Posts tagged ‘Selflessness’

The Pursuit of Something Greater Than Happiness

I’ve heard it more than once from someone who feels weighted down by life’s doldrums: “I just want to be happy.”  Happiness, it seems, is many people’s decisive goal and good.  And who can blame them?  Our nation has as its sacrosanct trinity life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We hold it as self-evident that we should be able to do whatever makes us happy.

But this begs the question:  What does make us happy?

If you believe behavioral scientist Paul Dolan, being a single woman without children is a highway to happiness that too few have travelled.  In an article for The Guardian, Sian Cain reports:

We may have suspected it already, but now the science backs it up: unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population.  And they are more likely to live longer than their married and child-rearing peers, according to a leading expert in happiness …

Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, said the latest evidence showed that the traditional markers used to measure success did not correlate with happiness – particularly marriage and raising children.

The article goes on to explain that men benefit from marriage more than women, mainly because men take fewer risks, earn more money, and live longer when married.  Conversely, women who are never married, according to Professor Dolan’s research, are healthier and live longer than women who are married.

On their face, Professor Dolan’s conclusions sound open and shut.  But the waters become muddied as the article continues:

The study found that levels of happiness reported by those who were married was higher than the unmarried, but only when their spouse was in the room.  Unmarried individuals reported lower levels of misery than married individuals who were asked when their spouse was not present.

Other studies have measured some financial and health benefits in being married for both men and women on average, which Dolan said could be attributed to higher incomes and emotional support, allowing married people to take risks and seek medical help.

Wait.  What?  So it’s not that unmarried women are happier than married women per se, it’s that they’re less miserable?  Less misery does not equate to being happy any more than having fewer cancer cells after chemotherapy equates to being healthy.  Moreover, other studies show, as this article admits, that marriage does bring certain benefits, including better health.  So, which is it?  Are unmarried women healthier or sicklier?  Are they better off or worse off?  The evidence, at best, seems inconclusive, which means that one can’t help but wonder whether Professor Dolan is following the evidence or manipulating it as he formulates his conclusions.

Beyond the evidentiary and interpretive questions surrounding Professor Dolan’s study, there is an even larger philosophical question we must consider:  Should happiness really be our goal?  I’m not arguing that happiness is not good; I’m just not sure it’s ultimate.  Many of history’s most compelling figures – from Socrates to Joan of Arc to Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Tubman to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Winston Churchill to Jesus Christ – sacrificed personal happiness for lasting impact.  Dionysus, it turns out, may be a great addition to life, but if you make him the goal of life, you might just forfeit the very happiness he purports to promise.

C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, personifies Eros, which is romantic and sensual love, as saying, “Better to be miserable with her than happy without her.  Let our hearts break provided they break together.”  Sometimes, misery that loves its company is better than happiness that is shallowly self-indulgent.  And this is true not just of erotic love, but of every kind of love.  Just ask the parent who stands by a wayward and wily child or the child who cares for an aging and ailing parent.  They will testify to the righteousness of and strange fulfillment that comes from a willingness to endure misery for the sake of love.

The biblical word for love that endures misery is “longsuffering.”  God is willing, the Bible says, to suffer long with His rebellious people because He loves them.  And in Jesus, He is willing even to suffer long for His rebellious people because He loves them.

Hopefully, your love is not miserable.  In fact, if it is, I would encourage you to seek help.  Just because love that is willing to endure misery can be good doesn’t mean that it is.  Have someone speak into your life who can tell you candidly whether the misery you’re experiencing is nobly selfless or just plain stupid.  With this being said, I am thankful that I have a Savior who was willing to be miserable on a cross for me.  That, oddly enough, brings me great happiness – and thankfulness.

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June 3, 2019 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Hurricane Harvey and Human Selflessness

The news in the wake of Hurricane Harvey just seems to get worse.  18 counties in Texas have been declared federal disaster areas.  Meteorologists are calling the flooding in Houston a 500-year event, though they admit that, by the time all is said and done, the effects of this storm may be closer to a 1,000-year event, or perhaps even bigger. In Beaumont, a toddler was found was shivering in the water, clinging to her drowned mother.  Scenes and stories like this are simply heartbreaking.

Of course, for every heartbreaking story, there are hundreds of heartwarming stories.  The picture below shows Cathy Pham, holding her sleeping baby, being carried to safety by a member of the Houston SWAT Team.

