A couple weeks ago, I spoke to the regional Greek Orthodox Youth convention. While I was there, I had a chat with one of the editors of the Death to the World (maga)zine. We chatted quite a bit on the topic of happiness. Afterward, Jason invited me to write an article for Death to the World on the topic of happiness. If you follow the link above to the Death to the World web page, you will see that the audience for Death to the World is a rather edgy bunch. So keeping that audience in mind, I wrote the following.
I’m sharing the article here because I haven’t been able to write much over the past two weeks because of construction work on Holy Nativity (we moved the iconostasis back several feet to make more room in the nave). As we move into June and July I will be traveling, so it looks like blog postings will be sparse for a while. But I will try to put something up at least once a week—even if it is only an edgy, death-to-the-world rant like what follows.
Happiness is underrated. Yes, underrated. Most of what passes for happiness now days is either infantile fantasy, whether of the Disney or the Maxim Magazine sort, or, in most cases, what passes as happiness is merely the momentary relief from pain. There is very little happiness out there. Driven by passions to succeed, to win, and to appear to be the best, we seldom are ourselves–if we can even figure out who our real self is. The world shreds us into multiple selves. And we put up with it because of a lie, because of the lie that if I play along nicely my passions will be fulfilled, that if I succeed, I will finally be happy.
But you never succeed, you are never successful enough. That’s part of the lie. Passions are never satisfied. Living inside us like parasites, our passions feed and become stronger each time we let them rule us, each time we let ourselves be driven. And the lie never changes. You would think that having been lied to so many times by driving passions, by lusts and envy, fears and hatred, you would think that we would learn. But we don’t. We’re addicted, addicted to our passions. Happiness is always somewhere else. Happiness is always yesterday or tomorrow.
St. Isaac the Syrian was a hermit who taught how to quiet the passions, how to find yourself, find peace, find God. In fact, to find yourself is to begin to find God, for God dwells in our hearts–our as St. Isaac puts it, our heart is like a great house in which there are serpents and demons and hell itself; but also in our hearts dwell the angels, heaven and God Himself. Finding ourselves and our true heart is the beginning of finding God. And finding God is happiness, or blessedness. It is the happiness of finding yourself and being at peace with who you are and who you are becoming.
But how do we know? How do we separate what is true and good within ourselves from what is twisted and broken? St. Isaac says that it begins with a hatred of the world. Until you hate the world, you cannot begin the journey to yourself. The world is the lie. The world is our passions–it is what drives us and preys upon us and feeds in us hate and fear and the lustful desires that seek only selfish gratification (which also is a form of hating). The world teaches us to hate other human beings, that other people are the problem, are the barrier to my happiness. But really it is the system, the system of this world that we must come to hate. The world we must die to, the world that we must hate is the system, not the people. And we can only begin to die to the world once we realize that the world “out there” is not so much my problem. The biggest obstacle to my experiencing happiness, to experiencing the blessedness of union with God, is not the world out there, but the world as it has latched itself to my own heart and mind as a parasite.
St. Isaac tells us that there are two common ways that people come to hate the world. Both begin with a simple deduction, a realization that goes something like this: If there is a world, there must be a creator; and if there is right and wrong, then there must be a judge; and if there is a creator and judge, there must be Truth. Some who come to this realization experience a fear of judgement, and this fear goads them to seek the Truth. Others, however, do not experience fear so much as longing, longing for the Real, longing for the True, longing for the happiness that cannot be taken away. Both fear of judgement and longing for the Real motivate us to turn our back on the world, to say no to driving passions within us: to stand up when the world sits down.
Jesus said, “Happy (Blessed) are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” When we hate the world, we are free to be poor. We are free to be meek, to be weak, to be at peace, to be happy. And being at peace, we become peacemakers. Letting go of driving passions, we radiate something different, a Light from another Realm. Turning our backs on what the world loves and values, we find freedom to be ourselves, freedom to become and grow. In learning to control ourselves we are free not to control others (or better, free to let go of the fantasy of controlling others, a control that we never really had).
There is a happiness that comes from weakness, a happiness that is often called joy. When I am weak, St. Paul said, then God is strong in me. So long as I love the world, I have to be strong. I have to win. I cannot show weakness. But when I find the strength to turn my back on the world, I find the strength to accept my weakness. I find the strength to depend on God, the strength to weep with those who weep. Then there is peace. Then there is happiness, a kind of happiness that remains even in sadness. The hymns of the Church sometimes refer to this as the “bright sadness.”
Happiness, or blessedness, comes from hating the world, especially the world in ourselves. Happiness comes as we gain knowledge of ourselves, knowledge of our weaknesses and of our dependence on the Creator. This is the journey of Salvation. This is the narrow way. This is the path to blessedness.