Why we’re not meant to be happy…

Photo credit: Jeephead, Creative Commons

Photo credit: Jeephead, Creative Commons

Our culture is obsessed with the attainment of happiness. There are books, articles and movies which focus on how to find it, while the word is forever inscribed in the American constitution as one of its core features. Yes, the pursuit of happiness has surely been a hot topic since generations past.

Parents are often quoted as saying that the one thing they want for their children above all others, is happiness. It seems a reasonable thing to which one should aspire. Surely everyone has a right to find happiness in life?

So why then have I become convinced that we’ve been sorely misguided and that, in actual fact, we’re not meant to be happy?

Before you shout at the screen and determine that I’ve temporarily lost a few marbles, hear me out for just a couple of minutes.

Maybe I should begin by clarifying what I am not saying…
I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage in activities or pursue relationships that we love or enjoy, or make us feel happy.

I’m not saying we should be miserable in life and complain all the time.

I’m not saying we should sacrifice any and everything to only serve others and make them happy.

What I do believe is that there are seasons in life, times that fluctuate from great excitement to times of sadness or disappointment. To experience a range of human emotion is to be accepted as part of life and is built into our psyche; it’s good for us. Both the highs and lows of our lives bind us together with those with whom we share our souls. The highs would not be so precious if we had not also succumbed to the raging hardships of lows. How else could we possibly understand what others are going through if we only ever experienced elation?

To imagine that we should possibly feel happy all the time is verging on ludicrous. Even if all our desires and wishes were to come true, sooner or later we would experience loss – whether from death, or from separation (a friend or loved one moving on to pursue their happiness).

Research has shown that many grand lottery winners are not happier several years later. They have accrued everything they could ever want, been overwhelmed by luxury, and still they are unhappy about certain turn of events – such as loss of community or their former job. Many of them hanker after their old, simple life. It was less complicated then.*

As many have said before, I also would agree that joy and contentment are different entities. Despite a torrent of misfortune and negative life occurrences it is possible to choose to focus on a few good things and remain joyful or content with one’s lot. There’s always something to be thankful for.

The reason I’m convinced we are not meant to be in a perpetual state of happiness is this: We would cease aspiring to anything and we would achieve nothing of lasting legacy.

Imagine if William Wilberforce had been happy with the political status and standing in the community he had attained. Imagine if Michael Angelo had been happy to paint just one corner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It’s precisely our unhappiness, our dissatisfaction with the way things are, that compels us into action and to pursue change in the situations around us. It’s in our time of discontent that we can be stirred to make a difference. It’s those who cannot sit back and revel in their wealth who go on to fight poverty, it’s those who see injustice and cannot rest oblivious in that knowledge who go on to help rescue those in dire need.

Even in our personal lives, unhappiness serves a purpose. When we are aware that our relationships are lacking or that our time is being frittered away on minor matters, we can heed that inner voice, that inner dissatisfaction and cause it to kick start change and remedy those areas which need attention. It’s unhappiness that also drives ambition, which has caused many a tea lady or busboy to reject their default station in life and work their way up the ranks of a company. It’s the years of being hard up that often motivate a young person to work hard and achieve more.

Unhappiness – or perhaps ‘restlessness’ might be a better word –  is good for us, as long as it drives us to take action and make stepping stones of change. Only if we wallow in unhappiness will we regress and find ourselves pulled down into a pit of despair, causing us to go round in circles of mediocrity or spin in whirlwinds of negativity. There’s always something of value to aspire to, always a way we can turn a negative state into something positive. Often, all it takes is an acknowledgement that we can be part of a greater solution, that we then begin to focus on the bigger picture and are able to envision our future role in the world around us.

I’m reading a great book by Nick Vujicic at the moment, the motivational speaker who has no arms or legs. In Unstoppable he quotes Frederick Douglas, the American slave turned social activist, who said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” It struck me how we all make progress as a result of overcoming difficulty – difficulty, which at the time made us feel pretty unhappy.

Next time you feel unhappy, ask yourself what you could be a part of to effect major change. There are situations you’ve endured that have led you precisely to this point. Your experience might prove invaluable to a life changing movement or could propel you into a key role. If nothing else, your character has been shaped and developed as a result of the tough times. Character doesn’t tend to be developed during seasons of happiness.

