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WE HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW TO LIVE LIFE.
I (J. P.) don't mean that we're not active, involved with friends, busy at work. I don't mean that we're not spending time with family, meeting with coworkers at Starbucks, aware of what's new on television and in the theaters. We stay current with popular culture-the trendsetters, the movers and shakers, the media idols of our age.
But they are not teaching us how to live life. Not even close. Most of what takes up the airwaves is the absence of life-a constant reshuffling of relationships, a preoccupation with wiping out the opposition as violently as possible, the pursuit and spending of the almighty dollar in a system that Vaclav Havel calls "totalitarian consumerism." We see example after example of empty, self-centered existence.
We also don't know how to teach our kids about living life. We expect them to figure it out on their own, to sort of fall into it. We expect them to learn life from their peers.
If we are going to recover real life-the life that has been sucked out of us by technological gadgetry, vivid media images, and our passive kind of continuing education via sitcoms and advertising-we are going to have to return to the wisdomof the ancients.
The key to living life is paradox. One of the most important paradoxes comes from the mouth of Jesus: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it" (Matthew 16:25). That's a mouthful. Our aim in this book is to unpack the paradoxes for living true life and to begin to get good at it. If we do, we will also influence our kids. They will pick up a different set of values than what comes at them five hours a day over the tube.
Real life does not come naturally. It is counterintuitive. It is a skill we have to learn. That's because the way to real life is not something we get, but something we give. And here is another paradox: We can't get the life we want by direct effort. We will need to learn spiritual disciplines that are, in the words of Dallas Willard, "activities that are in our power that enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort." That's another mouthful-but that's what Klaus and I want to unpack in this book.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Do you want to be happy? If you are an American, it is overwhelmingly likely that you do. We Americans are obsessed with being happy. But we are also terribly confused about what happiness is. As a result, we seldom find a happiness that lasts. But because "the pursuit of happiness" is promised to us as a right in the founding document of our nation, the Declaration of Independence, we carry a sense of entitlement. We think we deserve happiness. And if we don't find what we consider to be happiness, we are likely to develop what the French demographer of early America, Alexis de Tocqueville, called "a strange melancholy in the midst of abundance."
Our understanding of happiness has not always been so confused. Since the time of the ancients (the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and the Hebrew figures Moses and Solomon), right up through the church fathers (such as Augustine), and on through the Reformation, until around the 1700s in Britain-almost everyone agreed about what happiness was. When the Declaration of Independence says we have a right to the pursuit of happiness, the authors meant what almost everyone had meant prior to that time.
The Founding Fathers looked to the eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone for wisdom about where happiness comes from. He wrote, "[The Creator] has so intimately connected, so inseparably woven, the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and if the former be punctually obeyed, it can not but induce the latter." Though Blackstone's language is archaic, he meant the same thing that C. S. Lewis intended when he wrote, "You can't get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first." Or as Jesus said, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).
We will look more closely at what the earlier writers meant by happiness in a moment. But first let's think about what has happened in the past hundred years or so, because the shift in meaning is destroying people's lives.
A recent dictionary definition of happiness is "a sense of pleasurable satisfaction." Notice that happiness is identified with a feeling and, more specifically, a feeling very close to pleasure. Today the good life is a life of good feeling, and that is the goal of most people for themselves and their children. A major talk-radio host has interviewed hundreds of people over the past few years by asking the question "What did your parents want most for you-success, wealth, to be a good person, or happiness?" Eighty-five percent said happiness.
When my daughter's eighth-grade team was being creamed in a soccer game, the coach said at halftime, "Girls, don't worry about the score. The reason we play soccer is to have fun; so let's try to have a blast during the second half and go home happy whatever the final result." That coach reminds me of Cyndi Lauper's song "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." He was mindlessly parroting the cultural mantra that pleasurable satisfaction is the goal of life. The reasons my wife and I wanted our daughter to play soccer were to learn how to win and to lose, to cooperate with others, to sacrifice for a longterm goal, which requires delaying instant gratification, and-well, you get the picture. What was really sad was not simply the coach's speech, but the fact that none of the parents so much as batted an eye at his counsel.
So what, you may be asking, is so wrong with happiness understood as a sense of pleasurable satisfaction or fun? In one sense, nothing. All things being equal, I would rather have fun than not have fun. But in another sense, everything. There are two main problems with this understanding. First, it represents a serious departure from a more ageless definition. When the classical under-standing is clarified, as I will attempt in the next section, pleasurable satisfaction is exposed as inferior in value to happiness by its classical definition.
In a consumer culture, advertisers have a vested interest in creating in us a constant sense of dissatisfaction so we will buy products to regain happiness and satisfaction. This makes life a roller coaster and creates an insatiable need to be filled with pleasure. It creates too much pressure for anyone to bear. Among other things, it implies that the hard virtues of discipline, sacrifice, and their kin are intrinsically evil.
