catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 2 :: 2008.01.25 — 2008.02.08


The pursuit of happiness

I remember one of the (several) times my brother cut his head open as a child—the blood, the towels, the crying, the phone call to my mom’s cousin who was a nurse.  There’s a melodramatic journal entry on record somewhere in the form of a prayer: “Please, God, let my brother be okay.  He hurt his head really bad.”

Even now, I remember the sensation of forcing the tears, trying to whip my mind up into stiff peaks of worry, hoping our family would descend into chaos enviable by my middle school classmates. I wanted to have some real drama to agonize over in my spunky little locked diary.  I wanted to be on the prayer chain. A sick kid?  I don’t think I was too unusual.

Even as we grasp desperately at stability, I think there’s a part of many of us that yearns for insecurity.  My German teacher used to refer to a word for which there is no English translation: shadenfreude.  Taking joy in another person’s bad fortune.  Most of us experience that, too, but some would say the syndrome I’m describing does have an English descriptor: masochism.  Taking pleasure in our own suffering, which I think extends to the discomfort of insecurity.

Recently, I saw Into the Wild, which is the film version of the story of Christopher McCandless.  Having fulfilled what he sees as his obligation to his upper-middle class entrepreneur parents, McCandless destroys his social security card, donates his $24,000 savings to Oxfam and disappears into the western U.S.  With his car washed out in a flash flood, he burns the last of his paper money and sets off into the desert, the triumphant vision of a truly free individual.  In fact, later in the film, after experiencing the wandering life with the benefit of a little cash in his pocket, he expresses gratitude for the return to a state of absolute poverty.  In McCandless’ world, money represents reliance on a destructive, anaesthetizing, materialist system.  No money represents ultimate freedom from societal bondage.

I believe that what McCandless pursued all over North America for four years until he died of starvation in Alaska was not ultimately masochism—self-denial for the purpose of suffering—but the hard way to understanding purity.  Critics of his choices have argued that he was arrogant and stubborn, challenging an unforgiving wilderness without the benefit of a map and basic survival skills.  Whether one believes he was a hero or a fool, it’s generally not debatable that he had blind spots.  In the end—alone, starving, freezing and terrified—he records his final lesson: “Happiness is only real when shared.”  His parents may have been dying of spiritual malnutrition under the influence of affluenza, but even in suburbia, what joy they did experience was able to be shared, if only with each other.

My intention is not to baptize complacent, affluent individualism that creates the illusion of insulation against all preventable harm.  In fact, I think most of the people I know would do well to live through another depression of the scale my great grandparents endured in the thirties.  Insecurity builds a certain quality of character among individuals and communities that eras of abundance just can’t create.  The lesson that “happiness is only real when shared” only tends to sink in when we’re starving and lonely.  But insecurity can also become an idol, one that my husband and I have sometimes struggled to shed, even as we work toward paying off our debt and achieving greater financial flexibility.

When we stand at the fork in the road where insecurity and security present us with a false choice between two extremes, trust stands out as an elusive third way.  Many choices are this way, requiring us to live in constant paradox—choosing faithful reason, for example, instead of faith or reason.  In the same way, we might attempt to choose secure insecurity permeated with trust of a good, loving God, revealed to us in fellowship with the Holy Spirit and in community with one another.  Let’s not fear the gift of uncertainty by barricading ourselves in our suburban cocoons, but let us also not fear the gift of being able to rest in true abundance.

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