Happiness

The Jewish Humanist, March 1987

The pursuit of happiness will be the theme of our Temple retreat this year.

While the Declaration of Independence guarantees us the right to happiness, it does not tell us what it is. Nor does it tell us how to get it. We generally agree that happiness is something everybody wants. But we are not sure that everybody wants the same thing.

So what is happiness?

Before we can answer the question we have to confront certain realities about happiness.

  1. If we concentrate too hard on happiness it generally goes away. People who worry constantly about whether they are happy or not rarely are. Happy people do not spend a lot of time thinking about happiness. They are absorbed in compelling projects, work or leisure, that do not allow much time for introspection. When happiness becomes the goal of life, it is rarely achievable. Only when we pursue other more specific goals does happiness emerge as an unintended consequence. The most joyous people I know do not choose to talk about joy. Like the micro-particles of physics it changes, or even disappears, when you look at it too hard.
  2. Getting away from problems does not make us happy. It is an illusion to imagine that it is possible to achieve a problem-free life When one set of challenges goes away another replaces it. Even retirement from work or the departure of children is no guarantee that happiness is around the corner. Uselessness and boredom are often worse than conventional stress. They make us focus on all the minor negative things in our lives we never notice when we are busy. Many of the happiest people I know are overscheduled and overcommitted. They simply love what they are doing, even though what they are doing gives them stress and anxiety. Life in heaven, in the end, may be more taxing than life on earth.
  3. Pain is part of happiness. The hedonism of immediate gratification; is no path to lasting pleasure. If we need our “fix” now and are unwilling to wait for later, we are pursuing self-destruction. Almost all things worthwhile require the postponement of pleasure and sometimes even the endurance of pain. Education, sport skills and Successful parenting take time. They often also involve painful testing, wasting and failure. If we are afraid to risk pain, we shall never be happy. Our lives will consist of momentary pleasures that are tied together by depression.
  4. Small things in life can be important. There is a chemistry to life which reveals itself in the realities of human relations. Certain people attract us and we do not know why. Certain people annoy us and we can find no important reason to explain our response. Certain personalities make us feel good. Certain personalities, with no apparent defect, make us feel rotten. We look for the grand reasons why we should choose one person over another. But often the small things make the difference. A sense of humor, a willingness to listen, a disposition to be kind-each little characteristic embarrassingly trivial determines our choice. Out siders often wonder what we see in the people we like and love. But outsiders are looking for the big reasons and cannot see what makes us happy.
  5. Life needs variety. It is so easy to become obsessed with the things we need and do not have that we imagine that one and only one thing will give us happiness. If only we found a lover, if only we can have a child, if only we can secure interesting work, if only we can live in a warm place – then everything will be marvelous. But no lover alone can bring us happiness, nor can any child, job or climate. People who try to put their happiness eggs in only one basket find that the basket is too small. Long-run pleasure needs variety. It requires love – but not all the time. It asks for work – but not every hour. It revels in leisure – but not day after day.
  6. What other people think of us does make a difference. So many of us imagine that what counts in our life is what we think of ourselves that we rebel against pleasing others. We maintain that if we say to ourselves that we are worthwhile that we will be. But self-esteem does not come from self-congratulations. It starts with our ability to aim the approval of the people we love and respect. Since we are social beings, we are molded as much by others as by ourselves. The hostility of others is not incompatible with happiness, so long as the people we admire standby our side. To go through life, never willing to please, arrogantly indifferent to the demands of parents, friends and teachers is no sign of self-esteem. It is certainly no path to long-run fulfilment.
  7. Winning is preferable to losing. So much current advice focuses on the virtue of trying that the consequences of trying are largely ignored. Boldness and persistence are not enough for happiness. If we try for goals we cannot achieve, if we pursue people who always reject us, if we strive for work Our talents do not fit, then relentless failure and rejection will depress us. It is simply no fun to lose always, no matter how thrilling the effort. In the end, happy people choose goals their skills can realize. They may lose from time to time. But they do not arrange to lose always. They reach out to try things they have never tried before, but never so far as to be pretentious. There is a distinction between good-humored adventure and “suicide.”
  8. The world is a little bit crazy. Unhappy people always expect the world to be orderly and fair. They do not like surprise and resent imperfection. In the end, they stop playing the game of life and spend most of their time complaining about the rules of the game. Because they expect the world to be sane they go crazy. Happy people know that the world is disorderly and unfair. They expect surprise and do not insist on perfection. In the end they prefer to play an imperfect game to playing no game at all. Because they see the world as “nuts,” they stay sane.

