Happy Snobbery

We have bred our new elite. Happy people. As our culture has embraced happiness as its highest ideal, our new elite are those who have become superlatively happy. They can maintain months, if not years of uninterrupted happiness. The rest of us look up to them as perfect examples of humanity. They appear on Oprah and have ministries passing out advice on how to get God to make you happy. They tell stories about how, once upon a time, they were unhappy, downtrodden and miserable, but that they worked out how to get happy. Some will sell you their secret at a substantial sum. Just listen to the tape, find Jesus, pop the pill, obey the law.

However, where there is elitism there is always snobbery. For some of our happy elite, contentment is enhanced by looking down on others who have not achieved their level of happiness. Enter the happy snob.
For the happy-snob, life's sole purpose is happiness. It is his defining self-identity and it has become the way in which he defines others. His approval is bestowed only on the content person, not on the miserable. For what right has a person to be miserable? Such a waste, such unnecessary melancholy.
The happy snob judges of worth those people who are on par with his level of wellbeing. Not saturated in it or on a high, but consistently self-satisfied. He selects his companions by this measure: If a person he meets projects just the right amount of inner warmth, he is in. If, on the other hand, happy-snob's new acquaintance reveals even the slightest suffering then the relationship will be terminated. Or at least it will be subject to conditions such as the agreement of the unhappy partner to listen to a series of motivational talks, pop some pills or receive a course of therapy.
However, there is a flaw in the happy snob's ability to select friends. The happy-snob is only able to judge others on the basis of their proclaimed wellbeing. Happiness, with careful study and practice, may be faked.
If you want to remain in the in-crowd, my advice is this: If you're happy and you know it clap your hands, but if you are miserable as hell you should fake it and join in with the clapping.
My instructions are simple. You should do everything to appear happy, even if you are caught in the grip of despair. If, for example, a happy-snob were to visit you in your home, you should provide evidence to the man from jollyland of your upbeat existence. Find symbols of life satisfaction and point them out to your visitor. Perhaps by hanging pictures on the wall of yourself smiling or serving up cup-cakes with colorful sprinkles, you could pass the contentment test. When looking up the nose of the happy-snob, assert that, whether you are rolling in cash or claiming for free milk, you are in the right place and very happy about it. Most importantly, purge the home of all signs of melancholy. There should be no requiem in the CD collection, no Thomas Hardy in the book shelf and certainly no complaining about life's circumstances. Do not, no matter how bad you feel, even intimate a woe or longing for something more or different.
Our new prejudice may be based on levels of wellbeing. If you are, or at least appear to be, happy, you are accepted. If you are unhappy, you will be, if not outcast, at least the object of suspicion. The in-crowd will be armed with the tools to maintain happiness. The out-crowd, on the other hand, will be the object of conferences, self-help books, how-to DVDs and life-coaches which will attempt to elevate the unhappy to the status of happy-normal.
If staying attached to the incrowd is not your thing, then by all means rebel. Stand firm against the happy snob. Shout, “Happiness is no reason for happiness!” When the happy-snob looks down his nose at your misery and offers you tickets to a motivational speaker, you should reject his offer, and tell him to get lost. Tell him that a class system based good feeling and superior smiles is no place for a human being.
Incidentally, if you can fake happiness, it may well be that happy-snob is faking it too. If you take a stand, he may capitulate and break down in tears. You may liberate him from his cell.
The question is not whether or not we have a right to be happy, it is whether it is right to be happy or not. Paul certainly implies that contentment is a worthy condition when he writes, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” But his secret to contentment is not his own work but the work of Christ as he goes on to say, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 3:12-13).
However, There are things which should make you unhappy. For example, sin should make you unhappy. When a murderer gets away with his crime, you should feel unhappy about it. When children are killed at the behest of hatred, you should not only be angry, but deeply saddened. When you cheat on your wife, it should bring you despair like that of David who had an affair with another man's wife and then murdered the husband. David didn't fake happiness in order to keep up appearances. He was scorned for his remorse. Instead of turning to an elite, he turned to God. He lamented:
“For I endure scorn for your sake,and shame covers my face. I am a stranger to my brothers,
an alien to my own mother's sons; for zeal for your house consumes me,
and the insults of those who insult you fall on me. When I weep and fast,
I must endure scorn; when I put on sackcloth,
people make sport of me. Those who sit at the gate mock me,
and I am the song of the drunkards. But I pray to you, O LORD,
in the time of your favor;
in your great love, O God,
answer me with your sure salvation. Rescue me from the mire,
do not let me sink;
deliver me from those who hate me,
from the deep waters. Do not let the floodwaters engulf me
or the depths swallow me up
or the pit close its mouth over me. Answer me, O LORD, out of the goodness of your love;
in your great mercy turn to me” (Psalm 69:7-16).

