If you spend your life pursuing happiness, it will always elude you.
That’s counterintuitive. So, let me explain by way of a story.
I totally bombed a timed essay competition in high school. The topic was the American Dream.
Sister Charleen taught me to write. In her sophomore English class at St. Pius X, we handed in essays every week.
I was not especially disciplined about any of this. I frequently got to school only to remember in a panic that an essay was due that very morning. I would race the day’s start-bell to churn out the required word count.
Half way through the school year, Sister Charlene reminded us to turn in our journals. The journals that were supposed to contain our daily reflections. For the past several months. The journal that I had been completely blowing off.
I devoted an entire weekend to writing journal entries. To my credit, the first entry explained what I was doing. At a few points, all I could think to write was that I couldn’t think what to write.
These hurriedly scribbled weekly essays and doggedly recorded journal entries must have been agony to read. But Sister Charleen did read them. And responded to them. In detail.
She didn’t make corrections in red or mark out hair-brained errors. In the margins alongside ideas that energized me, she shared her thoughtful responses. Good turns of phrase caught her eye, and she was generous and instructive with her compliments.
The most critical thing she ever wrote was in response to one of the very last of those awful journal entries. She said, “I can tell you’re really getting tired now.”
So you can see why I felt like I had let her down when I completely tanked the essay competition that she had nominated me and one other student for.
He and I were placed in the same room at a shared table. The proctor started the clock, unsealed the envelope containing the secret theme, and handed us each a copy of the chosen topic.
What is the American Dream?
I drew a blank. A total zilch.
The guy next to me wrote furiously as soon as he got the question. I sat there staring at the blank page as Spring slowly turned to Summer. With each second I got more anxious and hoped more fervently that my fellow writer would succumb to a seizure or lose control of his bladder.
As the final gong approached, I started writing a disjointed jumble of lame ideas. At no point did I ever figure out what I was trying to say. I had nothing to write. I just had to write something.
When time was up, Charleen came in. She read both essays as we sat there before mailing them off to the judges. She clearly loved what he had written. Her smile and glittering eyes confirmed for me that he was a jerk and a swine.
The sympathetic look on her face as she read my word salad said, “I can tell you were really freaking out here.” At the time, I read her expression as disappointment. Years later I learned that she understood how rotten and defeated I felt. She yearned that I could see things—could see the world and myself—in a different light.
In retrospect, I realize it was my dread of failure that undid me that day. And to be honest, the fear of failure used to hold me captive and drive me mercilessly.
The required theme of that competition hooked me in a vulnerable spot. Like many people I had equated the American Dream with success. Our freedom to pursue happiness was a challenge to make somebody out of myself.
If you succeed, you are somebody. If you fail, you’re a loser. A nobody.
And I was already starting from a significant deficit. We were working class. My divorced single mother was a grocery cashier who lived with her parents. She and my grandparents were immigrants with sketchy English skills.
Some people dream of becoming billionaires or presidents, rock stars, big time athletes, or media celebrities. They strive to accumulate the wealth, wield the power, or win the admiration that will finally bring their soul to rest. Until then, life is a ceaseless striving to be something we aren’t yet. To arrive.
The problem is that you never really arrive so long as you understand that happiness is something to strive for and achieve:
Even when you’re a billionaire, there’s somebody with a few more billion or a taller hotel.
You can’t be everybody’s favorite president or always draw the biggest crowds, and eventually you’ll be out of office anyway.
All sports records get surpassed.
Even the most popular television shows are at the mercy of the current season’s ratings.
If you spend your life pursuing happiness, it will always elude you. You will become addicted to striving, fear being found out as a fraud, resent being unappreciated, and strike out at others to soothe your own misery.
I think Jesus was getting at something like this when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” I take “poor in spirit” to mean seeing the success dream for what it is. An illusion.
Somebody poor in spirit can write because writing is what you seem made to do. Publishing, getting good reviews, making the best seller lists is beside the point. People poor in spirit don’t write—construct buildings or assume public office or throw a ball—to make themselves somebody. They lose themselves in something they seem to have been made to do.
They don’t need to compete or compare themselves to others. They don’t spend enough time in front of the mirror to indulge in self-loathing. They lose themselves to become themselves.
And that’s where we meet God. To be blessed, it seems to me, is to be God-saturated. Or, as Jesus put it, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.