Then there was Spiderman who took some time to visit some of the children who were sheltering at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Images like these have made many people wonder out loud: Why can’t we always act this compassionately toward each other?  Why can’t we put the differences that normally divide us aside and come together like the Coastal Bend, Houston, and the Golden Triangle have?

On the one hand, it’s important to remember that the selflessness we see demonstrated in tragedies like these is not quite as universal as it can first appear.  Disasters bring out the best in many.  But they also bring out the worst in some.  From looters looking to pillage the possessions of displaced homeowners and damaged businesses to storm chasers who run from disaster zone to disaster zone trying to turn a quick profit off of beleaguered survivors by overcharging for a service and performing it poorly, or, sometimes, even not at all, there are still plenty of slick characters who will gladly trade the virtue of altruism for a windfall from opportunism.

In an article for Slate that has been widely criticized, Katy Waldman offers a somewhat cynical take on the staying power of human goodness, writing:

Humans may possess inherent goodness, but that goodness needs to be activated. Some signal has to disperse the cloud of moral Novocain around us. Some person, or fire, or flood, has got to say: now.

Ms. Waldman has serious doubts whether the goodness we see now in Texas can last beyond the storm.  The selflessness we’ve seen, she says, has only been activated by the terrible trials people have had to endure.  Once the trials pass, selflessness will ebb.  Sadly, she might be right.  But she doesn’t have to be.

One of the most compelling stories in the Bible is that of Job.  Job was a man who had it all, and then lost it all – his house, his cattle, his children, and even his health.  Job’s story recounts his struggle to come to terms with God’s faithfulness and providence in the midst of his suffering.  Throughout his terrible ordeal, Job maintains that he has done nothing to deserve the calamities that have befallen him, even boldly demanding to speak with God to protest his circumstances: “I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God” (Job 13:3). Throughout Jobs’ protestations, however, God remains silent – until He doesn’t.

At the end of the book, God speaks:

Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures My plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell Me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:1-7)

God’s basic point to Job is that even when life feels unfair and God seems either absent or incompetent, He is neither.  God really does know what He’s doing.  He really does have a plan.  And He really is quite competent at running the universe, for He put the universe together in the first place.

What is especially important for our purposes, however, is not only what God says to Job, but where God says it: “Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  Job’s stringent sufferings have constituted a personal storm of epic proportions.  But God has been there with him in the storm the whole time.  Out of the storm, God speaks.

What was true of Job’s storm is true of Hurricane Harvey.  With so much human suffering on display in the headlines and on our television screens, it can be tempting to think God is either absent or incompetent.  But He is neither.  God is in the storm.  This is why, for all the suffering we see, we see even more selflessness.  God is in the storm, leading people to help each other through the storm.

This is also why Ms. Waldman’s contention that when a storm subsides, selflessness wanes doesn’t have to ring true.  Human selflessness in the midst of extraordinary suffering is not a result of suffering, but a gift from God.  Suffering may be a vehicle through which God reveals human selflessness, but suffering itself is not the source of human selflessness.  God in the storm – and not the storm itself – is the true source of our selflessness.  And though God is in the storm, He is also beyond the storm.  He will be there when the floods of Harvey have dried and the recovery and reconstruction projects have reached completion.  Which means that the kind of selflessness that has been so beautifully on display in this storm can last long beyond this storm.

Hurricane Harvey has put on display the divine gift of human selflessness.  And we have liked what we’ve seen.  So let’s make sure this precious gift doesn’t go back into hiding once Harvey fades from our headlines.  After all, if places like Houston can be wonderful because of people even when things are terrible because of weather, imagine what things could look like on a sunny day.

I’d love to see.

September 4, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Why Children Are More Than a Drag

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In our household, I am the one who usually gives our kids their baths.  And last week, while I had them both in the bath one evening, my daughter decided it would be fun to start hitting her daddy – playfully, but strangely forcefully – while my son was fussing loudly in his infant tub because he had just filled his diaper.

Ah, the perils of parenting.  Yes, it is tiring.  Yes, it can be dizzying and overwhelming.  Yes, it is ridiculously time consuming.  And yes, I am very much aware – and a bit fearful – that, as my kids grow older and begin to assert their independence in sometimes dangerous and derelict ways, parenting can also grow to be heartbreaking.  And yet, parenting is nevertheless wonderful.  I would not trade my vocation as a father any more than I would trade my vocation as a husband or my identity as a child of God.

As it turns out, however, not everyone feels the same way I do.

