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Confronting our cult of happiness

Planet Ceperley by Tripleman

Can our preoccupation with happiness ever be satisfied? Rob Moll in The Art of Dying: Living Fully Into the Life to Come suggests that “to live well we must come to grips with our death.” Moll writes,

“I would say our avoidance of death, far from being an advance, is false, costly and alienating. We, the church, need to recover the art of dying. We need to reacquaint ourselves with death. We need to help people die well and mourn well. We need to lament. We need to allow dying Christians to be just that dying Christians, who can rail against, but also prepare for, death. We need to make space for the exhausting, sad work of mourning.”

Talk about a counter-cultural book!

Paul Bruckner in Condemned to Joy describes how we have moved far away from the idea of preparing for a good death.  He overstates his case when he writes about the past, to “wish for earthly happiness would be a sin against the Spirit.”  But he is right on when he describes life today.

Modern medicine began to change things, “If I could relieve pain simply by ingesting some substance, there was no need to have recourse to prayer to feel better.”

He describes how the pursuit of happiness became codified in the American Declaration of Independence. In recent years, “the right to happiness” became “the duty of happiness.” Bruckner gives two main reasons.

First, with the widespread use of credit, we had no reason to defer gratification. “But credit changed everything; frustration became intolerable and satisfaction normal; to do without seemed absurd. We would live well in the present and pay back later.”

Second, with an increasing emphasis on individualism, I am now responsible for my own happiness. Bruckner writes, “We now owe it to ourselves to be happy, and we are expected to display our happiness far and wide. . . We now find ourselves guilty of not being well.”

Contentment has become “the fruit of a personal decision. This belief in our ability to will ourselves happy also lies behind the contemporary obsession with health.”

Because our quest is unattainable, “happiness is surrounded by anxiety. . . Our hedonism is not wholesome but haunted by failure. However well behaved we are, our bodies continue to betray us. Age leaves its mark, illness finds us one way or another, and pleasures have their way with us.”

Bruckner appeals for a “renewed humility” to counter this “Western cult of happiness.”  Moll challenges Christians to return to our roots and help one another prepare for, not fear death. Moll writes “Because we instinctively want to avoid it, to turn our face away, it is good to look death in the eye and constantly remind ourselves that our hope is in God, who defeated death.”

Reading the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible also confronts the current cult of happiness and will help us prepare for death.  May we live well so that we may die well!

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