Make Me Happy

Phillips Brooks

“Happiness is the natural flower of duty,” said Phillips Brooks, perhaps the most well-known preacher of his generation in the 19th Century, who happened to be an Episcopalian.

If you sit with someone long enough the conversation will eventually turn toward the topic of happiness – either implicitly or implied; are you happy in your life?  Are you happy in your work?  Are you happy in your relationships?

Are you happy?

I sometimes think of happiness as those times in life when we are not casting a shadow over our own consciousness.  We are free of doubt, guilt, shame, and fear; we are present to the present.  A serendipitous state of being alive and being content, no longer chasing after the next shiny thing, no longer peeking around the corner looking for the next thing.  It is a kind of “arrival.”  Maybe like heaven.

This pursuit of happiness is a universal search.  So common among human beings that Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence included the pursuit of happiness as one of the fundamental rights in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

English economist, Richard Layard, member of the House of Lords and a Director of the London School of Economics, has published widely through the years about the phenomenon of happiness.  As an economist he was intrigued by the fact that most of us would assume that as wealth increases, intrinsic happiness would naturally increase as well.  Layard was surprised to find that while being wealthy is a factor in someone’s sense of fulfillment, it creates a situation of diminishing returns – as someone gains more and more money, greater means of conspicuous consumption, they come to live with a sense of having less and less.

         For me it brings to mind that image of the thirsty person trying to assuage their thirst with salty water – the more they drink, the thirstier and more desperate they become.

Richard Layard also found something that most of us know intuitively – that unemployment damages a person, makes them even feel impoverished, useless.  For some, the loss of a job, the loss of meaningful work, can become a greater blow that a death in the family.  It is a kind of dying of the self.  He sums up the thrust of his economics in one sentence – “People need to be needed . . . People need to be needed.”  And that is why almost any job is better than none at all.  That is why a social situation in which many are unoccupied and unemployed, or unemployable, will gather momentum to the point of crisis.

Richard Layard advises individuals need a trajectory toward which to point their energy, their focus, their gifts, their hopes and dreams.  Take these away, and you will find only a shell of a human being; I might go so far to say that if we take these away, and we might find that some fundamental source of our humanity is being compromised; there can be no happiness because there is no means of pursuit.

There was a movie some years ago that explored this theme; looking at what the path to happiness, and what it might look like – it is called “In the Pursuit of Happyness.”  It is about the life of a man named Chris Gardner, who overcomes every conceivable modern social obstacle to reach his goal.  What was his goal?

His goal was to be a good father, the father he never had, having been terribly abused as a child.

His goal was to take care of his family in ways that had been denied, or eluded, his own family in childhood. 

His goal was to be “successful,” at least as we often define success, and that meant having a career and the ability to become the captain of his own fate.  As he will say of himself, “I did not necessarily want money, I simply wanted to be the best, to excel, at whatever I was going to do.”

Of course the movie is something of a fairy tale; but it remains the true story of a real man.  The movie does in two hours what took the real Chris Gardner many years to accomplish. 

He loses apartments, his wife, his job, and finds himself living with his toddler son in public bathrooms, homeless shelters, and hotels, all the while trying to get a foothold into another kind of world.  The struggles he faces are relentless, as he tries to pull himself, and his child, out of this tangled web of dead-end jobs, overdue rent, parking tickets, child-care, no money, no food, and nowhere simply to rest long enough in order to think clearly.

Any one of the struggles that he faces would put me, and most of the people I know, on their knees wondering what to do next, asking if anything in this life can actually change for the better.  Asking the question, “Is any of this worth it?”

There are too many poignant scenes to share. 

One that I love is that Chris Gardner has hounded and hounded a businessman for a chance to intern for a stockbrokerage firm.  He places all of his hopes and his determination into the interview that has finally been given.  On the day before to the interview he is arrested for parking tickets and spends the night in jail; he arrives at the interview in a t-shirt, dirty, and embarrassed.

It’s clear that the boardroom full of suits and ties is not pleased with his appearance.  Finally, after some banter, the CEO asks Christ Gardiner, “Chris, what would you say to me if I hired someone for this position who came in here without a shirt and a tie?  If I hired a man without a shirt on?  What would you say?”

Chris Gardiner pauses and says, “Well . . . he must have had on some really nice pants.”

