhing and contorting herself on a big armchair, thrusting out her arms, kicking and grinning a smile so frighteningly wide that it threatens to devour you. She is utterly manic and exudes total desperation. Her key phrase is "I love it, I love it, I love it!"

Helen is a hilarious manifestation of all the neurotic ways people go about forcing themselves to be happy. I believe she is also a living illustration of our mixed feelings about happiness, and our confusion about how to define it and how – if at all – to intentionally pursue it. I think it is a central existential question for privileged people in the Western world: Given all that we have, are we required to be happy? Or: Given all that we have, shouldn't we be happy?

An old roommate I haven't talked to in over a decade got in touch with me recently through the social networking website Facebook.  "Tell me you're happy," he wrote. What an interesting thing to say. Tell me you're happy. I told him that I am happy. But it occurred to me, after thinking about why I hesitated to answer him,  that I do not place happiness at the top of my list of personal priorities. 

At the very top of my list of priorities would be, rather, am I doing something meaningful with my life?

If I died tomorrow and was invited for an exit interview with God, it would never occur to me that God would ask me if I was happy but rather, "Were you as useful as you could be? Was it interesting? Did you learn something? Did you savor it?"

To be able to answer all of those questions in the affirmative is my definition of happiness. And by that definition, I am definitely happy. Yet I think of a moment between myself and my nephew Lucas, who was then two years old.  Holding my hand as we descended the stairs for breakfast, he looked me and said, "I happy." I said, "I happy, too." A two-year old is not useful, but his life is meaningful to him. He is learning, he is discovering all the time, he savors life -- he can know contentment, and he can know joy. But as soon as the world sets in, that simple contentment will be harder to grasp and more complicated to understand. That is why we owe our children joyful childhoods – so they can experience as much unearned happiness as possible before the complications of life send them searching frantically and often in vain for that which once came so naturally and effortlessly.

In the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson inscribed happiness as part of our national vocation by including the famous phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" into the Declaration of Independence. In Jefferson's era, "happiness" would have been interpreted in a much less pleasure-oriented, or hedonistic, manner than it is today. I am no expert on the evolution of the concept of happiness through the centuries, but it is obvious that in Jefferson's context, the right to happiness was closely related to safety, security and peace -- the chance to live unthreatened by British troops, for instance, or just to be treated as an equal to other men. 

Since that time, happiness as an individual right and a personal goal has gone in and out of fashion in different generations. In times of war and sacrifice (or perhaps I should specify "times of war during which sacrifice was considered an important value for the citizenry," which is not true in our nation today), values such as honor, courage and duty far superseded happiness. Then came the 60's and the 70's, with their "if it feels good, do it" ethos, and there has been cultural confusion about happiness ever since. Religions, with their emphasis on service, community, cultivation of reverence and gratitude, and frequent orientation to the afterlife, have not had much to teach about happiness, per se. The implication in most faith traditions is that if we do what is righteous, we will be happy as a result. 

I think that is a fine direction to point people in, as it turns our attention away from what feels good to what might be for the good; an approach that, if undertaken in a spirit of appreciative self-discipline, can bring about lasting joy, wisdom, and inner peace – all important components of happiness.

So I could stop there and advise us all to follow that direction -- to say, "Always try to do what is for the good according to your best, most impartial and careful discernment of the good, and you will very likely derive great happiness from that." The old-time Unitarians and Universalists would have considered that worthy advice.  They deeply believed that God wants us to be virtuous not just for moral reasons, but because virtue is rewarded by happiness – something God wants for us. 

There is a sweetness in this theology that has sustained me on many days when I am struggling to orient myself more toward the good. It helps greatly on difficult days to meditate on the idea that the creative force that animates the universe has a benevolent desire for our souls. Dame Julian of Norwich, a 15th century mystic who had fifteen famous revelations of the nature of God, wrote this enigmatic phrase about the immense love at the center of God's ultimate purpose, borne of God's love for creation,

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." 

Perhaps you have experienced this sense of wellness, and a sense of joy, even when you have been quite unhappy.  Life has hit the skids and yet somewhere in you there is a sense of deep well-being. The existentialist Camus expressed this so beautifully when he said, "And in the midst of winter, I learned that within me there was an invincible summer."

What is the source of that sense of "invincible summer?" Because it is there, I think, that we find our most authentic and meaningful happiness.

The Greeks believed that we are all born with an attendant spirit, which they called a daimon. "The favor of the gods," said Socrates, "has given me a marvelous gift, which has never left me since my childhood. It is a voice which, when it makes itself heard, deters me from what I am about to do and never urges me on [to things that compromised his integrity or destiny, Socrates meant]."  Socrates relied utterly on this daimon, which knew his fate and his destiny and which he utterly trusted, even unto death. As you may recall, he chose to die by drinking poison hemlock rather than recant his "dangerous" teachings.  

