One thing the desert killed for good in me is the need for happiness. Now, I know that sounds pretty morbid and depressing right out of the gate, but hang with me for a bit and allow me to explain. A recurring idea that has appeared throughout these blog posts is that the deserts of life starve us of things that are not essential. We live in a culture that is constantly trying to sell us “happiness.” The words to Pharell Williams song “Happy” sums up our culture’s view of happiness:
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
(Because I’m happy)
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
Happiness is the truth. . . is one of the core values of modern society, yet we are a part of one of the most anxious, depressed, and mentally troubled generations of human history. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young adults ages 20-24, and is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans across the age spectrum. Suicide is at an all time high. I point out these statistics not as a judgement against those who have suffered from suicide, but against the cultural environment that provokes the young to despair and lose hope for the future. Where have we gone wrong? Let’s start from the philosophical end and boil it down to real life.
In 1910, Nietzsche wrote in his work Will to Power, “What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism… For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.” The the people of the 20th Century would experience two world wars, as well as many other geopolitical conflicts. Here we are now at the 21st Century, a post-truth and post-facts world of “fake news,” wars, and chaos. When Nietzsche coined the phrase God is dead, he knew a vacuum would be created in the human experience, because all sense of meaning would be rendered pointless. He predicted the nihilism that now plagues our culture.
I know it is popular for Christians to bash Nietzsche, and I personally do not agree with all of Nietzsche’s beliefs. However, I believe many Christians misunderstand Nietzsche and take many of his quotes out of context for sound-bites. Nietzsche saw the corruption that was in man-made systems, such as the church and political institutions and reasoned that all of society was built on lies that would come crumbling down under the hammer of naturalism. Therefore, humanity’s next stage of evolution is to rid itself of God. Where I agree with Nietzsche is that many systems, including religious institutions, are often propped up in the name of “Truth” and “God,” yet many of these systems are run by self-seeking individuals who only seek to control others through fear and power. According to Nietzsche there is no true good or evil, only one’s will to power and control others. Nietszche thought that the path to salvation would be through the realization of the self, that each person could be their own “god” in a sense. This is where I disagree. As many times as there has been a promise of utopia throughout history, the result has been broken promises, more wars, and chaos. I believe that Nietszche forgot that in each man and woman is a devil that must be contained, a devil who will always establish systems to control others if it is not controlled. The systems he railed against were made by the same imperfect humans who he claims are also capable of finding their own truths. As long as there are imperfect humans in the world, there will never be a perfect system and there will never be a utopia.
So what does all of this philosophical jargon mean practically? There is a scene in Rick and Morty that described to me where our society is at with truth. Rick and Morty is an outrageously popular show that captures the nihilistic feelings and beliefs of our generation. It is a show about a super genius grandpa, Rick, and his grandson Morty as they go on many misadventures throughout the cosmos. Besides the absurd comedy in it, I think the show speaks on a deep level to our age group, which is also why I think it is so popular. In one episode, Morty’s sister is freaking out because she thinks she was an unplanned pregnancy. She is losing it and asking Morty if she is a mistake. She is having a crisis of purpose and wondering if she is the product of love or accidental forces. Morty takes his sister to a window and shows her two mounds in the backyard and tells her that in another reality, he and Rick accidentally blew up the world. In each mound was the body of a Rock and Morty from another reality. That Rick and Morty died, so another Rick and Morty came to take their places in this reality. Morty then points out that Summer’s worry about whether or not she is a mistake is meaningless and states, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” At the end of nihilism, all that is left to do is watch tv and rot away in the meaninglessness of it all, reveling in stories and shows that portray themes of good and evil, adventure, and misadventure, things we wish were true. Nihilist writer Franz Kafka wrote, “God is dead! God is dead! Isn’t he? God is dead. Oh, I wish, I wish, I wish He weren’t.” When Nietszche declared that God was dead, he also declared dead Truth, a higher good, and true evil. Nothing matters. Nietszche himself in his pursuit of personal truth without a higher truth ended up living the rest of his days in an asylum after going mad.
