Monday, July 29, 2013

Elusive Happiness: Right Under One’s “Nose

 He was just another young guy, a somewhat typical undergraduate whose major involvement was beer  and girls. He was tall, ruggedly handsome with an easy going disposition. Life was enjoyable in the comfortable sub-urban areas, fairly easy with lots of golf and handball but vaguely dissatisfying.  Years later, he would ask himself how he ever got from there to “here”, his present way of life.  The answer to that query began with  “dissatisfaction”, goaded perhaps by the Holy Spirit. He began asking himself questions about meaning and purpose and “what shall I do with my life?”
In typical Holy Spirit subtlety, the possibility of Catholic priesthood was raised- in the back of his mind. Compounding the subtlety was the unexpected attraction of joining a religious group called the Mill Hill Fathers who worked sometimes, of all places, in Africa. And in one of the most difficult climates in the world, the Camaroons, sometimes called the White man’s graveyard. Where did all this come from? How did all this happen?
Ordained a priest he was appointed to a remote Camaroons area populated with people whose way of life differed from his own like the stars differ from the earth. There were witch doctors who threw bones on the ground to “divine” the future. The speech belonged to no familiar language pattern he knew. The food, clothing and climate were staggering in their assault on his psyche, which was so Western, so Euro-American. Yet the adaptation to such changes was the key to the “elusive”—human happiness.
While the “how did it  happen” dimension in anyone’s life is  difficult and complicated to unravel, one thing is clear. It is that human happiness is somehow woven deep into satisfying relationships with others. The “Interpersonal relationship” so often lampooned and cartooned is the bottom line of human fulfillment. The Genesis line that it not good for man to be alone implies more than romance or marriage. The human drive for connection, the need to be understood, the need to articulate one’s own mystery, the need to love and be loved, to be appreciated, the need to combat the terrors of real loneliness all spring  from the profound human core designed by an Omniscient and Loving Creator.
The present generation while probably no more bizarre and confused than others, offers striking illustrative  examples, striking because of the insatiable exploitation by the modern media to make everything “public” . The glaring examples are public iconic individuals who are rich, physically healthy, universally sporting expensive white teeth, unrepressed by anything, mostly from the entertainment and sports worlds.  The artificial smiles and the forced witty remarks are no cover for the interiorly dismal lives they lead. They go to Rehab for problems with drugs, alcohol, depression, sex and loneliness. The heavy stress to impress others how they are ahead of the “curve” fools no one. They are called the “Beautiful people” not the Happy People because there is clearly in them a driven frenetic quality which chokes off any real chance for happiness. Might we call them narcissistic?
 Human beings of every age have acted similarly with relatively the same outcome.  It is an old truism in scientific research that continuing in the same experiment the same way with repeated failure can be defined as “Insanity.”  To assess such behavior one needs only to quote the old sage, Puck, who quipped: “What fools we mortals be.” Some will spend their lives achieving  goals which bring money or fame or applause while neglecting the fonts of real joy which are right under their noses.  In some cases families have been neglected, especially  the spousal covenant and the contracepted baby and the aborted one, friendship,—all in the name of “career.” And rationalized with articulate, persuasive, false words, but rationalization nonetheless.
