Monday, April 04, 2011

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

I've been thinking some about how my being an American has shaped me, my values, my beliefs, my expectations for how life should be, how I create meaning in life, etc, and how this is so different from someone who is Ecuadorian, Turkish, Iranian, or Bangladeshi. As Christians, I think that we like to believe that our beliefs and worldview match a Christian worldview, that our beliefs and how we see the world is entirely shaped through Christ and the Bible. I think that our cultural worldviews often shape our view of Christianity more than the vice versa.

In the US, we live our lives pursuing happiness. And I think sometimes it makes us miserable. It's in our constitution, that everyone has the right to pursue happiness, and I think reflects a cultural mandate that our chief purpose is to be happy. That if we're not happy, if we suffer, if we feel depressed, then something is wrong with us or the world and it needs to be changed. We make most of our decisions by asking, "Will this make me and others happy?" "Will marrying this person make me happy?" "Will this career make me happy?" "Will living in this city make me happy?" "Will doing this hobby make me happy?" And that mindset certainly affects how we approach Christianity - "Will believing this make me happy?" "Will Christ bring me happiness and fulfillment and a good life if I follow Him?" Many Christians continue to try to squeeze happiness out of the gospel as if that were its main purpose, and others walk away when they're not happy.

And I see this as very cultural because some cultures don't pursue happiness like we do. Some individuals don't expect to be happy all the time, if at all. My friend was telling me about a line from the movie Beyond Rangoon (which I haven't seen), where the lead character (an American woman) is talking with a Burmese political official who tells her basically, "In Burma, we expect suffering. We're not shocked by it. We don't expect happiness." Some cultures are better at accepting suffering. My Iranian friend said that this is true of her culture and many other cultures. She said that this is reflected in media, in movies particularly. In the US, most movies have a happy ending. Not all, but a lot of them do. We want to see happy endings because we expect that for ourselves. But in other countries, movies are more tragic. They end with death and mourning and wailing, because that reflect their expectation from life. In the US, we are shocked by suffering and tragedy. We protest and cry out, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

I'm not saying that we should just lay down and accept suffering and not try to end it. We should be seeking to end injustice and cure cancer and AIDS. There is much needless suffering in the world, and we shouldn't just shrug our shoulders and be indifferent. But perhaps we should be more accepting of our own personal suffering. Perhaps I should be more accepting of personal suffering. By disposition, I'm a pretty optimistic person. I like being happy and I can easily find positives in many situations. When I'm unhappy, I just want to be happy again as soon as possible. I've found myself frequently unhappy this week, often without being able to do anything to change the circumstances that contributed to my unhappiness. I found that the times when I just accepted my unhappiness, when I just acknowledge, "Ok, I'm unhappy right now, and this sucks, and I want to be happy, but I'm never promised happiness, so I can be unhappy right now," were my most peaceful moments this past week.

And does this reflect the kind of outlook I should have as a Christian? Looking at the early church in the New Testament, the church seemed to expect suffering, but there was also much joy. Joy in fellowship with other believers, in pursuing a new way, in enjoying the blessing of the Spirit and salvation. But that joy went alongside the suffering of Christ, the suffering of following a narrow way.

Nothing I'm saying is new or revolutionary. This is all influenced by psychological theories I've read or studied, conversations I've had, or sermons I've heard preached. I'm just trying to examine myself more in light of these thoughts, trying to understand my cultural expectations for what my life should be like, and hold those in light of what could be more true.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Excellent post. I agree completely! I think a lot of people confuse joy with happiness. Happiness is a fleeting feeling, influenced mostly by external factors. Joy is a state of mind, which can exist with or without happiness. Though I believe that God wants us to be happy, it's not something that He can promise us, because it depends on us, not Him. He can, however, give us joy!