Slowly the laughter rises to the surface, the tension leaves the room, and Gardiner is offered the position; it is a moment of grace.  It is a moment of looking past what we see, so that we see the person who is sitting in front of us.

Watching that scene, I always hope and pray that Jesus will have such a good sense of humor, and grace, when I find myself in his presence for my own eternal life job interview.

          Chris Gardiner’s story, and this movie, tells the tale of how we are shaped by what we pursue and why we pursue it.  Our hearts, minds, and souls are shaped in the pursuit.  If you have ever pitched your life like a baseball toward some hunch, some goal, something larger than yourself on behalf of others, then you will appreciate this man’s story.

          The power is in how this movie ends.

Having endured every headache and heartache, after watching him lose his job, his wife, his house, his hotel room.  Watching him feed his son in homeless shelters.  Watching the two of them sleep in public bathrooms and on buses.  Watching as Gardner struggles to complete a stockbroker’s internship without all of the perks, the advantages, the support that we take for granted; having nothing but his desire and hope as fuel.

Finally, in the end, Chris Gardner gets his chance, wins his job and his way out of hand to mouth living.  Finally, he captures that elusive bird – what we call happiness.  And this is what he says, as his heart is bursting with joy; “this part of my life, this little part, is called – Happiness.”

It is only after day after day after day of struggle that Chris Gardiner holds what many of us expect is our daily portion.

In an interview about his life, Chris Gardner says that his profession, making money as a stock broker, is secondary to his true story; the real “value” of his life is the journey he has made in reaching the achievement.  “What I do is not who I am.  It is my journey that is the important thing.”     

Watching interviews with Gardiner, my sense is that his wealth has become simply an instrument by which to extend the wisdom and spiritual growth he has found along the way; although in the beginning it was about money, it has now become about the depth and significance of his life.

When we are honest with ourselves about our goals in life, I believe that most of us do seek the elusive bird of happiness.  That is what we want, that is what we seek.  Some of us seek it purely in terms of money, what money can buy, how money might perhaps buy us out of more work; especially if we find no joy in our work. 

Others of us seek happiness purely in the hope that we will meet that person who will complete us, answer the question of our lives.  If we could just have that certain someone, then our happiness would be assured.  And sadly, others of us have given up on finding happiness, or decided that mere pleasure, or cynicism, is a viable alternative; which is a lie.  And when we are made to be honest with ourselves we know it is a lie.

Jesus promises us peace and happiness in the Gospels.  And Jesus tells us what Richard Layard tells us, that the wealth, the gold that moves mountains in this world, cannot move everything in the human heart.  There are doors within our souls that only God’s key will unlock.  Jesus invites us to be his hands and feet in the world, to do his work when he goes to be with the Father, which is one of the keys of unlocking the true meaning of our lives.

Jesus sends his disciples out to be his hands and feet in the world.  He tells them it will be difficult sometimes.  That they will struggle at times.  Living as one of Jesus followers, as well as a human being in search of my own happiness, I find wisdom and inspiration in the story of the Chris Gardiners of this world.

There really is no Plan B if we follow Christ.  And Jesus is being honest with his friends in telling them that often the path to what we think of as happiness, or purpose, or joy with God, will be a path fraught with difficulties, challenges, and things that are hard to bear.

Jesus sends followers, disciples, upon a journey that actually cannot be held to a measure taken only in this world.  The life of the disciple is actually a continuous giving away of life as we know it in this life, so that the container might be filled with things that are yet to be known or seen in this life – in the life of the disciple there is a continuous trading of places that is taking place.

Jesus invites the disciples to go depending upon nothing but themselves and him.  They start from scratch to remake the world.  Their reward, their happiness, will follow in their wake; as Phillips Brooks said, their “happiness will be the flower of their duty.”

We are modern disciples called to the same task.  “Go out and be my hands and feet,” Jesus says.  I believe that we will find our journey’s as disciples are much like the journey of Chris Gardner.  We will struggle; perhaps be misunderstood by a cynical and doubtful world.  We will have to have courage, and more than we have ever known.  We will have to keep our flame alive when all around us is rain and thunder.  We will have to have faith, and be faithful, knowing that we walk with Christ’s feet and work with Christ’s hands.  We will have to do our duty – for His sake.

And then, like some exotic and beautiful bird landing in our hands, God will touch our lives with the gold of his presence, his happiness. 

When our need to be needed is answered with God’s need of us, then, then we will know that peace of God which passes all understanding.

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