(Salvaged from a long post on a delicate subject that will never see the light of day):
One weird feature of the modern world is the definition of happiness. It’s not so much Aquinas’s definition that has been rejected – happiness is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue – it’s that we’ve replaced his definition of virtue with Callicles’s: the power to reward your friends, punish your enemies and indulge your every desire.
in fact, I think this thought right here might be the most indisputably true thing I’ve ever thought about the times we live in. (Yeah me.) Happiness is what happens when we get even, make people like us, and get to do whatever we want.
There are no doubt roles for all of us in this tragedy – for it is a tragedy, perhaps even the primordial tragedy, to mistake what happiness is – for all sorts of people and institutions, but let’s look at the role of education. Along with mentally and socially crippling us, modern education has also succeeded marvelously in ‘dumbing down’ our appreciation of happiness. I’ve been fortunate enough to know a number of big, happy families, and, in fact belong to one (through no merit of my own, I hasten to add). There is a level of joy present in them that far exceeds what most people I know ever experience. In fact, it’s different in kind, not just degree – to be a part of something joyful, to have people to love who love you back, and to know that your belonging is not contingent on anything other than you being you – that’s a life-creating experience of another kind entirely. Yet the image of happiness that is most held up in schools is the idol of self-fulfillment. You will be happy, we are told in a million ways, when you get what is yours and nobody dares contradict your completely self-determined self.
These two images of happiness – the beloved and loving member of a family versus the Nietzschean self-willed uber-human – are not just mutually exclusive, they are opposites, in the precise sense that the first model is a reflection of Heaven, while the second is a reflection of Hell.
(Aside: I don’t think it needs to be noted that of course some families are miserable, and some loners are tolerably happy. But I’ve been wrong before. This does not change the fact that that the greatest natural happiness a man can have on this world is to be part of a loving family.)
There’s a memorable passage in Lewis’ Great Divorce where he argues in Hell with, I think, a bishop, who patiently explains to Lewis’ protagonist that while Heaven (meaning the Hell he’s chosen to live in) is perhaps not what they expected, it is nonetheless to be appreciated for what it is – and it is just fine. The bishop finds it better to redefine the misery he is living in as happiness, than to face the pain of recognizing his own unhappiness. I see this every day, unfortunately. The amount of violence perpetrated in the cavalier destruction of families is less mind-boggling than the lies told to defend that violence. The majority of the families I know are ‘broken’ or ‘blended’ or both at the same time. In each case, the children are made to accept some lie about why the adults inflicted this misery upon them. The children act up, and get to be the ‘identified patient’ – their violence or lies or drug use or other anti-social behaviors are the problem, not the fact that Dad (when there even is a dad) has fled, and only talks to mom in order to scream and curse at her, or, perhaps even more insidiously evil, when mom and dad can usually pretend to be pals, the kind of pals who ended up sacrificing their children on the altar of their own self-fulfillment.
Sure, often the parents are struggling mightily to be good and to love their children, and often the children make enough peace with the situation to at least function day to day. They are to be commended for this, and, more importantly, we who have been blessed with family are to love them and support them as fellow fallen people no worse than we are – because they really, truly are not worse than we are. But while I’ve heard of people who have truly faced the violence and lies and tried to deal with their aftermath, I’ve yet to any personally. Instead, parents will act shocked if you offer, however gently, the idea that maybe little Johnny is acting up because it’s hard to live just with a stressed out mom and her current boyfriend while dad doesn’t ever want to see you. Nope, that’s not it – it must be too much refined sugar. Or ADHD. Or too many video games. Something else, in any event.