After years of resisting and priding ourselves that we peel our potatoes, Deirdre (my wife) and I have taken to serving instant mash. And guess what? Mix it thoroughly, add milk, be generous with a nob of butter and it’s quite hard to tell the difference. Yes? OK, but no instant substitute goes anywhere near potatoes lovingly roasted.
You can’t help noticing, everything in life today has sped up. We want everything in an instant. Instant coffee. Instant credit. Microwave cooking. Faster broadband. Short checkout queues. Round-the-clock convenience stores. And if you’re up for it, even speed dating. With few exceptions people everywhere seem to be insisting, “I want it now!”
Now you may have thought I was going to say, “Wait a minute, society is getting it all wrong.” Not necessarily. I want to suggest that the clamour for happiness right now reflects an important spiritual principle. Moments are there to be savoured.
The Eastern Orthodox Church encourages its people to take hold of moments in time, in thankfulness and pleasure. Try it.
Take a lesson from the poet Keats and (in season) crush a grape on your palate.
When you get up in the morning listen for birdsong or stand and take in the view from your window and hold it for a few seconds.
In his book Happiness Now, Dr Robert Holden writes, “The problem with our ‘want it now’ society isn’t that we want happiness now but that we have lost sight of how to experience it now. In particular, we say, ‘I want it now’ but we doubt and we don’t really believe that ‘it is here now’. We have lost faith in now and have placed all of our faith in some imagined future“, he continues. “Similarly, we have lost faith in our Self and have placed all the attention on the world outside.” (Happiness Now, Hay House Publishing 1998)
So what attitudes most rob us of the chance for happiness?
One happiness buster is holding onto grudges and resentments. I know people whose lives have been poisoned by holding onto memories of episodes in the distant past. In contrast, there is nothing more liberating than practicing forgiveness so the catalogue of resentments doesn’t mount up. This applies just as much in the corporate life of the church.
Another happiness buster is indulging the invidious phrase “if only”. If only I had more money…a better job… External things like these don’t bring us happiness of themselves. Merely wishing for them certainly doesn’t. It can be like a mirage in the desert.
According to Holden, our society offers three broad ideas about happiness: (1) it is luck (2) it is a circumstance, or (3) it is a decision.
If it’s luck, says Holden, we are left with no role to play in our life. Take the chronic gambler. Without exception gamblers see themselves as unlucky victims of the world.
Likewise, he says, if happiness is a circumstance, then ultimately its attainment is out of our hands.
If happiness is a decision, however, it means we have a part in making our happiness happen. In Holden’s words “you always carry the deciding vote.”
The catechism of the Church of Scotland puts the question, “What is the chief end of man”, to which it offers this answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
According to the Bible happiness is something we can decide to cultivate. There are more than 800 Bible passages that urge people to rejoice. My favourite is 1 Thessalonians 5.16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (my italics)
Thankfulness and rejoicing: they’re both attitudes of the human will that can be cultivated. Moreover they are God’s will for us.