In the process of sending out Christmas cards I always think about the people whose names are in my address book. I wonder what they’re up to, how they’re doing, and hope all is well for them. As I did this a few weeks ago, I noticed as I came across the names of our parents’ friends that so many of them have had a rough time in the past decade or so. Divorce, mid-life crises and general restlessness seem to be epidemic among the baby boomers and those born around the same time. It seems that so many people we know from that generation express a vague dissatisfaction with their lives, a feeling that somehow things should be different, should be better, and they don’t know where it all went wrong.
Recently I noticed in some forwarded email chains that more than one of our parents’ friends have the same signature on their email. As I read it, I thought that it was a good summary of the baby boomer outlook on life. And I think it’s a good summary of what’s gone wrong. It said:
Life is short: Break the rules. Kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably. And never regret anything that made you smile.
This motto of sorts seems to be based on the view that it’s healthy and good — if not the very meaning of life — to pursue happiness. Our culture takes it for granted that the pursuit of happiness is a worthy and important goal. I always believed that too. But having observed the fruits of that worldview in my parents’ generation, and having lived most of my life that way myself, I’ve come to believe that it ultimately leads to misery.
That last line, “never regret anything that made you smile, ” brings to mind so many examples of just where this worldview leads us astray. Sure, I smiled when I held my newborn baby or when I got married. But I also smiled that time I told a joke at another person’s expense that got big laughs; I smiled when a dangerously unhealthy diet plan allowed me to be considered attractive by society’s standards but left me at a weight that was clinically anorexic; I smiled when I heard that something bad happened to someone I really disliked. All of these things made me happy. None of them brought me peace.
I’ve come to believe that when we chase happiness, what we really want is peace.
It’s interesting to observe how the pursuit of happiness is lauded more and more as our society becomes less and less religious. From my experience, I think that that’s because it’s impossible to be at peace while denying the soul, so pursuing happiness is the only choice we have. Peace does not — cannot — come from what is found in the material world alone. From a viewpoint in which the observable material world is all there is, humans should be mentally tranquil, in a state of harmonious equilibrium, at things like the deaths of those whose genes are less than perfect, or the demise of others and their resource-consuming offspring. Yet, oddly, what lead people to inner harmony, to peace, are counterintuitive things like self-sacrifice, detachment from our appetites, and trust that there is something more to life than what meets the eye.
Inner peace requires acknowledgment that there is something transcendent about human life — not necessarily Christianity, but some sort of tapping into the rule system from wherever it is that our souls originate. It requires religion. Which is why I think that as we’ve cast off religion we’ve had to also cast off the pursuit of peace, of inner tranquility, and settle for the cheaper substitute, the pursuit of happiness.
And when we follow only that which makes us happy, it can so easily lead us astray, leaving us chasing fleeting pleasures and hollow passions that lead to anything but happiness in the long term. From my experience, ironically, when we give up trying to find happiness and start trying to find peace is when we actually achieve true happiness. From the little saying above, things like kissing, loving, laughing can be wonderful things — but without those mysterious rules of the soul to reign them in — without the litmus test of whether or not they put the soul at peace — we can find ourselves looking back on our lives and finding that where it all went wrong started with something that originally made us happy.
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