So what is happiness?

Happiness is an enthusiasm for life, an eagerness to solve problems, a confidence in our strength to deal with reality, even when that reality is less than we want it to be.

 

Feelings

The Jewish Humanist, October 1986

Feelings.

They are a very important part of our daily life. They are the energy of our desires and motivation. They are the source of our pain and our pleasure. They are the signs’ of our success and failure.

Understanding our feelings and learning to control them is the theme of our New Year celebration. Ultimately the quality of our life is determined by what we do with our emotions and by what they do to us.

Our feelings present us with many problems.

We do not choose them. They just happen. If they enter our consciousness we cannot command them to leave. Fear, anger, love and guilt arise from unconscious causes over which we exercise no control. The only way to avoid certain feelings is to avoid the situations that provoke them. But many life situations are unavoidable, especially if they involve family, friends, and work.

Emotions are difficult to control. They trigger our behavior. When the conscious mind is uncooperative emotions bypass it and make us do what we do not deliberately choose to do. Changing behavior can be very difficult, especially if our feelings are in conflict with our behavior.

Our emotions do not share a common agenda. Each feeling wants its own way and seeks to command all our energies. Our love and our anger compete for, the same body, driving to use it indifferent ways. No easy internal harmony prevails in the human mind.

If our feelings are allowed to run wild, if they are given complete freedom, they are able to wreak havoc in our lives. Since they have the short-run goal of discharging their energy, they often stand in conflict with the long-run goals of our reason. The planning part of our mind is concerned about later. Our emotions tend to be focused on now. They often make us do things that give us immediate relief from tension, but which have rotten consequences for our future happiness and success.

Our emotions love to hide. If they are embarrassing for our conscious mind to handle, if they offend our self-image, we sometimes have the power to expel them to the “basement” of our mind. While’ they fester in the darkness we can pretend that they are not there even though they really are. Trying to hide from our feelings uses up an enormous amount of energy and often exhausts us.

As you can see, simply asking people to be spontaneous can be very dangerous. Indulging hate, anger and jealousy can be just as spontaneous as indulging love. And expressing love may not always be appropriate, especially if the people we love exploit us and abuse us.

So, in the face of all these problems, how do we establish an effective control of our feelings so, that they serve our long-run goals for survival and dignity?

The path of self-control is hard but absolutely necessary.

We, first of all, have to accept our feelings and stop running away from them. We cannot be held responsible for what we do not control. Emotions are not dangerous unless we allow them to be. Fear, hate, and sexual lust are normal and human. They make their appearance in every psyche. If we pretend, that they are not there, they will hide in the unconscious and do their dirty work against our will. If we are willing to confront them and to own up to them, then we will have a chance to discipline them. We cannot control what we refuse to acknowledge.

We have to clarify our long-run goals. We have to go beyond the present and determine what we want for our future. What are the human relations we want to maintain? What are the work skills we want to acquire? Self-indulgence is inevitable if we never use our reason to go beyond today and plan tomorrow.

We also have to calculate the price of spontaneity. What will be the consequences of our behavior if we allow any particular feeling to take control of our body? In many situations spontaneity works and makes us happier. In many circumstances it disrupts friendships, undermines family loyalty and destroys useful work. Being a warm person does not mean being a foolish person.

We have to train our will. We do not have to be the victim of every passing feeling. Our conscious mind gives us the power to control and restrain. The word “will” denotes the complex mental process which enables us to say “no” when our feelings say “yes”, to say “yes” when our feelings say “no.” The best way to exercise our will and to give it strength is to force ourselves to do what we are afraid to do. Endless introspection is depressing and weakens our decision making power. Only by acting and discovering that indeed we are able to do what we did not think we were able to do can our will become a reality. If we always wait to make decisions until we are no longer afraid, we will never be decisive. Practice gives muscle to our will.

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I will expand on these observations.

The Right to Die

The Jewish Humanist, August 1990

The right to die.

