Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Happiness (Page 3 of 3)

Information overload

information overloadIf ever we had a case of that in human history it is in these days of the world wide web. No wonder it has been coined the information superhighway. We have so much information, and knowledge beyond measure. But is it good for us? Has it made us a better society? Surely the internet has brought untold benefits to humankind. Witness the use of social media in the Arab spring, and how human rights abuses are brought to light so much more quickly these days. There are less places to hide for those who would perpetrate such hideous crimes.

But what do we say about the value of the glut of information we now have literally at our fingertips? Alister McGrath, in his book, Surprised by Meaning, quotes the poet Edna St Vincent Millay who spoke of a “meteoric shower of facts” raining from the sky. Millay, McGrath says, points out that we are overwhelmed with information but we cannot make sense of the “shower of facts” with which we are bombarded. McGrath goes on to say, “confronted with a glut of information that we cannot process, we find ourselves living on the brink of incoherence and meaninglessness.” He then gives the clincher: “information is not the same as meaning, nor is knowledge identical with wisdom.” For an intellectually-minded person like me, that is something I need constant reminding of.

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What Will People Say at Your Funeral? – updated

martin-luther-king-funeral-processionSpeaking to some family members on the weekend, one of them spoke about their brother who had just recovered from prostate cancer. We also talked about someone else in their 50s who had recently succumbed to breast cancer and how she left behind a husband and children who were traumatised by it all.

The conversation turned then to how life catches up with all of us. We all go the same way in the end. From dust we arose and to dust we return. It made me think about what sort of person I want to be remembered as. It also made me think about what sort of society we want to have for those who come after us.

As I think about our comfort, complacency and apathy, particularly about how much we grumble in this country despite being the richest country in the world, I think of the movie The Hunger Games. In that story, people are so satiated that they have lost all sense of morality and sense of compassion for others. They happily go to the games and have no idea what is happening to the disadvantaged in their own city.

The same is true of us. The idea of leaving a legacy in our lives seems a distant memory, and not even a memory for most of us. We are so busy trying to be happy in our lives that very few of us think about what sort of world we want to leave our children. If asked, most people would say that of course they want to leave a better world for those who come next. But we don’t stop to ponder anymore. We have forgotten what it’s like to take time to stop and smell the roses.

Are we so consumed with pleasure that we have forgotten what gave us the good life in the first place? Do we really believe that there is any value in taking time to stop and think and ponder about life? Or do we blindly and unthinkingly accept the mantra that what really matters is the economy, that the key to having a good society is having a strong economy? I suspect most of us do when it all boils down to it.

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Some post-Christmas thoughts

Source:’ve shared at different times about the insanity of how rushed we are in December each year in the lead-up to Christmas. It’s sadly ironic that the time of Advent – which covers most of December – is designed to be a time of reflection when we have turned it into the most stressful time of the year.

Having time to sit and reflect is good for our emotional and mental health, as well as our spiritual health. We are more rounded, whole people when we spend time doing these things. And we are invariably happier as well. The fact in Australis is though that, as a nation, we spent $8billion on Christmas and $14billion on post-Christmas sales.

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Reflections on 9/11 – Happiness and Hope


This is the second of my reflections on 9/11. The first one is available here.

Study after study has shown that money does not make us happy, and, in Australian society, once you own more than about $100,000 any amount over that won’t increase your happiness. Yet despite this we are still offered, and we still enter, lotto draws that offer such incredible amounts of money, believing that ‘life could be a dream.’ And studies show that lotto draws are becoming more popular among Australians. If this is not addiction then I don’t know what is.

The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says ‘we realised were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.’ For the addict, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The thing we are doing over and over is trying to get rich, and the different result we are expecting – which goes against all the evidence – is that it will be different for us. If our culture was in a 12 Step program, we wouldn’t be at Step 1, which is the acknowledgment that we have a problem. We are a culture in denial. As well as the fact that study after study shows that money doesn’t make us happy, we now know that since the end of the Second World War, the rate of depression in Western countries has risen tenfold. Materially we are the richest people in the history of humanity, and we have ten times the rate of depression to show for it.

But as I mentioned above, don’t misunderstand this. This is about finding life, not making us all feel guilty and miserable. Jesus came to give us life and life in all its fullness. It’s about a better way, a way that is life-giving, but not the way we are told is life-giving. The way that really is life-giving often feels like the way to unhappiness and death.

