The author reminds us of what I think deep in our hearts we already know, but so easily forget: that whereas our tendency is look outwardly beyond ourselves, happiness has more to do with our inner attitudes that we recognize.
There is much wisdom in our Judeo-Christian tradition as well about the art of happiness, or contentment. Both of our lessons this morning speak to this art.
In our Old Testament story, Jacob is a prime example of someone who is highly ambitious, focused on improving the external circumstances of his life.
Born a twin, he comes forth from his mother’s womb second, clutching his brother Esau’s heel. This grasping becomes a symbol for Jacob’s personality. Jacob will be highly competitive, grabbing for all he can get; a schemer constantly focused on improving his lot in life.
As a youth he will take advantage of his brother Esau in a moment of hunger to buy from him at the bargain-basement price of a bowl of lentil stew the family birthright that was his brother’s as the first born son. Not long after that, with his mother’s help, he will steal the irrevocable blessing that his blind and bedridden father Isaac had intended to give his brother. In the years to come Jacob will lock horns with his similarly competitive uncle Laban, eventually prevailing, coming forth from their battle of wits a wealthy man.
Jacob’s restlessness makes him, in a certain sense, the prototypical American, continually striving to improve our standard of living, constantly comparing ourselves to the standards enjoyed by our neighbors.
By neglecting to cultivate the inner attitudes required for happiness, we Americans often find it strangely elusive, despite the fact that the “pursuit of happiness” is written into our bill of rights, and that our national standard of living surpasses the great majority of people living upon this earth.
The findings of researchers in the field of what is called “positive psychology” point to this out to us. Ask the winner of a multi-million dollar lottery a year after his or her winfall, and they are likely to tell you that they’re no happier — maybe even less happy — than they were before they became rich. In fact the perceptions of personal happiness of big time lottery winners tends to be slightly less than that of persons who suffered a major spinal chord injury — both a year down the road. Whereas both persons have had major shifts in the outer circumstances of their lives — the lottery winner presumably for the better, the spinal chord injury person for the worse — the latter alone has been motivated to develop what could be called their spirituality.
We live in troubling times in regard to the collective outer circumstances that are our national economy. The rising cost of oil and gasoline, the rising unemployment and inflation, along with the falling housing market and the decline of the stock market — it all spells trouble with a capital T.
Something is shifting in America. The down turn in our economy does not appear to be just one more little bump in the road before we once more continue onwards and upwards. For the first time ever the assumption that our standard of living will always rise — that our standard of living will surpass that of our parents, and our children will surpass ours — for the first time ever this assumption is becoming highly suspect. Naturally, there is much anxiety abroad in the land, understandably so, especially over the loss of homes and jobs.
There is, however, an opportunity here if we’re willing to embrace it.
Let us return to the story of Jacob. He so aggravates his brother with his competitiveness that it becomes clear he’d better leave town, lest his brother up and kill him. He leaves home in a hurry. He taking nothing but his birthright and his blessing. Homeless, destitute, he spends his first night on the road sleeping out under the stars, a rock for his pillow.
In this state of possessing nothing outwardly, he is blessed with an extraordinary interior vision in which he beholds all these glorious angels ascending and descending a stairway to heaven. He awakes and declares, “God is in this place and I did not realize it.”
We, too possess a birthright and a blessing as God’s children, and we, too, live at the very doorway of heaven, and do not normally realize it.
In Anthony Bloom’s book, Beginning to Pray, there is a story about an old woman who came to her priest for guidance because for a long time she had not sensed the presence of God in her daily prayers. He advised her to go home and to sit quietly in the chair in which she usually said her prayers. Don’t do or say anything, he instructed. Just take notice of the place.
The woman thought it was the silliest advice she had ever received, but nonetheless she did as instructed. She came back the next week elated, her spiritual blockage resolved. “In all my years, I had never noticed what a marvelous little house it is that I live in.”
“This is the very doorway of heaven, and I did not know it.”
We have this preoccupation in America with owning things — the assumption being that we can enjoy the pleasure or beauty of something only if we declare it ours and nobody else‘s. Where did we get this idea?
For many years now, the most popular leisure activity in America has been to shopping at the mall. Whatever happened to taking a stroll in a public park, going to a library or museum, joining with friends to play a game?
Out there in the wilderness, Jacob received a gift, and a lesson — one it would take a long time for him to incorporate. The best things in life can’t be bought. The best things in life or already here, now, waiting to be discovered.
In order to find contentment, it is necessary to come to an understanding of the difference between entitlement and grace. Jacob finds himself in unfamiliar territory. The wonderful thing he has been allowed to witness didn’t come to him from striving, working, conspiring or finagling. It came as a gift, not an entitlement.
If I approach life from a sense of entitlement — that what I have in life is mine because of how hard I’ve worked, or simply because of my superior goodness — then happiness will remain elusive. When things don’t come my way, I will feely gypped. When good things do come to me, I’m just getting my due. And without gratitude, there is no real happiness.
And if I feel entitled to what I have, I’m not likely to give it away, either. And giving is another key to happiness.
If truth be told, life itself is grace — a gift. We aren’t alive because we are entitled to life; we are alive because God chose to bless us with life.
Let’s turn now to the Gospel lesson. Once again, we have one of Jesus’ parables, which have this lively way of speaking to us in an endless range of ways. A man plants good seed in his field, but at night an enemy comes and adds bad seed to the mix. Overtime, wheat and weeds grow up together. The servants are alarmed. They want to start tearing out the weeds. The owner of the field says, no, let it be. You start pulling out the weeds and your liable to pull out the wheat as well.
It seems to me the human condition is pretty well summed up here. In the field of every persons’ life there will be both wheat and weeds. This is a universal principle applicable to every realm of our lives. Life is messy. Your home can always be improved upon, your job won’t be perfect, nor will your spouse. Forget about perfection in churches.
How are we to respond to this fact? Well, we do what we can to strengthen the wheat and limit the weeds, but past a certain point, a preoccupation with the weeds is going to get in a the way of appreciating the wheat. The servants in the parable are in danger of such obsession. The owner is wiser. Let it be.
In the end, happiness is found in living compassionately. Love is required. You can’t really love others unless you recognize that we’re all in this messy thing called life together — that there are weeds and wheat in all of us.
These inner attitudes of happiness need to be cultivated because there are forces in the world that have a stake at keeping us discontent. Happiness goes against the flow. Capitalism, for instance, requires that we be willing to shell out our money in an a misguided attempt at rectifying our discontent. If you’re not concerned with surpassing your neighbors, or at least keeping up, where is the motivation to shop? If Americans are content with what we have, the economy won’t be in hyper drive, generating all those profits.
But eventually, though, the fact that the Emperor has no clothes gets discovered. Maybe that’s what’s happening now.