Fr. Bedros Shetilian – OCP Articles – 9/7/2020
“I have overcome the world.”
– John 16:33
This is a really tricky question. People will have very different opinions. There is a well-known social concept of what happiness is:
1 – A job one enjoys and finds fulfilling;
2 – An income to support a comfortable life. Not necessarily rich, but an income that allows people to do what they want;
3 – A successful family;
4 – Friends that can be trusted;
5 – Good health.
We know that most people don’t have all these conditions together, or if they do, it doesn’t last a long time. So, in reality, the social concept of happiness is a theory that rarely becomes reality. This opens the door to talk about one of life’s most important and most negative realities: the clash between the Truth and what society thinks truth is. This issue is the reason for life’s tragic nature. Russian Christian philosopher Berdyaev further explains this in a genius way: “They (society) ask of human beings to come under the control of society’s degradation. This is the reason why life is so tragic.” Society, which is by definition degraded according to Berdyaev, pushes people to be under its control. In other words, people have to fall under the control of society, and since society is degraded, people also have to be. I can cite many quotes on the subject of life’s tragic nature, such as what a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a theologian, philosopher, pastor, great humanitarian, and a renowned organist – in short, one of the greatest people and thinkers of the twentieth-century – Albert Schweitzer said: “My knowledge is pessimistic, but my faith is optimistic”. By knowledge, he meant the realities of life. It’s also worth to quote Hemingway: “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to say the truth (O my God, what a crime), the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.” So cruel, right? Hemingway was a believer, or at least he considered himself a devout Catholic. “If I am anything, I am a Catholic,” he said once. But we also know that he committed suicide. The clash between the Truth and the truth is not only limited to people who have faith, but it is larger. It is about the clash between the Truth and lies, between sacrifice and selfishness, between good and evil at large. Remember, Pilate ironically asked this question to Jesus: “What is truth?”
Not everyone has such a tragic view of life. This tragic vision is for people “who possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to say the truth, the capacity for sacrifice,” as is said by Hemingway. Dostoevsky describes such people as having “a large intelligence and a deep heart,” and he says that for such people, “pain and suffering are always inevitable.” Jesus is the best example of this. It is not necessary that such people have to be famous. Although this does not occur often, people who do not have talents may also have this approach to life.
I will focus on happiness, not from the perspective of what society thinks, but I will take an elevated approach. If I go with the flow, I achieve little. I want to fly and not walk, and I know that not everyone will understand it. Nevertheless, I am not fighting society, but trying to be above it. I would like to emphasize that the social concept is natural and no one denies its importance. It is natural to desire to have the above-mentioned conditions of happiness; it is natural to desire a successful life with no turmoil and difficulties. But realities are different, and being happy may mean different things for different people.
So, all above-mentioned examples are about high-valued people, people who, because they carry the Truth and express it, they clash with society. This clash is the reason for their suffering, and this will go on until the end. Before going further, I would like to make it clear that suffering from natural causes, such as illness, is not relevant to this article and can be the subject of another one.
In the quotes I’ve mentioned thus far, these people are talking about their experiences. They all suffered. But here is the thing: as we say, the end is important. We have to look at a wider, a more complete picture of their lives. The end will decide whether these people were happy or not. Hemingway’s example shows that he ended up being incredibly sad despite the fact that he became famous while he was still alive. His father and his two siblings also committed suicide; his family suffered from it. However, there is a way out for people regardless of how difficult the circumstances are, and there is a way to not be broken and end up as Hemingway did.
Late Catholicos Karekin I of All Armenians has said these words with deep meaning: “It is a necessary condition of happiness to willingly suffer for others’ happiness.” Some of you may be surprised. How come? How can suffering be a condition of being happy? As I said, this is not for everyone and I am not talking here about happiness from the social point of view. This is for people who have “a large intelligence and a deep heart” and are the ones who make a difference. It is not that such people desire to suffer. But they do suffer because that is just how life is. If someone rejects going with the flow, if someone carries the Truth or even more so says the Truth, sooner or later he will clash with the majority who is uncomfortable hearing the Truth. If someone has gifts or talents, people will be jealous of him and he will be under radar and scrutiny at every turn. This is also a sort of conflict with society. Obviously, if someone is socially active with a good agenda that disrupts and stops evil, this will certainly be a reason for more suffering. We always have to remember that we are not yet in heaven.