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Reflections on 9/11 – The Last Days of Mohamed Atta

Over the next 3 days I will be reflecting on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The events of that terrible day reveal some fascinating insights into our Western contradictions, hope, happiness and what really matters in life. Today’s post is called ‘The Last Days of Mohamed Atta’ (Atta was of course one of the hijackers). 

In his latest book, The Road Trip that Changed the World, Mark Sayers talks about the contradictions we all live with. He uses the very revealing example of the 9/11 hijackers and their exploits in the days before they slammed planes into icons of what they saw as Western decadence. Here is what Sayers says:

[vimeo ]

The extraordinary actions of the hijackers highlights for me, not just the contradictions of our lives, but the confusion and deception we all buy into, whether or not we are aware of them (and mostly I don’t think we are aware).

All humans want to be happy. To quote an unlikely source – current Collingwood AFL coach Nathan Buckley – we all want to feel good. And our culture drums the message into us that a certain type of lifestyle will bring us the happiness we all crave. As M. Scott Peck said, we are people of the lie. In this case it is the lie that possessions will fill the void within.

In The Road Trip that Changed the World, Sayers goes on to talk about the consumer Christianity which has become so dominant in The US and in Australia. Relevant Magazine recently had an article questioning whether or not we would still follow Jesus if your life didn’t get any better. Here is a penetrating quote from the article:

“If we’re not careful, we inadvertently imply that if one only focuses enough on Jesus, one’s circumstances will get better, and better, and oh-so infinitely better.” This is the subtle promise of much Christianity today. If it is not straight out prosperity teaching, where the idea is that God has a plan for you to be fabulously rich and beautiful, then it is something more subtle where the idea is that God will ‘bless’ you when you serve him. And ‘blessing’ implies that things will go well for you.”

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The Way of meaning

My wife and I saw the movie The Way last night. It’s a wonderful story that portrays the unbreakable fatherly love of Tom (Martin Sheen) for his estranged and just deceased son, Daniel. In learning that his son has just been killed on his first day on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) in France, Tom travels over to collect Daniel’s body. While there though, he is suddenly hit by the magnitude of his loss and decides to make the trek himself that his son had set out to do.

This is a story of redemption and the search for meaning. Richard Rohr says that the soul can live without success but it cannot live without meaning. This is something I have been thinking about a bit recently. If we spend our lives dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, or money, or status, we will be forever coming up short. We will remain in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction and never be happy, or else we will become satisfied with a life of mediocrity and never reach the potential we all have.

As Tom goes on his journey he comes across some characters that he would never choose to have as friends in his cosy Californian lifestyle back home. There is Joost from Amsterdam, Sarah from Canada, and the stereotypically Irishman, Jack. What we don’t see so much of in this story is the change in these latter three characters, but we see it in spades in Tom. Older than the others, he gradually thaws from a frozen, aloof and even arrogant man to learning to enjoy the company and care of his three new travelling companions. His journey reveals that he is not only deeply affected by the loss of his son, but also by the love and warmth of these three strangers in his midst.

Meaning is something we all strive for, whether we realise it or not. Most of the time though, we are so satiated by the entertainment saturation of our culture that we don’t recognise the void within our souls. Walter Brueggemann explains this eloquently in his book The Prophetic Imagination. It is often only when we are confronted with the type of terrible loss that Tom is faced with that we see our need for change. As Tom continues on his pilgrimage, the frown on his face softens, and he learns to get into life and smile more often. The real change though comes after an encounter with a gypsy family, one of whom runs off with Tom’s backpack (which contains the ashes of his son). The much-maligned gypsies, defined stereotypically by theft and deceit, show Tom what community and relationship is about. In one revealing conversation between Tom and the father of the boy who stole Tom’s pack, the father explains that up to 2,000 people attend gyspy weddings. Surprised, Tom points out that they couldn’t all be close family or friends. He is shocked however when the father explains to him that they are indeed all close. These gypsies know what community is all about.