If Jesus had been happy sitting around having tea at Mary and Martha’s or helping his friends reel in big catches of fish all day, he would not have got riled up about the Pharisees’ hypocrisy or driven out the money changers in the temple. He could have relaxed on the sea of Galilee  telling stories for the rest of his life. Instead, Jesus didn’t settle in one place; he was led to different towns where he could affect and influence different crowds. He didn’t shy away from challenging people or situations.

Maybe we are supposed to get upset or deeply uncomfortable about some things affecting our world. Perhaps we should consciously stir our unhappiness towards something productive or worth changing. In that way we can actually be the conduit of good news to others, making a positive difference in the lives and circumstances around us. I, for one, want to be an active participant in making my life count for something. And if that means that I’m frequently in a state of restlessness, so be it.

*See this article about unhappy lottery winners.

Living Sculptures

ImageImage

I treasure living near a beautiful, well maintained park, taking frequent short walks through the week, either after the morning school run or at lunchtime. Fresh air, exercise and plant life help to revitalize the mind, body and soul. This poem was written both before and after the recent snowfall here in the UK.

Trees like living sculptures, natural works of art

Designs crafted an age before, bound up in seeds of unique DNA

Preserved through changing seasons, revealing shades of green, boughs of brown

A feast for the eyes on this

An ordinary day, inhaling oxygen

Seeping unseen from leaves and branches here since

Generations before as wind moves audibly through

Swaying, majestic arms

Longing , welcoming those in appreciation of their constant

Steadfast presence

Watching over streams of visitors

Passing beneath their shifting shadows

 

Now winter white descends

Transforming landscape, views reborn

Icicles hanging, frozen webs, frosty twigs

A covering of snow delighting senses

Misty air lingers between branches

Stillness disturbed only by crunching of ice and snow beneath feet

Freezing cold resists the usual walkers

An eerie quiet embraces me

Like a shroud of mystery

Oh the wonder of nature, the salience of seasons

Where worlds collide

Metamorphosis overnight

Hanging Out With The Smokers/ FaithWalk

Photo Credit: Julie Bocchino/ Creative Commons

A sea of faces surrounded me after the church service. I scanned the room but somehow felt disconnected. Everyone seemed caught up in conversations or huddles. I wasn’t in the mood to try and be sociable or welcome the newcomers. So I withdrew from the hub of activity and chatter and headed outside.

Although it was a bitterly cold winter’s day, the sun shone brilliantly, casting warmth, light and shadows around the walls of the building. Leaning against the sand coloured bricks, I enjoyed the sun’s rays and the solitude for a few moments. After a while a couple of others came to join me. But they were there for a different purpose…to light up and enjoy a smoke. Then came another. One rolled her own cigarette, the others drew theirs from a packet.

We started up a conversation; it was laid back and I realised how little I knew of these people who sat a few rows away from me minutes earlier.

I don’t normally chat to these individuals, perhaps giving only a cursory glance and a polite ‘hello’ upon passing by over coffee. They have different styles and backgrounds to me, we probably don’t have much in common – though a couple of them also have kids.

One chap in a wheelchair explained how he’d arrived a bit late and missed coffee. But he wasn’t moaning, he was smiling about his mistake of setting off too late. I had also missed my cuppa, but wasn’t too pleased about it.

Another woman mentioned someone we knew who’s rather marginalised and looks a bit of a sorry state most of the time. I discovered that she had invited him for Christmas dinner upon finding out that he would be all alone. This from a woman with a young family and who is obviously not well off. I was humbled. She had been Christ-like in opening her home to a lonely, difficult  person; I didn’t really want the hassle of even considering something like that.

One of my sons also came outside to join me. He was fed up and wanted to go home. He often finds church boring. But he observed these smokers and listened to the conversation. The guy in the wheelchair asked him about gaming and his iPod touch. My son’s face lit up, pleased that some interest was shown in him.

These people I hung out with do not have easy lives or much money. Yes, they were wasting some on cigarettes, but maybe I’m a bit profligate when it comes to wine or shoes at times. Some could perhaps have been described as typical working class or on the sidelines. They hadn’t reached a high level of education or attained notable status in the community or church. But somehow they inspired me and somehow I learned from them. I enjoyed their company, their smiles and acceptance. I didn’t have to be anything other than me.