Further, happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it according to the contemporary sense of the word. If you have ever tried to be happy, you know this is true. Pleasurable satisfaction makes a very poor lifetime goal; it is, however, a wonderful by-product of striving after happiness in the classical sense. Think about it. If happiness is having an internal feeling of fun or pleasurable satisfaction, and if it is our main goal, where will we place our focus all day long? The focus will be on us, and the result will be a culture of self-absorbed individuals who can't live for something larger than we are. As parents, we will then view our children as a means to our own happiness. Marriage, work, and even God himself will exist as a means to making us happy. The entire universe will revolve around our internal pleasure-me!
What I am saying is no mere theoretical assertion. Since the 1960s, for the first time in history a culture-ours-has been filled with what have been called empty selves. The empty self is now an epidemic in America (and in much of Western cultures). According to Philip Cushman, "The empty self is filled up with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathetic therapists.... [The empty self] experiences a significant absence of community, tradition, and shared meaning, ... a lack of personal conviction and worth, and it embodies the absences as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger." Popular teenage culture provides a clear example of a social system that produces and contains an abundance of empty selves. Sadly, the traits of the empty self do not leave at the age of twenty; studies show that they continue until around forty and, increasingly, last longer than that.
The empty self has a set of values, motives, and habits of thought, feeling, and behavior that make progress in maturity in the Way of Christ extremely difficult. Following are four traits of the empty self that undermine intellectual growth and spiritual development. As you read them, keep in mind that these result from redefining happiness as pleasurable satisfaction and making it the main, longterm goal of life. Perhaps you'll be able to recognize some of these characteristics in people you come into contact with. (You might even see a few reflected in your own life.) As you note these traits, see if you agree about how harmful they are.
1. The empty self is inordinately individualistic. A few years ago, I was sitting in an elementary school gym with other parents at a D.A.R.E. graduation (a public school program designed to help children "say no to drugs") for my daughter's sixth-grade class. Five sixth graders were about to read brief papers expressing their reasons for why they would say no to drugs. As it turned out, each paper was a variation of one reason for refusing to take drugs: self-interest. Student after student said that he or she would refuse drugs because of a desire to stay healthy, become a doctor or athlete, or do well in school. Conspicuous by its absence was the moral factor: not a single reference to duty to community or virtue before God. Not one student said that drugs were anathema because of the shame it would bring to family, community, or God. Individualistic reasons were the only ones given. By contrast, when a Japanese ice skater fell during an Olympic performance years ago, her main concern was not the endorsement opportunities she had lost. She felt bad for her family and the people who supported her so faithfully. Community loomed large in the way she understood her own self.
A healthy form of individualism is a good thing. But the empty self that populates American culture is a self-contained individual who defines his own life goals, values, and interests as though he were a human atom, isolated from others with little need or responsibility to live for the concerns of his broader community. The self-contained individual does his own thing and seeks to create meaning by looking within his own self. But as psychologist Martin Seligman warns, "The self is a very poor site for finding meaning."
2. The empty self is infantile. It is widely recognized that adolescent personality traits are staying with people longer today than in earlier generations, sometimes continuing to manifest themselves into the late thirties. Created by a culture filled with pop psychology, schools, and media that usurp parental authority, and television ads that seem to treat everyone as a teenager, the infantile part of the empty self needs instant gratification, comfort, and soothing. The infantile person is controlled by cravings and constantly seeks to be filled with and made whole by food, entertainment, and consumer goods. Such a person is preoccupied with sex, physical appearance, and body image. He or she tends to live by feelings and experiences. For the infantile personality type, pain, endurance, hard work, and delayed gratification are anathema. Pleasure is all that matters, and it had better be immediate. Boredom is the greatest evil; amusement, the greatest good.
3. The empty self is narcissistic. Narcissism is an inordinate and exclusive sense of self-infatuation in which the individual is preoccupied with his or her self-interest and personal fulfillment. Narcissists manipulate relationships with others (including God) to validate their self-esteem, and they cannot sustain deep attachments or make personal commitments to something larger than ego. The narcissist is superficial and aloof, and prefers to "play it cool" and "keep my options open." Self-denial is out of the question.
The Christian narcissist brings a Copernican revolution to the Christian faith. Historically, Copernicus dethroned the earth from the center of the universe and put the sun in its place. Spiritually, the narcissist dethrones God and His purposes in history from the center of the religious life and places his or her personal fulfillment in the middle. The Christian narcissist evaluates the local church, books, and religious practices based on how they will further his or her agenda. The church becomes a means of fulfilling personal needs. God becomes another tool in a bag of tricks, along with the narcissist's car, workouts at the fitness center, and so on, which exist as mere instruments to facilitate a life defined independently of a biblical worldview.
The narcissist sees education solely as a means to the enhancement of his or her career. The humanities and general education, which historically were part of a university curriculum to help develop people with the intellectual and moral virtues necessary for a life directed at the common good, just don't fit into the narcissist's plans. As Christopher Lasch notes, "[Narcissistic] students object to the introduction of requirements in general education because the work demands too much of them and seldom leads to lucrative employment."