As Tom continues on the way, he is occasionally struck with images of his deceased son, and reminded of the admonition his son once gave to him, that you don’t choose a life, you live it. We only get one chance at this thing called life; this is not a dress rehearsal. We are thrown into it at birth and expected to make the best of it, hopefully with all the love and support we need. As my wife pointed out to me, choosing our life is a very Western idea. Most people in the world don’t get to choose their life, and many don’t even get to live it. But our attitudes towards life are something that no one can take from us. It is amazing what those who have been through the most immense suffering can teach us in the West about how to live our lives. I think of people like Viktor Frankl, stuck for years in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. Frankl of course didn’t choose that life, but he has much to say to us about it , especially in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

One of my greatest fears in life is that I will end up like Tom’s three new friends at the end of The Way. In the end, they didn’t change. Joost decided he wasn’t going to lose weight after all, Sarah was never going to give up her cancer sticks, and Jack seems to remain stuck in his mediocre life. We are too comfortable here. Australia is the second most wealthy country in the world, yet we seem to have the least in terms of meaning to our lives. Many would dispute this of course, as many find their meaning in their devotion to daily and friends. But beneath all of that we are sold the lie that life is found in more stuff. Advertisers deliberately create a dissatisfaction within us by telling us that we will never be happy until we buy their products. So we walk through life perpetually unhappy and comparing ourselves to others. The sin of covetousness is alive and well in 21st century Australia. That is not an indictment on the Australian public, but I think of Jesus’ warning: “woe to those who cause others to sin.” Advertisers, hear the warning.

The human soul cannot function without something to live for. And as John Mellencamp sang so many years ago, if we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything. Our life needs to mean something, and if we are constantly entertained, if we constantly live for the weekends or for the next holiday (as legitimate as these are in themselves), we will remain forever dissatisfied. For real change to take place, we need to be aware of the dissatisfaction in our souls with the way things are. We also need to have a vision for a better alternative, and to have people around us who are yearning for the same thing. This is what Jesus meant when he said that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions” (Mark 10:29-30). Contrary to what prosperity ‘gospel’ preachers may say, this passage is not at all about Jesus saying that we will gain a fortune in houses for ourselves when we follow Jesus. That is a purely individualistic way of looking at it. Jesus was talking about community. When we follow him, we gain the hospitality of other pilgrims on the way, as the first Christians showed.

Tom found meaning on The Way of St James (interestingly, it is James who has the most dire warnings to those who want to be rich in the early church). He began to know again what life was about. He could relate to the God of Jesus in knowing what it was like to lose a son. His pain drove him to become a better person. He didn’t push it down or try to drown it in short-term pleasures which would only leave him more unsatisfied later on. He found a deeper magic, found the things that really matter like relationship, community, and the joys that come from sharing life and its struggles in true intimacy with others on the rough road that is often life. There is a revealing scene in another poignant movie, Up in the Air, when George Clooney’s character is trying to talk his future brother-in-law out of bailing out of his upcoming wedding. He asks his future brother-in-law to think about the fondest memories of his life, and then points out that the are always ones that were spent with others. Our fondest memories are rarely ones we experienced alone. Our best times are with loved ones, as they would be for a species like us that is wired for relationship. It just makes sense that our most enjoyable moments are the ones for which we were made.

The Way probably wasn’t the best movie I have ever seen, but it definitely had an emotional impact on me. It touched something deeper, something raw, something which we all know deep down is what we are really about. Relationship does that; it resonates with everyone. The saying certainly is true that while we can live without success, we cannot live without meaning. May I further realise that on my continuing journey on the way.

The Brain on Love

The New York Times recently had an insightful article on how love affects the brain. To me this is further evidence that we seem to be wired for love. Consider some of the quotes from the article:

  • “What we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.”
  • “All relationships change the brain — but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.”
  • “A wealth of imaging studies highlight, the neural alchemy continues throughout life as we mature and forge friendships, dabble in affairs, succumb to romantic love, choose a soul mate. The body remembers how that oneness with Mother felt, and longs for its adult equivalent.”
  • “Scientific studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom,” Dr. Siegel says, “point to supportive relationships as the most robust predictor of these positive attributes in our lives across the life span.” The supportive part is crucial. Loving relationships alter the brain the most significantly.”
  • “Through lovemaking, or when we pass along a flu or a cold sore, we trade bits of identity with loved ones, and in time we become a sort of chimera. We don’t just get under a mate’s skin, we absorb him or her.” (I would add that this is why casual sex is so destructive; the more we indulge, the more we lose our identity; we don’t know who we are – Nils)
  • “As imaging studies by the U.C.L.A. neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger show, the same areas of the brain that register physical pain are active when someone feels socially rejected.”
  • “A happy marriage relieves stress and makes one feel as safe as an adored baby.”