It reminded me that it’s good to be broadminded and get to know those from different communities or groups to the one you’re settled in. In those few short minutes outside among some wafts of cigarette smoke, I experienced true Christian fellowship – all divisive barriers down, everyone an equal child of God. And I found it quite refreshing. It’s encouraged me to seek opportunities to be on the edge, to gain a different perspective and to learn from others in unsuspecting places. Having just heard a gripping talk on issues of social justice it seemed quite an appropriate lesson to learn.

Redefining Sin: A Response to Steve Chalke’s Controversial Article /FaithWalk

I don’t know whether to be more concerned by the state redefining marriage or by Steve Chalke redefining sin and religion. All I know is that it is a sad state of affairs.

Steve Chalke bandies around the word ‘inclusion’ to implore Christians to be inclusive of those in the gay community. It sounds good – it’s one of the latest trendy words in local councils and education. But it’s a misnomer; true Christianity has always been inclusive. We are exhorted to accept, love and help our neighbour – no matter who they might be. We are all invited, we are all welcome to ‘come as we are’.

But we should come as we are and leave some things behind: namely a sinful lifestyle. In his article Chalke essentially says that homosexuality is not a sin, and that we should encourage those with a gay disposition to enter loving, monogamous relationships. He compares previous mistakes over the issue of slaves and women in the church to mean that this too is a fuzzy, cultural area that we need to embrace and move on.

However, whether one agrees with issues of equality in church leadership or not, nowhere in the Bible do we read that women and slaves will not enter the kingdom of heaven; nowhere is the issue of their eternal souls in dispute. The arguments surround their roles, not their personhood or daily practices. The apostle Paul even states “I do not permit a woman to teach” not “It is sinful for a woman to teach in the church”. (Even if he had said the latter, we would read his words in view of other references to the matter throughout the Bible.)

The scary thing is that liars and adulterers are listed alongside homosexuals, as those who will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Homosexuality is no worse state to be in than many typical, daily inclinations of heterosexuals (aside from the frequently occurring likelihood to succumb to STIs). The distinction is that we are to put certain practices behind us, to take up our cross and follow Christ. That is not easy for anyone. It is not easy for those predisposed to homosexuality. The fact that Jesus doesn’t hone in on homosexuality as a topic of teaching proves that we, too, should not give it too much attention. (Vilification of gay people and loving Christ may not co-exist together, either.)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am not anti-gay. No more than I am anti anyone else. But I do believe that we do people who enter our churches a disservice when we say that they are welcome to stay as they are. Embracing Christ in our life should transform us from the inside out. Those who loved getting drunk turn aside from that, those who revelled in angry outbursts and pride, no longer submit to their natural inclinations towards rage or self promotion.  Those who couldn’t resist serial flings and adultery are called to be faithful and love their spouse.

Becoming a Christian is synonymous with change. We ALL have to change in one way or another. But we cannot do that in and of ourselves. We need the Holy Spirit’s power and a desire to change. If I am happy yelling at my kids and justify it as ok because I’m the parent, I will continue to yell and scream at my kids. Nothing will change unless I desire to live and behave differently and I invite Christ to take a hold of my life and transform me. Admittedly this is an ongoing process, one that doesn’t often happen overnight. Christianity is a walk, it is a journey; we should have grace towards those who make progress in different ways and at different rates.

If a prostitute comes into the church and becomes a Christian, having seen her need of grace, love and eternal life, do we encourage her to stay the same? What if she was ‘born that way’ – i.e. Her mother was a prostitute and she become one as a young teen herself; she knows nothing different. She doesn’t know how to receive true love or be wooed by a man. She only knows going through the motions in sexuality and reluctantly dishing out sexual favours in return for financial reward. Will we not offer counselling and help to get her out of this lifestyle? Will we not provide examples of how loving relationships function in our church? Will we not allow her to struggle through the changes, but still offer tenderness, kindness and understanding?

In promoting the natural state of man as acceptable, (albeit with the caveat of homosexuality within a monogamous setting), I believe Chalke is setting the church up for failure. Failure to be the church, to adhere to sound doctrine and failure to stand out as something different from worldly institutions. When the Church looks exactly the same as the world, I will no longer want to be a part of it; the Church will need overhauling and a passion for returning to its original mandate – love God, love others and be set apart (different).

