Saturday, December 10, 2011

Happiness ... grace ... the usual smorgasbord

I finished "The Happiness Project." I feel so much ownership of this book, this project. Like it's a book I could have written or would love to write, except (obviously) I didn't. Like it was my project! I didn't have to modify it to suit my individual circumstances. Sometimes, it was like reading my own thoughts on the page. It was just the right time in my life to read this book, just the right moment for it to have the maximum effect. The last time I felt this way about a book was when I fell in love with Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled."

I guess the main reason for that special synchronicity is that I reached many of the author's conclusions on my own, within the past five years or so, after some deep (and ongoing) soul-searching. The most important conclusion is that it is so very important to be happy, and to show it by being cheerful! And it's not easy, let me tell you. Don't ever dismiss someone who is endlessly optimistic and think they come by it easier than those who are obviously in distress, or that they must be intellectual lightweights. This world is not made to encourage people who are thoughtful and still manage to stay cheerful.

But knowing me, I cannot quite let go of always having a finger on the pulse of the world's woes, somehow. That pulse is often weak and thready. The patient seems to be on life support, and sadly neglected.

I was listening to an old "Speaking of Faith" podcast about a monastic commune in North Philadelphia. The speaker, who was one of the founders of the community, recalled a cartoon he had once read about the "big" questions we all ask about life. One friend asks another, "Don't you ever want to ask God why he allows all this suffering and these bad things to happen in the world?" The other friend thinks a moment, then replies, "Guess I'm afraid to." "How's that?" "Because He might turn around and ask me the same thing!"

That is the point I was trying to make earlier today in a discussion with my hubby about all the tempests-in-a-teapot swirling around at church lately. One member offended (for a very long time, apparently) because people greeted her as a visitor and didn't recognize her as a member; others accusing the pastor of lying; griping about the money shortage, and pointing to decisions the leadership made over the past year as having been to blame. Postings on Facebook about wicked leaders and how people follow blindly like lemmings. Etc., etc.

Anyhow, Dwaine mentioned how he thought the wicked one was hard at work in our church recently. Just to be sure, I asked -- do you mean someone in particular, or the Wicked One, you know, Satan? He meant the one in upper case. He mentioned this to the wife of one of the higher-ups in the bigger church administration, and she rather breezily replied, "Oh, I don't believe in that."

With Dwaine, beliefs are of paramount importance, and he doesn't take well to the liberal views espoused by some in our church leadership. So I quickly mentioned there could be different interpretations of that statement. For instance, espousing belief in someone or something may give it a power it doesn't deserve. But he persisted in thinking she was sticking her head in the sand, and ignoring evil does not stop it.

From there we moved to what does give something or someone power, and I said that people's actions do. We carry out all the good and all the bad things that I've seen in my lifetime, besides natural disasters and the like. We give the power to whatever supernatural powers we throw our weight behind. (Good works, or bad)

Whereas Dwaine said, no, we are very limited in ourselves. We have no power apart from the One who has it all. (Grace)

I'm inserting our arguments from a theological point of view parenthetically. Grace, or good works -- which must we have? This is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity. There are many paradoxes, for those who have the ears to hear. See, Christians have their own koans. That's a cool word, referring to the eastern practice of meditating on an absurd riddle or parable, one that has no solution (such as the sound of one hand clapping). Gretchen Rubin mentioned koans in her lovely book that I referenced at the top of this blog post.

So, back to Christian koans. How about the trinity? Jesus, fully human and fully divine? His mom, a virgin? Look at all the parables Jesus told about "the kingdom of heaven." Some of the parables describe it thus: It's like a mustard seed, like yeast, a hidden treasure, a net to catch fish. I've never completely understood any of Jesus' parables. Some of them are more like riddles. What is he talking about, and where is the kingdom of heaven supposed to be?

My current belief about the kingdom of heaven is that it is here and now, and we bring it into being with our skillful striving together. I'm not so sure whether it is better described as a place or as a way of being.


  1. Interesting post.

    I considered reading Rubin's book a while ago, but couldn't get past the fact that despite her desire to appeal to the common folk, she's had a very easy life. Not that she hasn't worked for it, I guess. And not that the wealthy don't have issues. But I couldn't help wondering how anything she could say could appeal to someone like me. In my circumstances.

    But perhaps I'm being unfair, basing my thoughts on things I've read about the book and its author instead of actually reading the book. I might have to explore it again thanks to your post.

    Scott Peck? It's really that good?! Hmm . . .

    And squabbles in church are the worst. So hard to be a part of a faith community when those who are a part are the kinds of people you'd rather not hang out with. But maybe that's the point . . .

  2. I must admit, I am also a white, upper-middle class woman, so of course I can relate to Gretchen Rubin! It's hard to see my own biases until someone else points them out. But still, I think happiness is a fundamental indicator of balance in our lives, and we can't help other people effectively until we find it. Buddhism showed me this way before "The Happiness Project."


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