An eccentric doctor, a desperate woman and a bizarre contraption have dramatized that issue. Ever since Dr. Kevorkian assisted Alzheimer victim Jane Adkins to kill herself, the question of justifiable suicide has received undue public attention.

Traditional religion forbids suicide, even the suicide of terminally ill patients. Since God has given us life, only God has the right to take it away. And since God is just, there must be a good purpose for the suffering and humiliation endured by the hopelessly sick. Because the limited human mind sees suffering as evil does not mean that it is evil. God works in mysterious ways.

For traditional religion there is no right to die. Only the threat of sexual violation or religious apostasy can justify the choice of death. And even then, not by one’s own hand.

In recent years the right to die issue has become important because we live in an aging society. Medicine and medical technology are now able to prolong life to the point where the quality of life hardly justifies its continuance. Thousands of -old people are attached, as helpless victims, to mechanical life-support systems. Millions of old people suffer chronic and terminal illnesses -which deprive them of any reasonable control over their fate. They are deprived of dignity and happiness and are condemned to endure a living death.

This medical “advance” has been accompanied by a quantum jump in human expectations. At one time people – expected no more out of life than suffering. Today they expect far more. They want -pleasure, fulfillment and dignity. They are – no longer prepared to settle for resignation and degradation.

The right to die derives from the even more fundamental right to happiness. Life is not sacred when it is all pain, misery and fear. It is not meaningful when all it provides, is the prospect of endless suffering. To view human existence as an irreversible prison sentence is to deprive it of all significance.

People with terminal illnesses, with unendurable pain and humiliation, have the right to die. They have the right to choose death. And they have the right to be assisted by the medical profession to achieve their goal with the minimum of pain.

Many doctors acknowledge the right to die. But they vehemently deny the right to medical assistance. If the patient wants to kill himself, he should not be prevented from doing so. But he should expect no help from his physician. After all, the doctor is under oath to save lives.

But, without medical assistance, the patient is deprived of the expertise he needs to execute the deed efficiently and painlessly. To deny the patient the help of a physician or a medical technician is an act of cruelty. The patient must suffer because the physician is emotionally unable to terminate the suffering or morally unable because of the promise he has made.

However, when morality sponsors cruelty, maybe it is not morality. Perhaps the doctors’ oath ought not to be one to preserve life. Perhaps a more ethical oath would be a promise to heal the sick and to alleviate suffering. The moral and compassionate thing to do is to enable the patient to die.

What are the implications of this morality? Should any individual have the right to recruit any physician to assist him in an act of suicide when he determines that he is suffering from an incurable and unbearable illness?

The answer is no. There is no absolute right to suicide. If there were, we would have to allow depressed teenagers, who cannot endure the pain of hopelessness, to kill themselves. We would have no right to intrude. To leave the decision of what is terminal and unendurable to the victim alone would be to surrender to the distortions of reality which many depressed people suffer from.

The decision of the patient needs to be supported by the concurrence of experts who determine that the perception of the victim is indeed accurate. (There is a terminal unendurable illness.) And these experts cannot be self-appointed (as in the case of Kevorkian). They have to be appointed by the community and be responsible to the community.

Jane Adkins had the right to die. She had the right to be supported in her decision by the medical profession. In a moral world that recognizes her right she would have been assisted by members of her own community – doctors, lawyers, psychologists and clergy. She would have died at home or in any setting of dignity that she would have chosen.

She deserved more than death in a car van. Perhaps her courage will force our society to find a more compassionate way to deal with the rational despair of needy people.

I Am A Believer

“I Am A Believer”  from Staying Sane in a Crazy World, (1995)

I am a believer.

But I am not a believer in a conventional sense.

I believe that we live in a crazy world, that there is no guarantee that the good will be rewarded and that the wicked will be punished.

I believe that the strength to cope with a crazy world comes from within ourselves, from the undiscovered power we have to look real­ity in the face and to go on living.

I believe that the best faith is faith in oneself, and that the sign of this faith is that we allow our reasoning mind to discipline our action.

I believe that the love of life means the love of reason and the love of beauty.

I believe that staying sane in a crazy world is not easy, but that in the long run, it is the foundation of our survival and self-esteem.

I believe that human dignity comes from the courage to live with real­ity and to enjoy its challenge.