What will happen when the paedophile who loves God wants to retain his/her disposition and enter a monogamous relationship with a willing 11 year old, with willing parents ready to ‘bless’ the relationship? (Although admittedly the paedophile could never stay monogamous as his/her ‘partner’ would grow too old for him/her.) What will happen when two men and a woman who declare themselves as bi-sexual request a ‘blessing’ as they were ‘born this way’ and no-one would want to deny them happiness?

The fact is, most sin is enjoyable and feels natural to us. My orientation, my natural predisposition, is sinful. I want to swear at the bad driver and disrespect others; my heart is naturally deceitful and depraved. But thankfully there is hope for me to become a whole new person (‘a new creation’ is the biblical phrase). Our present or past lifestyle does not have to be a permanent state and we should not let our feelings dictate our actions. (Note that I do not expect those outside the Christian faith to change at all. They don’t want to and why should we expect them to?!)

In all these conflicts, we should return to basics. I follow Christ. I want to live according to his ways and his teaching. I will love others and will not be ruled by any earthly/ natural inclinations. After all, we all incline towards sin and what we want. What does God want? I’m tired of hearing what men and women want. True Christianity is denying self and living for Christ. Please can we return to that?

Perhaps if we did, we would find ourselves welcoming the outsider, the unlovely and the sexually-different-to-us, and in doing so reflect the Christ in us. And that is something that could truly make a difference.

For similar content, check out…
Customize my faith: Examining our tendency to work our faith around our lifestyle,
Setting things straight – Regarding Rupert Everett’s Assertion About Gay Parents
and Fifty Shades of Gender

Also, do take a look at an Evangelical Alliance article here, which expresses some thoughts on the above topic with better clarity than I could manage.

Caught in a Quandary (Over helping strangers and being charitable versus ignoring them and walking by…)

I was on my way home from walking my youngest son to school this morning when I turned the corner into our street. I was carrying a bag of shopping, having just popped into a local shop for some essentials.

And that’s when she approached me, a petite, young Latvian lady, reasonably dressed, with pleading eyes and a request. “Please, can you help me?”

In that split second I had to decide whether I would engage with her or mumble ‘sorry’ and walk on. I decided she was low risk and engaged.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“I need make phone call. Please. My phone no credit.”

She showed me her low cost, old looking phone. “Need to call boyfriend, problems with passport.”

I looked at her. She appeared distressed. I said I can’t let her use my phone to call Latvia.

“No, not Latvia, he live near here!” she argued.

The phone tucked in my jacket pocket, I quickly weighed up what to do. And that’s when I decided that I didn’t want to risk being mugged and all the hassle of setting up a new phone which is essentially my diary and whole life organisation tool. I use it for lists, weather, German radio, email and a whole load of other stuff. I don’t have an iPhone, it’s not that precious to me – but my time is. I didn’t want to risk being a mug by potentially allowing a total stranger to run off with my phone.

So I reached into my jeans pocket and offered her 50p, explaining she could make a phone call in town (just a few minutes walk away). She declined the coin. “No, no, I need make call here.”

At that point I knew I made the right decision, and I said “I’m sorry, then I can’t help you.” I continued on my walk home, convinced that she was probably a drug addict trying to find goods to sell for a next fix, or maybe this was her way of ‘earning’ money.

Such encounters are tricky. Something within me, influenced in no small part by my faith, finds it exceedingly difficult to simply ignore someone who has approached me for help. I want to help someone if I can, but I’m acutely aware that I cannot solve everyone’s problems.

Yesterday I was in town and passed by a couple of Big Issue sellers. They were easier to ignore, because they were making a general plea for shoppers to buy their magazine. They weren’t looking at anyone in particular. I felt justified in ignoring them, but a little guilty in not looking at them properly to say ‘No Thank You’. After all, I really didn’t want to buy their magazine. I don’t buy any magazines anymore, I tend to read online.

But the second time, I felt convicted that the guy was making an effort to help himself but everyone was just walking by. How must that feel, to be homeless and stand out in the cold all day trying to sell something that no one wants? I turned back, and gave him a meagre amount (£1) for free, explaining that I didn’t want the Big Issue. He thanked me and appeared grateful. It wasn’t much that I gave, but I’m sure it cheered him up a little.

Now that wasn’t too difficult, and donating one coin doesn’t hurt much at all. But what I find harder than giving away cash is giving away time or friendship.

A few years ago there was a strange lady who lived in one of the flats across the street from us. She spoke in a weird way, looked dishevelled and it was clear that she had some kind of mental health problem. She loved to talk to me and the children if she met us out and about, and would regularly knock on our door – just to chat or ask questions.