What is left to fill the void of God? All that is left are happiness and distractions, the drugs of modern society. And if anyone thinks I am calling out those outside the church, you are gravely mistaken. In fact, one of the primary groups I see affected by the ill effects of nihilism is the church itself. But, that’s another topic. Across the culture, we are only living for the weekend, that next buzz, that next outing with friends, or that next vacation. We think if I get that next thing, that next promotion, or move to that place I will finally be happy. We are obsessed with super heroes and stories that portray battles of good and evil. We sit on our couches and rot away watching other people’s adventures, failing to realize that we can become a part of one ourselves. Let me be clear, I love films and watch a ton of anime. I will freely admit that I am a nerd and a weeb. However, I also know that I don’t want to live through other people’s stories. God put me on this earth for a short time, and I want to make the most of it.
Society has enclosed us in prison walls labeled “happiness.” We continually chase pleasure, things, and distractions to numb the pain in our souls. For many of us, we will wake up and it will be too late. What if I told you there was a greater pursuit than happiness? The desert taught me that purpose if far more meaningful than happiness. When I have purpose, I have hope. When I have purpose, I have the determination to press on when everything in my body and mind screams to just lay down and give up. When I have purpose, I am chasing something higher than myself. Even if one does not believe in God, there is not a single human being that is able to escape the fact that he or she was made to have a purpose. We can deny it all day, but no one can truly live it out, which leads me to consider that perhaps a belief that cannot be fully lived out day to day may not be true. Those who try to live without purpose often slide into despair and give up on living. They may be alive, but they are not living.
In the show Attack on Titan, an anime that has become renowned around the world, humanity lives behind huge walls protecting them from titans, giant humanoid creatures that eat humans. The main character of the show, Eren Jeager, decides that he has had enough of living his life behind the walls. He has heard stories that there are oceans and deserts beyond the walls, lands he has never seen but believes are real. Observing the complacency of the people around him Eren shares his feelings on the pursuit of security over freedom, ”Yeah, I know. We might not get out, but we’ll live as long as we can eat and sleep. But… We’re living like… Like livestock…” In his resolve, he joins the scout regiment, a regiment devoted to exploring outside the walls to discover more about the world and why titans mindlessly devour humans. Yes, to go outside the walls is to face the world, a world with danger, but also untapped potential and beauty waiting to be discovered. To face the titans is to face your own weakness, but also a chance to discover what you are capable of. Every human being is made in the image of God and is therefore capable of greatness if they ever reach their potential.
The desert forces us to make a choice, to pursue happiness or purpose. We can go back behind the walls, where we will always be guaranteed food, comfort, and safety at the price of our freedom to discover and create; or, we can choose to face the unknown, to be free to discover all that we were meant to be. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us:
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?Matthew 16:26
We think staying behind the walls will keep us safe; yet, just as in the show Attack on Titan, control and comfort are illusions. One day, the unforeseen will bring those walls crashing down and only those with purpose will stand. Eren knew that there would come a day that the walls would come crumbling down, a day for which humanity was not ready.
The dangers beyond the wall forge perseverance, hope, and strength into the soul. Life will constantly throw punches and in those moments, happiness will not sustain you. Happiness comes and goes like the wind. Happiness itself is not bad. During the happy times, be thankful and rejoice. However, when the hard times come and batter upon the doors of your heart, your sense of purpose will give you hope and spur you forward. The Scriptures tell us of this promise:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.Romans 5:3-5
When you are driven by purpose, you will not only find strength in the trials of life, but you will be a beacon of light for others in the dark. When their walls come crashing down, you will be there to help build from the rubble what was once a shallow foundation of happiness into a fortress of purpose. In the desert, I began my journey to forsake the pursuit of happiness. There, in the sweltering heat of the desert sun, the need for happiness was killed by the need for purpose. Yet, I still have a ways to go as I am refining what my sense of purpose is. I was once asked by a stranger if I was afraid to die and I was able to calmly tell him that I was not because I believe there is a world beyond this life (Ecclesiastes 3:11, Hebrews 11). I would only be afraid to die knowing that I had not accomplished my mission, my purpose. When I was younger, my answer might have been different. During WWI, a young solider asked one of his superiors what gave the other soldiers the courage to run over the trenches into the fury of battle. His superior replied that the bravest soldiers realize that they are already dead. I find that those who are most afraid of death are those who cling to happiness and personal comfort the most; and, when hard times come, they are the ones who usually turn on their neighbors, brothers, and sisters to survive at all costs.
