“How to Be Happy” – April 24, 2005

Opening Words – from Gilead By Marilynne Robinson

I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. . . It has
something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when
you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you
can¹t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness
of it. But this is truest of a face of an infant. I consider that to be one
kind of vision, as mystical as any.


How would you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do.

These words begin the children¹s poem, “The Swing” by Robert Louis
Stevenson. I remember my father reciting some of this classic poetry to me
more than I remember favorite children¹s stories. The words of Kipling and
Stevenson and Longfellow that my Dad probably heard as a boy, echo in my
memory, but now are mostly forgotten with the present generation of
children. It could be that Longfellow¹s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”
helped introduce me to a love for history. Stevenson¹s swing is one poem I
have continued to recite to my son Asher during the times when we have been
at the park together, and he has climbed onto the chain held, leg propelled
wonder ride known as the swing. What could make us more blissfully happy as
children than those carefree moments when we were swinging through life,
rhythmically moving back and forth.
Even if those moments of swinging were happy carefree ones, few of us
remember completely blissful childhoods. I see children today struggle with
their inability to read, or to perform in sports. The pressure to do well
or be perfect, or reflect exactly what our parents want all play a role in
making childhood less than pure happy bliss. Sometimes we adults fail to
understand or forget what we went through, as we mutter under our breaths
that we survived the stigmas of ridicule and failure at competition, and the
pressure to perform that made life challenging and anxiety driven for us,
too. So why can¹t these kids buck up? Of course childhood was never
completely happy for any of us. The memory many of us have is probably
mixed. We had fun hitting a baseball, but we may also remember the
indignity of striking out. We were told how great our art work was, but
also eventually learned that we had no real talent.
While the loving adult tried to tell us that it is the playing of the game
or the act of drawing itself that produces the happiness, we were never
completely reassured, or free enough to believe it. And yet sometimes we
could just swing, away from the pressures of competing and judging eyes.
If only we could swing all day. That sounds like a formula for
happiness. But it is a fantasy. As happy as it makes us feel, it is a
solitary act, and it can rain, and after a while even constant swinging
makes us dizzy. We learn in life that you cannot be blissful all the time.
Yet many of us grow up thinking there is a formula for happiness, as my
sermon title, “How to Be Happy” implies. On the day of a child dedication,
our thoughts also turn to our wishes and hopes for this child, and naturally
we say, may you have a happy life. But what does that mean? Each of us
probably thought that some combination of good education, a long term
relationship, meaningful work, and perhaps children would bring us happiness
as adults. Perhaps some of us would throw in where we would live, owning
property or lots of friends as elements in our formula of creating
happiness. The point is many of us develop this precise formula of what
will bring us happiness. If we have a firm idea of what it takes for us to
be happy, then we will never be happy until we have filled the necessary
blanks on our happiness chart. Those who grew up thinking they could never
be happy unless they had children may be miserable if they discover as
adults that they are not likely to have them. In some instances some of us
get more than what we wished for! The point is none of us can create a
preconceived notion of what will bring happiness, and then be happy or not
based on whether we have filled in the blanks.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that if we are committed to
one idea of happiness, then we are going to get caught. The person who does
this may end up unhappy their whole life. If we don¹t have a long term
relationship with the particular person we thought would fulfill us, we may
never be able to find another relationship that we feel is as good. We may
pine for the relationship that never was, or that was suppose to make us
happy, but for whatever reason, did not do so. And there are many
circumstances that may derail our happiness formula, and end the
relationship. So the first step in having a plan for a happy life, is to
not have a plan or detailed formula of what you are convinced will give you
happy life. There are many ways to be happy, but a formula may catch you
both ways in a life of unhappiness. If you simply must fulfill all the
happiness requirements, you may find that you are not able to, due to time,
circumstance, or other events of life. Then you are stuck. On the other
hand, you might fill all your happiness categories, and still find yourself
unhappy. Then you are stuck. The plan for happiness must be broad and open
and welcoming of life.
The idea of having a plan for creating a happy life makes us ponder what
would be the basic conditions of happiness for us. Both liberal religion and
the ethos of American culture have emphasized happiness as central to their
focus and purpose. When Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence he
outlined the purpose of our existence as life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness. Here he substituted happiness for John Locke¹s third element in
this trinity which was property. Even prior to this the liberal preacher
Jonathan Mayhew said that the purpose of government is the happiness of its
citizens – a happy enjoyment of life, liberty and property. America was
seen as a special land where it was expected people could attain happiness.
This was a reflection of the idea of endless opportunity. Yet there was
always a tension between acquisition and striving for more, and the pure
enjoyment of life and its gifts. Hawthorne equated happiness to the
butterfly. When it is pursued it always seems to dart out of our reach, but
when we sit quiet it may alight upon us. Was happiness found in individual
gain, or in social amelioration? Was it found in transcending the world or
in material gain?
There was also this tension in religious faith. Here liberal religion
made the clear choice between the joy that is found in anticipating a life
in heaven or in obeying the will of God, versus a savoring of the wonders of
this world. Liberals declared we must do all we can to make this world more
beautiful and more just for all. Universalists very clearly declared that
God was not trying to magnify God¹s own glory, but rather desired the
happiness of human creatures. God wants everybody to be happy. The
religious question was how to achieve this happiness. Last week I suggested
that the tiredness we may feel is equated with sameness, and that new
adventures that excite us may lessen our feelings of exhaustion. I did not
mean that change alone will make you happy. In fact most of us will not
make radical changes in the place we live or in what we do for work. The
question is how we make the life we already have into a happy one. What do
we do with what swings before us in our lives. In his second stanza about
the swing, Stevenson writes: Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside –

How do we respond to the countryside of life that opens before us? If a
preconceived plan will not bring happiness, neither will change from our
present state of unhappiness. Far too often we come to believe that
happiness will follow from changing our present circumstances. We believe
our unhappiness is caused by the present job or the present partner, and
everything will become better once we get rid of the fountain of our
unhappiness. Benjamin Whichcote once wrote: “It is impossible for a man to
be made happy by putting him in a happy place, unless he be first in a happy
state.” It is commonly held that we are miserable because we live in a
particular place. but a more attractive city like San Francisco, or a more
romantic city such as Paris will reinvigorate us. The key to happiness then
is changing something outside of ourselves, and this is coupled with the
belief that changing the outward circumstances will change the internal
unhappiness. This path to happiness does not require any effort on our part
other than changing our surroundings. In the first instance of the correct
notions that cause happiness we believe we are unhappy because the right
things – job or relationship – have not happened to us. In the second
instance, we believe that different surroundings – new job or relationships
– will make us happy. It is always about something outside of us. William
Blake once wrote, “Perhaps the happiest people are those who are not, or
hardly ever, concerned about themselves. “
We commonly suppose that those who have difficult lives will be unhappy.
We think that I was jilted in a relationship, or I lost a loved one, or I
have a serious illness, and therefore, the result of this difficult
circumstance is that what small amount of happiness I had attained is now
lost because of this misery. Yet unhappiness has nothing to do with
difficult circumstances. People have often wondered how can someone with MS
have a sunny disposition? While there may not be any scientific basis for a
positive outlook being typical of people who suffer from MS, it does not
necessarily follow from a serious illness that the person is going to be
miserable all the time. While we all have different coping mechanisms, we
also can make life choices as to how we allocate our attention in the face
of major life challenges. The person with MS, for example, faces a serious
physical disability, but this does not mean they cannot enjoy books, art,
friends, good food, and other wonderful gifts that life brings us. It all
comes down to what you want to focus on in the circumstances you have been
given. Even for those with a severe disability or illness, we find aspects
of our life that bring happiness, help us understand others, or understand
human existence in deeper ways than we ever thought possible. If we suffer
a loss we can allocate all of our emotional energy and focus on how
miserable we are, or how we cannot go on alone, or how the world has
victimized us, or we can find, even over time, that we have received some
enormous gifts of life and love in the context of the life we have.
Stevenson leaves us with the third verse of the Swing:
“Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown –
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down.”

Life send us up in the air, swinging through circumstances of joy and
sorrow, up and down, until we find the happiness we can attain in the gifts
we have received. How can we find the greatest degree of happiness? The
Universalists said that in God¹s desire to see you happy, you are already
saved. Their message is we must become aware of the blessings of living
that are already ours. Happiness is not found in seeking more, or in
saying, if only I had this … but in letting Hawthorne¹s butterfly alight
on what goodness is yours, and claiming the happiness you have. Clearly
letting go of those outward circumstances – those notions, those people that
were suppose to give us happiness, in our plan, or in our changes, but did
not, will help us look to where we can find happiness within, but most
especially in the wonders and joys we have been given in spite of our trials
of sorrow and pain. The act we have performed this morning helps reminds us
of this. It is reiterated in the reading from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Traditional theology has sometimes besmirched the beauty and happiness
that life could embrace by condemning our fellow travelers with such notions
as original sin, and then inventing schemes like baptism to wash them clean.
By this method they can choose the worthiness of some over others, and offer
true happiness in an after life to those chosen ones, while condemning the
rest of the race, who only want to enjoy the sweetness of life through its
bounty, its beauty, and its gifts of love. Gilead reminds us that a baptism
is not that traditional effort to make others unhappy with their
unworthiness, but rather is the opportunity each one of us has to confer a
blessing on another person. The minister who narrates the long letter to
his son in Gilead, John Ames. says that baptism does not enhance sacredness,
but acknowledges it. No church makes the lives in this creation any more
sacred than any other. We believe lives are all sacred equally. Happiness
then lies in acknowledging sacredness. I suspect we could call this
Today we hold the life of this child before you. We say, have a happy
life. Some of us may think of degrees or high paying jobs, or being blessed
with children. It is good to have meaningful work, enhancing the life of
our minds, and being able to love others, but ultimately his happiness or
yours or mine will probably not be determined by external criteria – how
well we have filled out our chart of notions, or if we change our
circumstances. No, it will be on whether he loves the world. I mean all the
world. He will be happy if he finds joy in laughing with others, and in
creating a picture, or in singing, or writing, or speaking words of
compassion. He will be happy if the world is beautiful to him, and there is
a magical, unfathomable source of energy that seems to give it a common life
of eternal power that we see in a sparkling set of baby eyes, a smile, a
river¹s raging springtime torrent, a little crocus that fights the cold to
live. He will be happy if he knows that life is a joy, and it is up to us to
confer that joy and blessing on each other in as many moments of existence
as we can. It is a magical joy that Marcos is here. And a magical joy that
you are here. Happiness is finding joy in living.

How would you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do.

Closing Words – ”Happiness” by Mary Oliver

In the afternoon I watched
the she-bear; she was looking
for the secret bin of sweetness —
honey, that the bees store
in the trees¹ soft caves.
Black block of gloom, she climbed down
tree after tree and shuffled on
through the woods. And then
she found it! The honey-house deep
as heartwood, and dipped into it
among the swarming bees — honey and comb
she lipped and tongued and scooped out
in her black nails, until

maybe she grew full, or sleepy, or maybe
a little drunk, and sticky
down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.
I saw her let go of the branches,
I saw her lift her honeyed muzzle
into the leaves, and her thick arms,
as though she would fly–
an enormous bee
all sweetness and wings —
down into the meadows, the perfection
of honeysuckle and roses and clover —
to float and sleep in the sheer nets
swaying from flower to flower
day after shining day.