I made an effort to be friendly, but she could easily chat for half an hour or more. When you have young children to prepare dinner for, and a number of other parental responsibilities, you often have to set boundaries in place by politely, yet firmly saying that you can’t chat for any longer.

I could have invited her in, but I felt uneasy about that. Mental health issues can range from mild to severe – such as schizophrenia – and again, I didn’t feel right about letting someone into my home who might be a risk. Maybe if I didn’t have children I would have felt differently. As it was, I always made an effort to smile, be friendly and chat whenever I could.

One time she knocked on my door, requesting a cup of water. A cup of water?! (When she lived feet away from my house?) Baffled, I couldn’t ignore the scripture in my head about ‘Whoever gives a cup of water to one of the least of my children has done it unto me’ (Jesus). I decided not to tell her to go home, but went and fetched her a glass of water; it wasn’t that difficult.

And that’s what I think we need to take away from this. Sometimes, offering a smile, a helping hand, a coin isn’t that difficult. We should help others more often. But we also need to take care, since there are unfortunately some characters who would seek to exploit or harm us. Discerning the difference is no easy task, though.

At any rate, I don’t think we should give up on our readiness to help others in their time of need. It’s part of what makes us human.

Epic Battles of Parenting: How YouTube is Corrupting Our Children (one rap at a time…)

YouTube video: Epic Battles of History

Most parents consider what media is being consumed by their children and dutifully provide age appropriate DVDs and games, and switch off the TV before the 9pm watershed. Parental settings are placed on smartphones and other technological paraphernalia.

We are aware that some material out there is not good to be consumed by our 11 or 8 year olds. We install filters on our internet too (OpenDNS is a great, free service that works via the router to all computers in the house). We feel we’re at least making an effort to protect our children from sinister content and feel we can relax a little, right?

Wrong!

Since time immemorial, older kids introduce the younger ones to vile language and rude jokes. Can’t really be stopped, I accept that. But that’s where it used to stay: in the school playground or dinner hall – confined to a few minutes a day or subject to threats of detention if overheard by a zealous teacher. Most kids realised it was pretty naughty and took care over what they repeated.

But then someone came up with YouTube. I love YouTube; I think it’s a great idea and a great tool. But I wish they would come up with a YouTube for kids, that was free from the uncensored bile that is spewing forth from its videos these days.

The same parent that won’t let their child watch The Simpsons because of its rude content, may not realise that young Jack is happily viewing Epic Rap Battles of History which all his friends are raving about.

To save you the bother, I’ll explain: These are witty little raps between two characters from history or popular culture who engage in a slanging match of sorts, whereby they sing their own praises while dissing their opponent in uber derogative fashion. Thus we have Hitler vs Darth Vader, Moses vs Santa and Dr Seuss vs William Shakespeare.  Sounds fun?

It is, to an extent. It’s a clever idea and very entertaining.

But this is 18+ stuff that you would have only come across on the comedian circuits or late night Channel  4 programming in a previous generation.

The first video I mentioned in this piece, at 1 minute 41 seconds long, contains 9 expletives or crude phrases. That’s one every eleven seconds! And it’s being watched repeatedly and regurgitated by the masses at a secondary school near you.

Perhaps more disconcerting than the profanity, is the misrepresentation of historic figures, along with the trivialization of some major events (holocaust, slavery and the like). Prepare to see a whole load of Hitler impersonations in school corridors very soon. And unsuspecting eleven year olds getting unwittingly put in detention or accused of racism for something they really don’t understand and haven’t been taught yet.

Thanks a lot, YouTube!

This is where parenting gets tricky. You can easily keep some unsavoury stuff away from your primary (elementary) aged children.  But be prepared for an onslaught of filth once your child enters secondary education.

I’m now thinking about blocking Youtube on the older boys’ iPod touches and only allowing it on a family computer at specified times. No, it won’t stop what they see at lunchtime, but it’ll prevent the multiple, mindless viewing.

Ugh, the challenges of the Internet Age. I don’t like to ban everything, but something needs to be done. We may have blocked the porn, but YouTube is broadcasting something akin to audio porn. And the masses are lapping it up. Hitler vs Darth Vader has racked up over 68 million views, and it’s readily available for your younger children to see too.

How do other parents handle these dilemmas?