A Pilgrim’s Notes
Fausto Gomez, OP
This is a common truth: everybody wants to be happy. The universal longing for happiness is natural – and not a choice: “To want to be happy is not an object of decision” (St. Thomas Aquinas). Moreover, Aquinas adds, every free moral decision is a quest for happiness.
Unfortunately, many people seem to be unhappy. As Albert Camus says, “Men die and are not happy.” Are we happy? What are the usual objects on which humans place their search for happiness? Some put their eyes on money, others on fame, still others on power, or pleasure, or health…
People search for money, for wealth thinking that if they had it they would be happy. Will they? Money is certainly needed and a useful good, but it is not a good in itself. It is ordered to something else: to buy a house, to get an education, to buy a gift to a friend … One question: Are the rich happier than the not so rich – or even the poor? Certainly, money cannot buy happiness, cannot buy love, and the love of money may be a source of evil and therefore an obstacle to happiness. Wealth can give us some happiness, especially if it well used and also shared with the poor.
Many people place their happiness in honours, fame, glory, or other external goods. All these, however, cannot fully satisfy. If deserved, they are a consequence of goodness or excellence. If undeserved, they are a sign of injustice.
Many other men and women place their eyes on power: to be happy means to be powerful, to lead others. Again, power in itself does not – cannot – make people truly happy. In fact, often “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton). Power may be used to do good or to do evil. While the bad use of power is evil, and in the long run a source of un-happiness, the good use of power may give and does increase happiness. For Christians, and many other religious people, power is power to serve others. This service to others can be – and often is – a source of happiness.
Many people, moreover, look to pleasure as the object of their possible happiness. Pleasure, however, is ambivalent: it may help or harm the person. Certainly pleasure is a necessary element of life: it relaxes the mind and refreshes the body. Nevertheless, it may be harmful to the person and his or her family. When pleasure harms the person (drugs), and/or others, or becomes addictive, or is too costly (like gambling) is objectively unethical and then causes unhappiness. Pleasure is good and joyful when it comes from good deeds.
For many other people, health is the value of happiness. Hence, they value diet and exercise and fitness programs. Integral health means Mens sana in corpore sano: a healthy mind in a healthy body. Obviously, health is a great good for all, but not an absolute good and object of happiness. As an important relative good, it gives us some happiness. Indeed, it is a relative and imperfect good: as creatures, we all are potential patients to be visited sooner or later by pain and suffering. It is our duty to try hard to have a healthy body, a healthy mind – and a healthy spirit: a healthy relationship with God and others and creation. For believers, health is also a gift of God and an important responsibility: to be a good steward or administrator of one’s health. We believe that following Christ is the healthiest way of living, suffering and dying – and loving.
In our time, many people place their happiness in science and technology. Again, science and technology are most helpful in our lives, as Pope Francis shows well in his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’. Used in service of humanity and integral development and progress, science and technology are very much needed and most fruitful. However, they are not absolute “goods” and must respect ethical principles. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and will of God” (CCC 2294). Basic and applied research practiced without a conscience cannot contribute to true communal and personal happiness.
Wisdom or true knowledge in the intellect and virtue or goodness in the will are spiritual sources of limited but real happiness. Virtues, or good habits most of all help us be happy or less unhappy in this earthly life. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle tells us that only what is good can make us happy: good deeds, which if often repeated form good habits in the soul. Human and Christian virtues (particularly the virtues of faith, hope and love infused by God) make us good, give happiness, increase the degree of happiness and make us flourish as human beings and believers.
The principal virtue of happiness is love – human and theological love or charity. If informed by charity, the other virtues become forms of charity (St. Augustine). The virtue of love or charity is the main source of happiness – always of a limited but true happiness in this life. Love or charity – as love of God and neighbour and creation – can truly make believers happy. For the Fathers of the Church and the saints, for all Christians, Jesus’ Beatitudes are eight forms of happiness: “Blessed,” that is, happy are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, the compassionate… (cf. Mt 5:3-12).
Consciously or unconsciously, the universal quest for happiness is a mysterious search for God – for heaven. The ultimate happiness can only be found in the intellectual and affective contemplation of the Truth – in God as Supreme Good and Supreme Truth.
In this life, there are two roads to follow: the road of evil and vice and the road of goodness and virtue. The paths of selfishness, hatred, and unforgiving spirit, insensitivity to the poor and needy are paths of evil and unhappiness. The roads of prayer, kindness, compassion and service to others are paths of goodness and happiness.
Someone has said that “happiness is not only a place where we are going, but also the way to go there.” The way of true happiness here and hereafter is the virtuous way, the way of love. Happiness in this life is really to love God and others – and all others, in a special way the poor and downtrodden! Love of neighbour underlines two particular qualities, namely compassion and forgiveness: giving and forgiving contribute immensely to happiness. Without them, true love is not possible. Neither happiness.
Human life, then, is a call to be happy – a call to love. In this life, what we all must practice is “un-selfing.” At fourteen, St. Therese of the Child Jesus receives a special grace from God, “the grace of my complete conversion,” she says, and adds: “I felt charity enter into my soul, and the need to forget myself and to please others; since then I’ve been happy!” (Story of a Soul)
Dear co-pilgrims, remember these words: “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy” (Desiderata).