And perhaps the most profound:

  • “I saw the healing process up close after my 74-year-old husband, who is also a writer, suffered a left-hemisphere stroke that wiped out a lifetime of language. All he could utter was “mem.” Mourning the loss of our duet of decades, I began exploring new ways to communicate, through caring gestures, pantomime, facial expressions, humor, play, empathy and tons of affection — the brain’s epitome of a safe attachment. That, plus the admittedly eccentric home schooling I provided, and his diligent practice, helped rewire his brain to a startling degree, and in time we were able to talk again, he returned to writing books, and even his vision improved. The brain changes with experience throughout our lives; it’s in loving relationships of all sorts — partners, children, close friends — that brain and body really thrive.”
  • “During idylls of safety, when your brain knows you’re with someone you can trust, it needn’t waste precious resources coping with stressors or menace. Instead it may spend its lifeblood learning new things or fine-tuning the process of healing. Its doors of perception swing wide open. The flip side is that, given how vulnerable one then is, love lessons — sweet or villainous — can make a deep impression. Wedded hearts change everything, even the brain.”

Love impacts every part of our lives for the better. Knowing that we are loved, and living a life of love, is good for us. As we remember Love personified at Easter, I want to live more like that Love.

Plugging into life

In a day when everyone is connected, there is more evidence that we are actually more disconnected than ever. Our greatest human need is for a different kind of connection – connection with the other, but most importantly, connection with the Other. Star-struck lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, longing to be one with each other; in our Western culture, when we engage in conversation, we know when someone is listening when they are looking into our eyes; and when you want someone’s attention, you try to find eye contact. Richard Rohr also talks about a connection with animals. It is not for nothing that we call a dog our best friend. Many elderly people live much healthier lives for having a dog as a companion in their lives. Rohr talks about looking into the eyes of an animal like a dog and sensing a connection with another creature of the universe.

Much of our behaviour, in fact I would probably argue all of it, is a symptom of our desire for connection. Whether our behaviour be good or evil, it is all about our desire to find life, to transcend the purely physical part of our existence. Years ago, John Smith emphasised that the Rolling Stones song Satisfaction was not about sex and trying to ‘get some girly action’ at all, but about a frustration at not finding something deeper. U2 sang about not having found what they were looking for – in their own lives and in the injustice in the world – despite ‘believing in the kingdom come’. Believers in God or not, we long for something more. Our lives are about trying to find a connection with something higher, something greater than ourselves. And the fact is we will never find it fully until that day when all things are renewed and there will be no more striving after futile things. We look through a glass darkly; now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor 13:12).

Our problem with our desire for connection though is that we often do it by trying to find our self in someone else. We get married believing that our spouse is there to fulfill all our emotional needs, and when he or she doesn’t, we get disillusioned and look elsewhere. The next relationship is sure to fail as well until we come to realise that it is not about finding the right person but being the right person. I am so thankful for an older male pointing this out to me back in my 20s. In our desire for love and connection, we go too far and use other people. Jonathan Burnside says ‘the essence of a perverted relationship is getting information about someone else, and then working out what I want to do, so I get what I want’. I am getting better at not doing this but I still do it way too often.

We are inherently selfish people. We live as if it is my way or the highway. We actually believe at times that if everyone would just do things my way the world would be a much better place. But this only leads to more disillusionment. It has been said that you only get disillusioned if you have illusions to begin with. How true is that? What disillusionment then gives birth to is resentment. Someone else has said that ‘expectation is the mother of resentment’. We expect someone else to behave in a certain way, and when they inevitably don’t, we get resentful at them. Who do we think we are? I have found that to be true time and time again in my life. You would think I would have learnt it enough by now that it would have sunk in. But no, when I have my own expectations of what I want to do on a particular weekend at home and my wife tells me her thoughts, that old feeling of resentment kicks in yet again.