We are told God is dead and that there are no longer heroes, that there is no longer good, that there is no longer purpose. . . that such a view will lead to an evolution of mankind, when each person will be happy, and only love will remain. Which, I find ironic because if we do not know what is true, then how can we know what is true love? However, that is another topic for another day. To finish this post, I find myself relating to the words of Puddleglum to the Green Witch from C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair.
Puddlegum, Jill, and Eustace were trapped underground in a land of darkness controlled by a witch who had tricked all of her subjects into believing that a world above ground, of light, goodness, and Aslan himself was just child’s play, that purpose like Aslan Himself was dead. This is not to say that people who don’t believe in God cannot live without purpose. There are great leaders, scientists, and thinkers who do not believe in a higher power. The question I simply pose is whether or not anything can truly have purpose or meaning without a higher power or a life beyond this one? If humanity is one day doomed for extinction, then there will come a day when nature, who shows no preference to anyone, will neither care nor remember the strides, triumphs, and trials of humanity. In the end, nothing matters because all that matters is matter. Like Puddlegum, even if God is dead, I cannot escape from the fact that the need for purpose is hardwired into my biology and psychology, therefore I am going to live with purpose.
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
It (happiness) shouldn’t be our life goal. Because there are times in your life when you’re not going to be happy. Then, what are you going to do? Your goal is demolished. There are going to be plenty of times in your life when you’re not happy, there might be years. And so, it’s a shallow boat in a very rough ocean. . . . What you should be pursuing instead is two things. You should be pursuing who you could be, that’d be the first thing. . . . And God only knows who you could be. . . and so that’s what you should be striving for. And associated with that you should be attempting to formulate some conception of the highest good that you can conceive of, that you can articulate. Then. . . happiness will descend on you from time to time. And that’s the best you’ve got. And then perhaps during sorrowful times, or worse, evil times. The fact that you’ve strengthened your character and that you’re aiming at the highest you can conceptualize that’ll give you the moral fortitude to endure without being corrupted during those times, and to be someone who can be relied upon during a crisis. There’s an aim.Jordan Peterson
One thought on “Happiness is a Shallow Life Goal”
As always, so good and thoughtfully written. A few things came to mind as I was reading: “On a good day, enjoy yourself; On a bad day, examine your conscience. God arranges for both kinds of days so that we won’t take anything for granted.” (Ecclesiastes 7:14 MSG) Another version says of good and bad times that God has made the one as well as the other.
One of my favorite lines to take out of context from Augustine’s Confessions is a very simple line. I imagine it gets passed over for the meatier bits (there are many), however, I found it revelatory. Augustine says, “later, I learned to smile.” Though he was recounting his formative years, I grabbed those words and held on white-knuckled because, life is hard. But I have learned how to smile through it. The smile of which I speak is the hope in my soul. There are days I wear it on the outside, and there are days I do well to keep it at all. I do not always have a smile on my face, but my soul is at peace-a deeper nondependent ‘happiness.’ I know my home is elsewhere and my time on earth as we know it is as short as the width of a human hand.
One more thought: staying behind the walls might keep one safe and possibly provided for, but it does nothing but cage us. I’d rather be free in a desert than trapped in a palace with everything at my disposal.
Thanks for these challenging posts, Matthew.
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