Plato, Socrates' student, believed that the soul chooses its own destiny and is guarded by its daimon from birth.  Jungian psychologist James Hillman writes that "The daimon motivates. It protects. It invents and persists with stubborn fidelity. It resists compromising reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper, especially when it is neglected or opposed. It offers comfort and can pull you into its shell, but cannot abide innocence. It can make the body ill…. It has affinities with myth, since it is itself a mythical being, and thinks in mythical patterns." (The Soul's Code, 39)

Over my years of pastoring, I have become fascinated with the concept of the daimon, because of the particular kind of acute spiritual pain that occurs in people who feel its calling and direction in their lives but either feel utterly helpless to respond, or are kept by some circumstance beyond their control from responding. The daimon, or genius, or angel, or whatever term you prefer to give it, does not dictate to us how we should act, but knows who we must be. It is not interested so much with virtue as it is with integrity, and destiny.

Envision a skinny, awkward, sixteen year-old Ella Fitzgerald at Amateur Night at the Harlem Opera House. She is announced as the next contestant, all rehearsed and prepared to dance for them. Right before going on stage, she balks. There is a small delay, a commotion inside a teenager's heart and backstage as she changes her mind. She decides to sing for the crowd instead. She had meant to dance, but she sang. She takes three encores and wins first prize. The rest, as you know, is history. (Hillman, 10) 

An eleven year-old named Golda Meir is a student in public school in Milwaukee and becomes concerned about the cost of required textbooks for the poorer children in her school. She rents a hall to stage a meeting, raises funds, gathers a group of supportive friends around, enlists her sister to read a socialist poem in Yiddish, and delivers an impromptu speech to the assembly herself the night of the event.

Did all of this organizing cause this precocious child stress? Probably. Did it make her happy in the traditional sense? I imagine not. Was the girl who eventually became the Prime Minister of Israel made more popular or loved by these actions? I have to imagine that she was not. Luckily, her parents had a higher goal for their child than the traditional happiness that might come with popularity or conformity:  They desired that she would be able to live fully into her innate gifts, to express the calling of her soul in the world. When individuals are allowed to do this and are supported in it, they experience was psychologists call eudaimonic happiness, whose root word, of course, is daimon.

Again, I quote Camus: "A person's life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, or love, or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened." 

So here is a new definition of happiness. And for those who have felt far more content working on the engine of a car on their day off, examining bugs under a microscope and intently documenting every detail over many spine-stiffening hours over summer vacation, or organizing protest marches with their leisure hours than they ever did swinging in a hammock, lunching with friends or walking on the beach, it is a definition of happiness that may open more possibilities for our own lives and help us better understand certain personalities.

I am not surprised to learn of a medical study out of the University of Wisconsin and Princeton that proves that "while pleasurable experiences may lift your spirits, the ones that leave you with a sense of purpose and meaningful relationships may do even more: protect the body against ill health."  When researchers "interviewed 135 older women and assessed their emotional and physical well-being, they found that the people who were purposefully engaged in life tended to have better levels of physical functioning, and lower levels of stress hormones throughout the day, and lower levels of inflammatory cytokines, which can cause hardening of the arteries, diabetes and arthritis  (findings in the September, 2004 issue of Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, a journal of the Royal Society of London).  (So there's some validation for those of you who have stayed active in your so-called retirement years. When people say "slow down and just be happy," you can tell them that you ARE happy working at things that give your life purpose and meaning!)

I want to end on a confessional note: I wrote this sermon as an explanation to someone in my life who does not understand me or accept my desire to work, study, and learn so constantly. This person has implied that there is something wrong or unhealthy about this, and has implied that such drive prevents me from achieving happiness because I am never "done." To me, this perspective is staggering. Quite to the contrary of her perspective, these pursuits are the essence of who I am, are what I most love, and are the enterprises that make me happier than anything else I could imagine doing. So when I discovered the concept of eudaimonic happiness I felt vindicated and triumphant – here was a definition of happiness that explained myself to me, even if it may not explain me to my friend or to anyone else. I share it with you that it may help you understand yourself or someone in your life better, or perhaps that it will set you free in some way from the uneasy or guilty feeling that you are somehow not going about being happy in the right way.

We don't need Helen Madden, the licensed joyologist, to teach us how to be happy.  Our souls will teach us, if we give them the respectful attention they need and deserve. 

We heard the words of William Wordsworth earlier, and I will close with his words now:

Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith's transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.

 – from "River Duddon: A Conclusion"

 

Friends, I hope that you will heed your daimon, your life's genius, and be happy for it.