It is all about who we are. If we choose God’s side, then suffering will be part of our life and we will have a different vision of what happiness is, a vision that comes from the Bible and is inspired by Jesus. If we choose neutrality (“neither cold nor hot,” as St. Paul would say), then happiness will be for as what society thinks. If we choose the dark side, then we will be happy only when we have wealth and control over people, and in order to achieve such goals, we will be ready to kill our conscience (I am not talking about people who become wealthy by being honest and lawful).
Again, it depends on who we are. Once I was talking to someone and said that in regard to material things, it is enough for someone to have “a roof over their head.”That’s how we Armenians describe having minimum necessary conditions for living. He answered me by saying, “This is poor people talk.” I reminded him of Pope Francis, who refuses luxury. He couldn’t find a response. Here, we can also add Warren Buffet’s example, an agnostic by the way who lives a modest life despite his enormous wealth.
I believe that if someone has faith and gets it right, then there is no way for such a person not to be happy regardless of how difficult life is. By “getting faith right,” I mean a deep and a live connection to God and not a superficial understanding of religion based on education. In Hemingway’s case, his“Catholicism never really achieved the fullness of the faith,” as it is emphasized in an article by David A. King. I completely agree with this, and Hemingway’s lifestyle is proof of this. He may have faith, but his faith was not nurtured and I do not believe he had a live connection to God; otherwise, there is no way that he would have committed suicide and his above-mentioned words in the second paragraph would have ended with “wounded.” and not “destroyed”. Some may argue that suicide was in his family, but having a real and live faith is so crucial and comprehensive that it can easily overshadow any other factors. We can see that three others – Berdyaev, Schweitzer and Dostoevsky – prevailed in the end, although they suffered as much, if not more, than Hemingway. They were the ones who “laughed in the end” as we Armenians would say because they got faith right. Having said this, I am not questioning Hemingway’s value as a great writer and a great human being. The concept of Christianity “through Golgotha to resurrection” can also be realized here on Earth. The Kingdom of God starts here, and that should actually be humanity’s ultimate goal.
The understanding of suffering as a condition for happiness should be extended to the understanding of making others happy as a reason for happiness. I am happy when I make others happy; I consider this a gift. Anyone who has this quality – believer or not – is watched over by God. It is impossible to comprehend God’s ways. Sometimes, people who have no faith also please God. They are the people who have “capacity to sacrifice,” as was said by Hemingway.
Someone may say that a clear conscience is also a condition for happiness. That is right. This idea is well known and accepted by many people. It is interesting to see that people who permanently bury their conscience never use this word. They may use other words to justify their actions, like goodness, although they have no goodness at all. I am a big fan of history, and I have never seen such people use the word “conscience.” They hate this word. This is significant. Hitler, for example, always had explanations for his actions. He used words like “good intention” to defend Germany (when he was the aggressor), or “it was the right thing to do,” etc., but never the word “conscience.”
People who have faith get their power from God; they are never alone. Faith is the biggest gift and the biggest source of power that anyone can have. Faith is what makes someone strong, helps one preserve his integrity, helps one persevere, to never be broken, no matter how harsh conditions may be. A faithful person will head towards God with constant repentance and that path and process can be also a source of happiness. There is a beautiful Armenian hymn recited during the Great Lent called Janabarh, The Path or The Way: “You, Christ, are the way and the truth and the life. Guide our souls from Earth to reach the heavens.”
Putting all these ideas together, I would like to conclude that happiness from the Christian point of view means to live under the presence of God, to have a direct connection to God, and as a result of that, to have a life where suffering is inseparable and a natural part of life, to have a clear conscience, to live not only for ourselves but also for others, and in the end, to prevail, “to overcome the world” as Jesus said, and in one phrase to experience the Kingdom of God while we are still here on the Earth.
Fr.Bedros Shetilian – OCP Articles