A revealing article appeared in the National Post last month featuring Calum and Tina Marsh, a married couple who is repulsed by the idea of having children.  In fact, “repulsed” is probably too weak a word to describe their loathing.  Calum, the author of this piece, writes:

A few weeks ago one of my oldest and closest friends told me that she planned to have children. Or rather she mentioned it, almost in passing, with the idle nonchalance of a remark about the midday heat: she planned to have children – and she planned to have them soon. I was dumbfounded. Children? Those fleshy barnacles of snot and mutiny? Those extortionate burdens? Those shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors? Not for me, thank you. And not – I rashly assumed – for anyone else in my peer group. That my friend could want a child seemed to me unthinkable. It was as if she’d said she planned to invade Poland.[1]

It used to be a given that, barring some radically extenuating circumstance, having children was considered to be a generally natural outcome of marriage.  But according to Mr. Marsh, children are nothing short of “extortionate burdens” and “shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors.”  Wow.  What kind of trouble could any child possibly cause to earn such an awful reputation?  Mr. Marsh explains:

I value my lifestyle, and I like having the means to maintain it. I value my free time. I’d like to re-read the complete works of Shakespeare, and get around to tackling Proust; I’m keen to learn Latin and modern dance; I wouldn’t mind visiting Locarno, Ankara and Bucharest. I also enjoy the freedom from responsibility childlessness affords me.

Let me try to sum up Mr. Marsh’s explanation as to why he does not want to have children and why he thinks they are “shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors” in two words: he’s selfish.  In other words, Mr. Marsh has things he wants to do, money he wants to spend, and places he wants to go, and kids would throw a wrench into his plans and desires.  For Mr. Marsh, the most important thing in life is, well, Mr. Marsh.  Mr. Marsh is extolling selfishness, not as a vice, but as a virtue – a posture toward yourself that allows you to enjoy life more fully.

Don’t misunderstand me.  There are good reasons why a couple may not have children.  Sometimes, it is a heartbreaking medical condition that prevents a couple from having children, even when the couple may desire them.  Other times, a couple may not have the means to provide for a child.  In certain instances, foregoing the raising of children may even serve a spiritual purpose.  Both the apostle Paul and Jesus Himself did not marry and did not raise children because of particular calls God had placed on their lives.  There are plenty of good reasons not to have children.  Mr. Marsh, however, does not provide us with any of these reasons.  He simply wants to live his life for himself unencumbered by anyone who would ask much of anything from him.

One of the paradoxical principles of Christianity is that it is selflessness – not selfishness – that leads to a fulfilling life.  Indeed, this is the very pattern of the cross.  Christ emptied Himself in His death for us so that we could be called, coincidentally enough, His children (Galatians 3:26), and through that emptiness was exalted to the Father’s right hand as One equal to God (Philippians 2:6-11).

The apostle Paul is clear that Christ’s way of emptying Himself should be reflected in our lives as well:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5)

Children offer a unique opportunity to practice ruthless selflessness because they demand so much more than a passing act of a service – giving a donation here, or joining a relief effort for a couple of days there.  They demand that one places his own priorities aside daily for the sake of someone else.  This is not an easy way to live, but it is a good way to live.  Indeed, one of the more troubling questions raised in my mind by Mr. Marsh’s article was this:  if Mr. Marsh doesn’t want kids because they are an inconvenience to and an inhibitor of his preferred lifestyle, how would Mr. Marsh react if Mrs. Marsh were to become an inconvenience and a drag on his dreams?  Selfishness, you see, has a funny way not only of preventing relationships – like the relationship you could have with a son or daughter – but of destroying the relationships you already have.

Mr. Marsh concludes his article by saying:

I can’t begin to imagine the burden not only of time and money but of authority and influence – of being accountable for a human life. It’s lunacy that so many people are comfortable with it.

I have news for Mr. Marsh:  no parent is ever comfortable with being responsible for his child’s life.  Just ask any parent who has reached over to his daughter’s basinet in the middle of the night and put his hand on her chest just to make sure she was still breathing.  Being comfortable isn’t the point when you’re raising children.  Loving and caring for a life that God has given you is.  And that’s a privilege I’ll take over comfort any day.

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[1] Calum Marsh, “‘Children? Those shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors? Not for me, thank you’: Why fatherhood is not for everyone and shouldn’t have to be,” National Post (7.15.2016).

August 22, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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