The word ‘resent’ actually means to re-experience pain. A friend of mine has said that resentment is the poison I drink to kill someone else. When you think of what is going on when we are feeling resentment towards someone, it’s maddening isn’t it? We are actually choosing to go back and feel the pain of the anger again and again. Often the person we are feeling the resentment towards doesn’t even know about it. Yet we still have the attitude of ‘I’ll show them!’. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

The human desire for connection is a curious thing. We desire more than anything to be close to someone but at the same time we so often choose to lock ourselves away in isolation and separateness from the ones closest to us. Resentment is a classic way of doing this. The old saying that it is the ones we love the most who we hurt the most is as true as anything that has ever been uttered. The irony is that in trying to connect, we actually willingly disconnect, depriving the other person of ourselves. It is then that we are often tempted to misconnect with another in an inappropriate and destructive way. I talked about this in my previous post on affairs.

Our desire to connect is often masked as a desire to find happiness. Our society is built around the individual’s desire or even demand to be happy. Our advertising is specifically designed to create artificial desires in us to make us consume products we believe we actually need. How often do we wonder how we ever got by without mobile phones or without email. But the fact is we did, and quite nicely (don’t get me wrong; I am not knocking mobile phones or email. They are wonderful inventions, but, like anything, if relied upon inappropriately, they will inevitably disappoint). In trying to find happiness in life, we often seek connection in a misconnection. That which we think will solve all our problems actually turns out to make us feel more apart from and more isolated.

I wonder what all this says about what we really believe about life? When we choose a direction that is so clearly not constructive for our relationships, I wonder if the truth has ever made that longest of journeys from our head to our heart. It is possible to believe something intellectually, to ‘know’ it in your head, but not have a deep conviction about it. It is only when a truth is lodged deeply in our heart that we really know it. Deep down we all have a longing for relationship, ultimately a relationship with God. It is the essence of who we are. We are made by a God who is in his very being, relationship. That’s why coming to faith in Christ often feels like a coming home. When I had an experience of this in my late teens, my overriding sense was that this is what I’ve been looking for all my life. Not that I had often even been consciously aware of it. But when I found it, it was like one of those ‘a-ha’ moments when I had a realisation of something I had always known. It was a bit like the scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke Skywalker tells Leia that she is his sister, and she looks into the distance and quietly exclaims “I know. Somehow…I’ve always known.”

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does our soul. We simply cannot survive with our souls unplugged, just hanging out in the nothingness of a seemingly empty universe. Our human desire is to be plugged into life and love. When we love we have a clearer sense of what life is all about. It is then that we find what our souls have been looking for all our lives. It is then that we know joy, in humility and submission. It is about surrendering our ego, our arrogance, and our self-sufficiency. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Jesus bid those who are weary and heavy-laden to come to him and find rest for their souls. This is where we find life, in resting in him and finding out how to live right. When Martin Luther King asked a colleague on one of their freedom marches if she was tired, this old lady said calmly, “my feets is tired but my soul is rested.” She was plugged into life. She had found her true connection, and she was living the dream. God help me to do the same each day.

The wages of wealth is fear

I just saw this story of the sisters in the USA who made the trip to Idaho to claim their $1million winnings with their ticket locked in a fireproof safe. Is this wealth producing happiness? The more we have the more we fear that someone is going to take it from us. Check out the story here.

Some interesting findings on happiness

The ever-valuable ABC website had some interesting stories recently on happiness and how we can achieve what seems so elusive, despite us having seemingly everything in our power in the 21st century to grasp it.

The first ‘finding’ was that, surprise, surprise, looking to others more than ourselves makes us happy. These are the findings of the Happiness Institute. Yes, we even have a think-tank devoted to this deepest of human yearnings. Dr. Tim Sharp, founder of the Happiness Institute, says that thinking about the happiness of others is the key to finding it ourselves.

The next article is another encouraging one, because it comes from none other than the head of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. He recently advised university students not to pursue careers solely to become wealthy. He also “urged students to make time for their family and friends and to contribute to the wider community”.

I love the fact that we have institutions like the ABC that promote these sorts of findings and statements from those with some sort of authority. Because you wouldn’t think what Tim Sharp and Ben Bernanke were saying was true at all if you looked at the rest of the media. Jesus made the Good Samaritan the hero of that great story and tells us to go and do likewise. As well as this, he warns against the trappings of wealth. Tim Sharp and Ben Bernanke are in good company.

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