There are many reasons why humans  “miss the mark”  but the most obvious is money. Money, if used wisely, can be most helpful for happy and respectable living but when it becomes the god of life or falsely promises a fantasy Rose Garden in this “Vale of Tears”, it destroys. I have a friendship spanning  40 years with  a fine, intelligent retired public servant who reached a very high level of his profession  at  a terrible cost. Promotion to lucrative higher levels became obsessive and primary. This was his perception of what it means to be successful and therefore happy. His marriage became shattered. It came finally to divorce pervaded by bitter anger from a wife who felt, rightly or wrongly, that she was neglected  in favor of his advancement. His children became estranged, leaving his religion for the secular gods who had seduced him.
And he tells me more than once that he is “ not happy.” Yet, he has complete financial security, the satisfaction of a successful career, much fascinating  travel each year,  several good cars, remarkably  good health into his  seventies, a series of older educated mature women who find him attractive, a beautiful “paid for” home shared with a dog which, he says, loves him with the implication that no one else does. Even with the most intelligent among us, it has often been the sad story of our human tribe that we sometimes miss the “forest for the trees.”
It is not money as such which is the problem.  Or healthy ambition  or love of traveI. It is the overwhelming desire for narcissistic fulfillment, the dulling of one’s conscience , the obsessive desire for the power that money can bring that kills chances for real happiness. While money “talks’ in many instances, human history teaches that money, by itself, cannot buy the fulfillment so dearly sought by all of us no matter what form that need assumes. Clearly, the right use of money has brought peace and security and food and education and care and health and comfort to multitudes.     There is, however, another definite factor needed. This missionary priest, mentioned above, found it in the most unlikely yet obvious place—obvious in hindsight. It was in the warm interaction with human beings, even those who might have needed a bath or a mouthwash. It was being with people who saw nothing strange in having bare, unwashed feet and whose house floors were basically caked mud or even caked manure. And somehow enjoying just being  with them.
The young priest would often visit those primitive structures which passed for homes where his people lived. We would call it living in extreme poverty.  He would spend unhurried hours with them, listening, laughing, praying, teaching, being “there.”  And his respect for them was returned to him as gratitude and love. They had no money to give. They had no power to bestow. They had no vehicle to fame to give him. They simply offered the opportunity to experience deep happiness. Viktor Frankl teaches that those who seek happiness directly will never find it. This is true because happiness is a byproduct of  something else. When Father would sit with the Chief of the village, the  Fon, as all chiefs were called, he, the Fon, would whip out a jug of palm wine, place it between them and pour liberally as the conversation went on. This was supreme respect. A sign of recognition of the value of his visitor. It symbolically spoke of warmth and friendship and interest.  It is basically what all human beings want and need; the ability and the opportunity to give love and to accept it.
This is no more than basic human nature, the aspect of human experience which is so possible for all who can openly look and who are not frozen emotionally in some unhealthy or immature bias. Human connection is vital. Without it a person gets shriveled and disoriented. While human experience and psychological research can attest to such a point, believers have an even more potent reason why this is so. The Supreme Being, the Creator, the Lord, God has made human relationships central and primary in pleasing Him. If things are poor relationally, life will most probably have huge unconscious deficits in  the search for Happiness because of bitterness and resentment…regardless of secular achievements.

