Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The War on Happiness

My wife and I were recently watching a popular television series together. In this particular episode, one of the characters – a young girl on the eve of her wedding – was experiencing proverbial “cold feet.” In a moment of doubt, a friend of the young lady asked her what exactly attracted her to her fiancĂ©. Her answer? “He’s the nicest man that I’ve ever met.” Her friend looked at her and paused, as if to say, “Is that all?” The message was clear: that her fiancĂ© was the nicest man she had ever met was simply not ample justification for marriage. The young bride-to-be came to her senses and the wedding was called off.

Odysseus and Calypso
Our initial inclination is likely to agree with the friend. Is not something missing if the best thing that we can say of our spouses is that they be “nice”? Are they not supposed to also inflame us with an undying passion that consumes our every thought and action? So the poets have written, all the way down from Odysseus and Penelope, to Romeo and Juliet, to Jack and Rose. And humanity has bitten - hook, line and sinker.

But I wonder if it is not the poets who have gotten it all wrong. Passion is fine and good when it inspires us to great feats, but it seems to be a horrible foundation on which to build a lasting relationship. What happens when the initial passion that new couples feel withers and fades? And it will. As Lewis said, passion is a feeling, and no feeling can be relied on to last. We might as well expect ourselves to always feel happy, or to always feel like eating shellfish. So what happens when someone no longer feel passionate towards a spouse? What results when the lives of two people are intricately entwined with each other, but are no longer bound by the dying cords of passion? Misery, infidelity, and divorce.

But if a relationship is predicated on mutual magnanimity, the outcome when passion wanes is far different: each individual continues to uphold the other as more important than themselves. Fidelity remains. The “love” spoken of by the Apostle Paul – one that is patient and kind, longsuffering and unfailing – endures long after the passion fails. It is this “quieter love” that Lewis spoke of as the fuel running the engine of marriage; passion is simply the spark that started it.

Back to our television series episode. It seems our friend gave the young bride-to-be some suspect advice. Would the young bride not have been better off to marry “the nicest man she ever met”, one that would continue to practice Lewis’ quiet love towards her long after the fires of love subsided, than to have married in the throes of intense passion only to grow disillusioned and confused when the passion waned? How could the friend have been so wrong?

There are many problems evident in our example, but one of the most obvious is that humanity has declared a war on happiness. Our ill-advised friend is merely a casualty of that war. By embracing and propagating an ideal of love based on fiction and peddled by poets, we have robbed ourselves of the opportunity to be happy in the real world. The young man in our example probably would have made an exemplary husband. He would have been faithful, selfless, and caring towards the young bride and their family. But somehow that – the state of being “nice” – has become inadequate for us. Rather than be content with a good thing, many of us are left clamoring for something that cannot exist. We bounce from relationship to relationship trying to find it, leaving behind a trail of wrecked marriages and broken families, often only to realize that the previous relationship was better than the new one.

We’re losing the war on happiness.