Doing what's right often requires unhappiness. How else can a struggling marriage survive? If a sense of wellbeing governs the decisions to stay together, what chance has the marriage? But that is exactly the reason many give to ending their lifelong commitments to each other.
There are also other kinds of suffering which are unavoidable or which produce something of worth. Think also of those who suffer inexplicable bouts of depression. Who have little control over their happiness dial as it drops further than the Dow Jones average. We may wish to eradicate these downturns, but we all spend time admiring the works of the most unhappy people because certain kinds of beauty are only possible when there is pain. Christ's pivotal moment in the garden of Gethsemane portrays the submission of the desire for personal wellbeing, not merely for the hope of a happier outcome, but for the purpose of the honor or glory of His Father. Paul wrote that Christ's purpose in his death was to show the righteousness of the Father. “For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-26).
Wellbeing is not a condition of the normal, whilst those who fail are left by the wayside. It is terrifying that those whose self described condition is that of “decidedly unhappy” are marginalized. The bible exhorts us not to marginalize those who are in this condition, but to love them. Love for others should trump our desire for a happy society and for securing our own needs. Those needs should be left to God whilst we give out to others in love, whether or not it makes us or them happy. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).
Well, are you in or out of the happiness club? Feel like you should be happy, but aren't? Happiness, especially if it has to be fueled with therapy, materialism, chemicals and moral ambiguity, is no reason for joy. It is not a good measurement for a life well lived. Measure my life, sure, but don't use happiness as the yardstick. Find something else. I hope I never judge my life by how happy I was. I want to live a life that might experience the depths of pain whilst growing to love God like David, “I am weary with my groaning; All night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears. My eye wastes away because of grief; It grows old because of all my enemies” (Psalm 6:6-7). I want to be like Paul who judged his own life by how he poured it out for Christ. He wrote, “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life—in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:14-17).
Joy, sustained and undiluted, is possible, but it is not achieved, it is given. It is promised to those who wait for Christ. For with Christ comes great joy. As Jesus told his disciples, we may be in grief—and therefore in the world's underclass—while the world is full of happiness, but when Christ comes our grief will turn to rejoicing and our joy will never end:
I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:20-22).

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ben, no I don't intend to be happy. As Gordon Atkinson says, "Damn it MAN! I intend to take on water!" (See below). Peace, Chanon



Going down with the ship

by Gordon Atkinson

I will go down with this ship. And I won't put my hands up and surrender. There will be no white flag above my door. (Dido)
We will all go down on one ship or another because we have no idea how we came to be on this ball of feverish algae and germs that endlessly circles the star we call Sol. We have no idea why Sol exists in a spiral arm of the galaxy we call the Milky Way. And we don't know enough to even phrase the questions in meaningful ways.

So you will go down with your ship. You will ride your ship of belief until it disappears beneath the waves. For a time there will be ripples on the surface of the water, your legacy and memory, but those ripples will eventually spread and disappear. After that it will be as if you never existed.

And this ship will not be some fancy ocean liner with a famous name like "Christianity" or "agnosticism" or "Buddhism" or "Generic American Political and Social God-ism." No, your ship will be the small vessel that you are creating with your own hands, and those of a few sailing buddies who are a part of your convoy.

This is faith in Christ. It is the ship I will go down with. My church is a small collection of rowboats, rafts, dinghies and canoes that make up a precious convoy of friends heading for the open sea. I have journeyed with these sea-faring pilgrims for many years now. Our skin is dark and weathered, and some people say we look more like pirates than sailors.

I intend to take my ship straight to the horizon, full steam ahead with my eyes on the setting sun. Don't speak to me of danger or choices or what might have been. Don't tell me that I might take on water. Damn it, man, I intend to take on water. I intend to sail straight and true until the water covers my deck and I can go no further. Then my friends will slow their ships, and come alongside to give me a final salute. And when I go under I will still be facing the horizon with both hands on the wheel.

I will face whatever lies in the darkness over the sea and in the lands from which no mortal has ever returned save the one our story speaks of. In those last moments, with my sailing buddies giving me a somber nod, I will pit my frail vessel and our story against the secrets of the universe.

What I seek, what I want, what I need and must have is a way to face the darkness. What I seek, what I want, what I need and must have is the courage to believe in the light.

I hope it will be said that I stood for goodness. I hope it will be said that I was faithful and true to this course. And I hope the last slick I leave on the surface of the water will be an encouragement to my daughters and my friends, and that they will turn their own sails into the wind for the final run.

This is the deal I have with God. I will go down on his ship. I will not raise my arms and surrender. There will be no white flag upon my bow. This is faith, and I'm in it for the long haul.


Gordon Atkinson is the author of RealLivePreacher.com (Eerdmans), a collection of essays from his blog of the same name.