4. The empty self is passive. The couch potato is the role model for the empty self, and there can be no doubt that Americans are becoming increasingly passive in their approach to life. We let other people do our living and thinking for us: The pastor studies the Bible for us, the news media does our political thinking for us, and we let our favorite sports team exercise, struggle, and win for us. From watching television to listening to sermons, our primary agenda is to be amused and entertained. Holidays have become vacations. Historically, a holiday was a "holy day," an intrinsically valuable, special, active change of pace in which, through proactive play and recreation, you refreshed your soul. A vacation is a "vacating"-even the language is passive-in order to let someone else amuse you. The passive individual is a self in search of pleasure and consumer goods provided by others. Such an individual increasingly becomes a shriveled self with less and less ability to be proactive and take control of life.
When people live for pleasurable satisfaction, they become empty selves and, because God did not make us to live for "happiness," our lives fall apart. Seligman has spent his career studying happiness. In the late 1980s, he noted that with the baby boom generation, Americans experienced a tenfold increase in depression compared to earlier generations. If any condition increases this much in the span of one generation, we are safe to say an epidemic has occurred. A cause and cure must be sought. To our knowledge, Seligman is not a Christian, but his insights read as if they came from Holy Scripture. He claimed that the cause of this epidemic was the fact that baby boomers stopped imitating their ancestors and seeking daily to live for a cause bigger than they-God, family, one's country-and instead spent from morning to night trying to live for themselves and their own pleasurable satisfaction. It is clear that such a strategy brings depression, not pleasure-or much else.
Excerpted from The LOST VIRTUE of HAPPINESS by J. P. Moreland Klaus Issler Copyright © 2006 by J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 27, 2006
JP Moreland and Klaus Issler ransom the contemporary idea of ¿happiness¿ from the obsessive, authoritarian grips of pleasure-seeking narcissism, and cleanse it with biblical counsel, Spirit-led wisdom, pastoral insight, and the demonstrable lessons of their own life lived in the fellowship of others. Their thesis is articulated in eight life-empowering chapters, which claims that happiness is best understood and obtained if it means living our life as it is meant to flourish. We are meant to flourish in a life of character and virtue formation that manifests itself in wisdom, kindness and goodness (25). The life of Jesus Christ and the gospel of the kingdom of God are both the indispensable model and means for obtaining this kind of abundant life. Chapter One and Two both (authored by Moreland) establish this foundational claim. Chapter Three (Issler), Four (Moreland) and Five (Issler) form a unit to give clear instruction and pastoral insight about how to get good at living this kind of life: Namely, form a tender, receptive heart (ch. 3) form a thoughtful mind stayed on God (ch. 4) form a trustful will that risks with God (ch. 5). With the foundation laid in chapters one and two, and the edifice formed in chapters three, four and five, this house of edification is nearly complete. But first, Chapter Six (Issler) and Seven (Moreland) tests a biblical conception of human flourishing in light of the so-called ¿hiddennes of God¿ (ch. 6) and in view of experiencing anxiety and depression (ch. 7). These two chapters form a potent unit of instruction and insight, encouraging the reader to embrace the reality of God¿s hiddenness and to learn not to just ¿cope¿ with anxiety and depression but to actually defeat its control over one¿s ability to flourish. I found these chapters to be liberating, helpful, and truthfully conveyed. Moreland openly shares his experience and defeat of anxiety and depression. This testimony should encourage anyone who is afflicted with such struggle. Lastly, Chapter Eight (Issler) caps the entire discussion of the book with a focus on ¿cultivating spiritual friendships.¿ Topically, I would expect Chapters Three, Four and Five to be part of a book on spiritual formation, even though the authors offer a decisively unique perspective on these topics. However, it is Chapters Six and Seven that make the book all the more accessible and authoritative. For these chapters demonstrate that the ideas conveyed in the previous chapters are not only true, but because they are true, they actually work and are livable even in the crucible of life¿s most desperate circumstances. Structurally, each chapter faithfully maintains a length of 24 pages. This consistency appropriately informs the reader¿s attention and forms the reader¿s expectation. This prudential proportionality of space demonstrates that the authors do not overstate or understate one topic over another. Visually, the text actually appeals to the eyes. The lines have generous spacing and the fonts are crisp. Each page does not feel like it is informationally overloaded. The ideas expressed and the space and words that are used to fulfill that expression are prudentially balanced. Moreover, instructional helps and end-of-chapter exercises are found throughout the book. These are not superficial or ineffectual, but encourage the reader to give careful attention to what they are reading and to do so while attending to their own life. For example, there is an informative chart on page 26 that offers a succinct contrast between ¿Contemporary Happiness¿ (pleasurable satisfaction) and ¿Classical Happiness¿ (virtue and well-being). On page 117, Issler captures ¿Five Enduring Kingdom Themes¿ (Loving God, Relating, Reigning, Renewing and Resisting) in the form of a circular diagram. And in this same chapter about learning to form a trusting will, Issler provides (p. 125-26) an ¿Eternal Investment Portfolio¿ (EIP) to gauge how we are investing our livesWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 16, 2011
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Posted January 19, 2010
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