Maybe it has something to do with seeing Jesus in every one we meet. Maybe it  relates somehow to
the noted observation of St. Augustine of Hippo   that “our hearts are restless ‘till they rest in Thee “ since God has made us or Himself!
We are instructed that should we offer some “gift” in His honor while living a negative relationship we should delay our giving and go first to heal relationally .  Then do we have credence before Him for which we are rewarded with increased self-esteem and deep peace.
Getting side tracked in life is nothing new. We all know that road, living as we do in a three ringed circus world where it is easy to be seduced by baubles that don’t  last. The grass really isn’t all that much greener on the other side of the fence. It can be quite green on my own side--- and it is right under my nose!

On Making the Sign of the Cross in Restaurants


After finishing a pleasant dinner with a friend in a popular New York City restaurant, I made, as is my custom, the Sign of the Cross. My intention was to thank my Lord for such an enjoyable experience by explicitly addressing the Father Who made it possible, His beloved Son, Jesus by Whose terrible physical suffering I was given the opportunity for eternal happiness and the Holy Spirit, the Love between the Two  Which gives me immediate contact with the Blessed Trinity. Since I have been following this practice for years to give a certain ambiance to my meals and which is so routine with me, I was startled when a waitress tapped me on the shoulder with an unexpected remark.
 She told me how impressed she was with my public behavior which she considered  “beautiful.” Perhaps she would not have been so impressed had I been clad in my usual clerical attire instead of the dirty old sweat shirt and the tattered old blue jeans I was wearing. After all priests are supposed to pray anywhere and always.  But perhaps I am too old and jaded to realize how singular such behavior is—in modern America. Life has become so secular that a person quietly thanking God in public seems almost bizarre.
It looks like many people are desperately fearful lest someone tab them as “holy rollers” or weird. The contemporary appetite for social approval is apparently enormous and powerfully linked to the ignoble behavior called “people pleasing” which sucks out the essence of human freedom .   What is it that makes us so fearful of letting the world know our moral or spiritual positions?  How does one explain the discomfort of so many moderns with reasonable personal transparency relative to our spiritual lives?  Is it the secular creed overshadowing our Country of keeping religion out of
the Public Square? Is the overblown and rigid dictum of Separation of Church and State so threatening that I become almost tongue tied when confronted with the possibility that someone might know that I pray with a belief in God? In the words of the King of Siam to Anna, the English teacher at his Court, “ it is a puzzlement.”  A quick look at the religious inscriptions on  monuments  and public  buildings in Washington D.C. gives  immediate information about the  views of  the Founders of this Republic. Justice  Douglas  of the Supreme Court stated the basic:  Our government presupposes a Supreme Being. There has been much distortion and poor scholarship in this area sometimes generated by the agenda of ideologues.
But while some observers might assess the point in the light of the political dimension of our society, it might be more accurate to look at the psychological signals.  I remember being in a restaurant with a devout Catholic family making the Sign of the Cross, after which, holding  hands,  we said  aloud the  traditional Grace before meals.  The looks we received from the nearby diners were—putting it mildly—“interesting.” 
It may have been my own strong attrait to such behavior but I got the distinct impression of a kind of wistful envy. It was the buck-toothed, freckle faced  kid from the farm chawing  at a wisp of hay  and saying “Golly gee” facing a worn out old sophisticate with too much makeup and baggy eyes from  late nights  of boozing, pills  and forced fake gaiety. It was the clean, relaxed. winsome childlike innocence of Godliness  before the driven, loud, frenetic running of the one who is “too mature” to believe in such infantile things but  is still unfilled and unconsciously in panic.
Yes, it could have been envy but it could also be admiration of other human beings  who can be confidently and reasonably transparent about their values. The psychological motivation of the public exposure of one’s values and beliefs can be another way of speaking about self esteem. But not necessarily. Years ago, it was very much “in” to broadcast how one is trying to find oneself. On the Tonight show with the star of the then night hosts, Johnny Carson, a young gushing actress was embarrassingly splattering the story of her search for herself. On the same guest panel was a quick witted comic named Jackie Leonard who suggested that someday she might find herself but she will be very disappointed. It would have been more accurate to describe her not as searching but as narcissistic. If this girl had been Catholic she would have better served by compassionate firm Spiritual Direction and a sincere humble Confession. Openness, in itself, is not necessarily self -esteem. It could be the opposite. Psychotics are notorious for spilling their unflattering past. Discerning the difference is the question.  It is the “why” of human behavior which is important. 
I, as a licensed psychologist of years standing, strongly support and recommend therapeutic intervention when necessary. Yet, the use of my secular profession as a vehicle of total self-absorption is unacceptable to me. Catharsis for its own sake is relatively hollow and counter-productive.
For Christians a startling remark of Jesus is pivotal and extremely relative.  In effect, should we deny the Father Who is in Heaven, the same Father will deny us and should we acknowledge the Father before men, He will acknowledge us.
He tells us, again in effect, “Do not be afraid.”  Be bold.  Be proud of the Faith. What are we afraid of? What is the worst thing could happen to me if I am so open in public?  Actually, nothing can happen to me in these United States of  America where I am guaranteed the free expression of my Beliefs.

So, Christians go ahead and try it.   Make the Sign of the Cross before you eat in your local restaurant. You’ll like it.