Most of us have done something terribly wrong to another person. We realized it at the time or afterwards. For those with an intact conscience, there was overwhelming shame and a burning, seemingly inextinguishable guilt. Perhaps there was an admission, maybe to the victim, from whom forgiveness was asked. Perhaps there was only self-confession. If the shame overwhelmed and the guilt burned deeply, there may have been a redemptive pledge not to commit the same transgression and to improve a deficient character.
No one caught in throes of such a wrenching experience would characterize his emotional state as happiness. Indeed, depending on the transgression and the emotional reaction, happiness might have seemed forever out of reach.
If a tormented conscience makes one miserable, doesn’t that suggest that a clean conscience is necessary for more salutary emotions? Conscience is often thought of as an internal control system, allowing us to recognize right and wrong and helping deliver us from evil. Many religions and secular philosophies envision perfect alignment between individual conscience and the morality they embrace.
Could conscience be an instrument not just of morality, but of happiness? Is it possible to regard yourself as evil and at the same time be happy? That question almost answers itself, but many people have a harder time with the idea that one has to regard one’s self as good to be happy. Such regard may be self-delusion, but even that delusion suggests the necessity of moral self-approval, no matter how misplaced, to maintain at least a chimera of self-respect.
We’re saturated with popular culture delivering the message that something besides making yourself a better person will make you happy. Make more money! Make more friends! Take control of your life! Find your hidden power! Alter your appearance! Alter your personality! Try our product! Indulge! And so on! Yet, misery pervades our culture. What if these paths to happiness are actually shortcuts to nowhere…or worse?
What’s seldom promoted is the idea that happiness is the product of an often difficult quest for enlightenment and wisdom, stemming from a determination to improve one’s self and one’s soul. For one thing it sounds hard and solitary, therefore of limited appeal, there’s no money in it. It also stands in complete contradiction to the fashionable, idiotic idea that individual and social betterment depends on political action and what governments do or don’t do.
“Just remember one thing, or you’ll never be happy with your riches: wisdom is far more precious than geld.”
Abram Gottman to Daniel Durand, The Golden Pinnacle, Robert Gore, 2013
The thousand-mile journey begins with this single step: you realize there are things more important than geld, popularity, prestige, and the other things people chase, and you’re going to discover what they are. So marks the beginning of the quest for wisdom.
Soon you see that so much of what’s regarded as important isn’t, and what’s truly important is hiding in plain sight: people to whom you hadn’t listened; authors you’d never read; great art you’d overlooked; profound truths ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The scales gradually fall from your eyes, encouragingly, at a quickening pace. The surface-area physics of an expanding mind are such that the more it takes in, the more it can take in. Understanding, there for the asking, comes faster and faster.
My good friend Holly O recently wrote: “What humanity faces is above all a spiritual battle.” She’s quite right. A shining Christmas theme is hope: redemption is always possible, we can improve our own souls. We cannot control anyone other than ourselves. Fortunately, that improvement is a full-time pursuit.
That pursuit and the pursuit of happiness are one and the same. Any pursuit that disregards the right and the good is anything but a pursuit of happiness, which cannot flow from evil. Those who cite sociopaths and psychopaths as contrary examples somehow mistake self-destruction for happiness. Sociopathic and psychopathic souls are collapsing or have collapsed in on themselves, black holes of nothingness. No light and no value, certainly not one as paramount as happiness, issues from nothingness.
The right and the good emerge for those determined to find them. Each discovery leads to further discovery. There is no shortage of people, religions, and powers who will tell you their version of the right and the good. But, “Let me tell you how to live” is actually “I will tell you how to live…and think.” There’s an overwhelming demand for it, but committed seekers find their truths on their own.
A suggestion to seekers: consider the Golden Rule. You may discover, if you have not already, that treating others as you would have them treat you increases not just their happiness, but yours.
Happiness and joy are not synonyms. Joy connotes something deeper, more transcendent, but what, exactly? There is perhaps only one universal of humanity’s gods: they are creators, and that offers a clue. “What a piece of work is man,” observed Shakespeare—or whoever wrote under his name—in Hamlet. Surely our capacity to envision something new, to plan, to experiment, to improve, to build, to make our own and others’ lives better, in sum, to create, is the human magnificence Hamlet’s author both hailed and achieved.
Your parents had no idea of their own profundity when they admonished you to quit tearing up the house and go do something constructive. Repairing a broken doorknob or repairing a broken life; helping a friend; standing up for what you believe; promoting peace and understanding; penning a poem or an epic; starting a business; doing that one thing you’ve always wanted to do: there is moral purity and joy in all manner of constructive endeavor.
That is the wish and hope for this Season and beyond: May you know that joy.