The Pursuit of Happiness

By Paul Koch

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A few weeks back our lovable Cantankerous Critic, here at The Jagged Word, wrote about the idea of “progress in excellence.” He argued that if we apply ourselves toward developing a habit of gaining knowledge for our vocations and discerning what tasks are important, we will make progress toward excellence or quality in our work. As I read that post, I kept thinking that “progress in excellence” could be a decent substitute or explanation to the “pursuit of happiness” line in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I don’t want to get into a conversation about being endowed with certain unalienable Rights or how the founding documents of our country have influenced our reading of Scripture (I’ll leave that for the Emperor’s Chair), but I do think that the ability to make progress in excellence is how we find happiness in our lives. The pursuit of happiness is found in being better at my vocations; a better husband, father, pastor, friend, etc. In fact, I think we can say that happiness is found in pursuing excellence in our hobbies as well. This means, if I’m right, that happiness is tied to trial and hardship.

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I recently reread Huxley’s fantastic visionary book Brave New Word, in which he envisions a future reality where happiness is not understood as the overcoming of strife and suffering but the complete absence of it. The world he describes is one where the scientific engineering of mankind is perfected; each class of people are conditioned to be  willing and unquestioning workers at their assigned station in life. There are no parents, no husbands or wives, no delayed gratification at all. Life is only pleasure and good order; if there is any discomfort they’ve even perfected the drugs so that there is no hangover or crash, just a nice and happy holiday from discomfort.

The vision of Huxley is terrifying to me. It is a world in which so-called happiness is found without any possibility of progress in excellence, without ever having to overcome, without ever failing and picking yourself back up again. I’m afraid that this is the desire of an increasing portion of our own population. The driving desire to be better at your craft, whatever it may be, is detoured by the easy promise of mediocrity. Great ideas and passionate arguments are pushed aside for not wanting upset the powers-that-be and so protect a future of ease and predictability.

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The pursuit of happiness by overcoming is very different from the pursuit of happiness by escaping. There is a time and a place for escape; we call it a vacation or for that matter just a Friday night out with good friends. But such moments ought to invigorate us to drive even harder at our vocations. The brief escape only gives us the rest and ability to overcome once more and rejoice in the happiness we find in those small and precious victories. Finished another tedious day of laundry – victory. Finally got that project done you’ve been putting off all week – victory. Paid the bills, washed the dog, wrote a sermon, taught a class – victories. And in such victories we find happiness.

And the thing is, we are wonderfully created and redeemed so that we are free to pursue such happiness. We have been embraced in our broken and failing lives, we have been loved and cleansed in the blood of Lamb, and we are the forgiven children of God. And yet, we are still able to get our hands dirty, to work by the sweat of our brow, to try and fail over and again. Our salvation does not hang on our work at all, so our work becomes a gift that produces happiness.

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