The “pursuit of happiness” is guaranteed in the US Constitution. Notice that happiness is not guaranteed, only the pursuit of happiness. Nevertheless, modern American society is colored by this basic guaranty, and much of modern American life can be attributed to the sacrosanct pursuit of happiness. Many also mistake the freedom to pursue happiness with happiness itself.
We live in a world in which our lives tend to be measured by how happy we are. Many among us feel that we have a right to be happy, and many among us are disappointed, angry and even indignant when happiness eludes them. Indeed, happiness is an elusive creature. I have written on this before.
I go to thinking about the subject again as I read about, Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, who says this:
“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
The statement comes at a very personal price for Frankl and his family, who were victims of the Holocaust. Only Frankl survived. His views on this subject carry some unusual weight as a result of his experience. His conclusion is that there is something far more powerful, far more important to life, than happiness – and that is meaning.
He learned early on that those who found meaning in life, even in the more horrendous circumstances, were “far more resilient to suffering than those who did not.” “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl goes on to conclude that a meaningful life often leads to a happy life, but happiness pursued for its own sake usually leads to an unhappy, unfulfilled and shallow existence. Meaning, in the end, is what differentiates human being from animals. Happiness is a base feeling that is shared by humans and animals alike. Meaning is what human beings different and what we are meant for.
This is no theoretical exercise for Frankl. He lived it. He was a prodigy. He rose quickly to acclaim, becoming the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital as the Nazi threat loomed. Newly married, he obtained a visa to escape the cataclysm he knew was coming. But, he was faced with a dilemma: escape to America or stay and protect his parents. Emily Esfahani Smith describes the choice he made this way in her article in the Atlantic, There’s More to Life than Being Happy:
As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”
When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.
The article focuses on the importance of meaning in people’s lives, and the enduring quality of meaning as compared to happiness. Frankl observes that giving is to meaning as taking is to happiness, and Frankl ultimately exalts living a life of meaning as being human:
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
But I would take it a step further.
For Frankl, the experience that led him to stay by his parents’ side, which led to his own interment in a prison camp, might be described as spiritual, but he came away with a very humanistic conclusion. Whether he made the spiritual connection, I will. The hint from heaven that he sought was provided in the fragment of the broken Ten Commandments. Was it not an answer to prayer from a personal God who heard his cry for an answer?
Maybe it was not the answer he wanted. Looking back, a different “sign” might certainly have portended a more comfortable, happier and less painful path. In fact, I could not imagine a more difficult road to walk. It may seem like some small comfort that God directed it.
But God knows the path that Frankl walked. He experienced a similar path Himself. Humbling Himself to take on human form, He humbled Himself even further – born as a vulnerable child to parents of humble means in a manger made for animals; Jesus lived a life of obedience to the Father, a life dedicated to one thing – the salvation of mankind – and he humbled Himself ultimately to submit to tortuous death at the hands of His own creation from itself.
Along the way, Jesus spoke to all mankind when he said things like, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24); and “he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt. 23:11-12) His disciples carried on in the same direction: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Phil. 2:3)
The things that Frankl discovered are similar to what Jesus taught.
In my opinion, truth is truth. But there is more. While we are, indeed, something different altogether from the animals, in that we can grasp meaning, and beauty and philosophical thought, there is still something more. These things are not simply human. They are the fingerprint of God.
Indeed, we did not create ourselves. We stand in time and space, specks in the seemingly infinite canvass of time and space, subject to the travails of a Universe that balances on a razor’s edge. The Universe, itself, and all that is in it, and especially mankind, point to an Intelligent Source. Does life really spring from inanimate objects? Do reason and intelligence grow out of random and irrational processes and matter? Does a reaction cause itself?
For me, meaning must be more deeply rooted than human kind. I see in people the image of God. While so many things make so little sense in this world, I see in Christ the ultimate intention of God to lift us out of this existence that we, for whatever reason, find ourselves. In Christ is the hope of glory that is God. In relationship with God, the Intelligent Source of this Universe, is our destiny and the fulfillment of that meaning for which we have been created.
The fact that this God humbled His very Self to become as vulnerable as us, to connect with us, to direct us in the way He planned (love God and love others), to give us hope of that for which we long – eternal life in relationship with Him in a “place” where there are no more tears, no pain and no death – is all the proof I need to know that I can trust this God. In spite, of the evil that I see, and especially the evil perpetrated by men on men, I can have faith in a God who knows us intimately, knows what it is like to be like us, and has overcome the darkness that we live in.
The happiness that we pursue to today, in this life, is nothing like the joy that awaits us. There is something greater when we tap into something larger than our individual selves. Yes, I believe there is meaning in being human and tapping into humanity, but there is joy unspeakable when we tap into something even greater than our collective selves, something greater than humanity. When we tap into God for whom, by whom, of whom and for whom we were created, we tap into the truest and highest meaning there can be.
Indeed, I believe Frankl is right, that the pursuit of happiness actually pushes off the happiness that we seek. C.S. Lewis came to a similar conclusion in Surprised by Joy, the autobiographical account of his journey from materialist atheism to Christian faith. The more he pursued the “joy” he experienced, the more elusive it became… until he discovered the Source of that Joy.