Friday, 2 October 2009

Searching for happiness - making us miserable?

A slightly edited version of a lunchbar talk I gave yesterday at Writtle College, Chelmsford.

The question was this: why do we have more rights, more stuff, more confidence... and less happiness than ever before? Let's start with the results of a quick survey carried out by the CU last week at freshers' fayre.

The question was simply this: what do you think will bring you the greatest fulfilment in life? The biggest group - 32% of the students surveyed - thought that fulfilment will be found in friends or family. This was closely followed by 31% who thought that success (whether in education, career, wealth, sport etc) would be their most fulfilling experience. Only 6.5% thought that love would bring fulfilment, matching the 6.5% who look forward to doing whatever they want. At a place like Writtle, perhaps it’s not so surprising that working with animals got a look-in at 4%, matching the number of people who were uncertain. Only 5% are expecting to find fulfilment in things such as helping others with their needs or living for God.

So what’s the point of all this? I was interested to find out where your hopes lie. American psychologists have found that there has been a trend stretching back to the 1960s showing an increasing obsession with ourselves. We (if we follow the same pattern as America) are taught that we are very special people – that we have rights, that we deserve to succeed all the time, that loving yourself is the most important thing you can do. Are those trends here in the UK too? And if they are (though granted I guess it’ll be less extreme than America), is there a problem with that?

What was very interesting to me about the results that came back from our survey is that at least 66% - two thirds – of responses were focused on the self. (I say ‘at least’ because other categories such as ‘love’ are ambiguous.) I don’t find that very surprising, and I’m guessing that you don’t either – where else would our search for fulfilment be centred?

Our whole culture is geared up to support this kind of way of life: companies try and sell us their products by telling us they will provide exactly what we want, when we want it, how we want it (e.g. online shopping), and credit companies offer the opportunity to ‘but now, pay later’ (UK consumer credit in June 2009 was £14 278 000 000!). Tragically we often treat our relationships the same way – in them for the pleasure they give us, not to love someone else. All these things are a part of our quest for self-fulfilment, and they are increasingly being taken to new heights in our society.

But here’s another question that is rarely asked: where is this focus on ourselves taking us? It seems to be such an unquestionable fact that first and foremost you’ve got to love yourself that no one stops to ask what consequences of this we can see. At the same time that this message of self-love has been spreading through society, levels of depression have soared (America 1987-97 – 1.8 to 6.3 million). Levels of anxiety have risen so much that ‘normal’ kids in the 1980s (America) reported higher levels of anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s! Loneliness is also on the increase. All this in the least traumatic era of recent history. Why? Because those who score the highest in tests for ‘narcissistic’ (self-loving) personalities are also those who tend to alienate others – they’re great personalities… until you get in the way of their self-fulfilment. (Don’t get me wrong – saying self-love is a huge problem does not mean I’m saying we should hate ourselves.)

So what can we do to tackle this tide of catastrophic super-self-love? I want to show you a couple of truths from the Bible to show the way forward – the first to explain why we’re in this mess; the second to point the way out of it.

First then, how have we landed up here? If you think I’m going to start lamenting the state of society today and looking back to the good old days, think again. Did you know that society has, at heart, always been just as bad as it is now. In fact, the Bible tells us that humanity has a major problem. We’re designed to look outwards – to be focused on others and on God, but we’re in a situation where we focus on ourselves and looking after number 1.

Now, I think if you take a long, hard, honest look into your own heart you’ll find the same symptoms there – a longing to put yourself first, in short, selfishness. Why else do you argue with friends, family or flatmates? It’s a battle of who gets to put themselves first, isn’t it? And yes, we’ve all been unreasonable more than once! Why do you look down on others? Why are there times you won’t admit you’re wrong? Why do we do all these kind of things, even though it causes arguments, fallouts, pain, unkind words? It even causes us more stress and pain ourselves!

So, you see it’s nothing new – its human nature, although not as God created it. We all know being like this is awful deep down (think of a time you’ve really hurt someone close to you) – but we don’t change. It seems our new problem is that society is approving of our selfishness more and more, bringing it out into the open.

So we’re in a mess, and all of us are in it together – it’s just that some of us are better at controlling and concealing it than others. But there is another way. The Bible teaches that although self-focus leads to self-destruction, self-denial leads to fulfilment (notice I didn’t say self-fulfilment!). It’s those times when I forget about myself and give myself in love to others that I find real fulfilment – when I wasn’t even looking for it (hence the lack of ‘self’ above)! Is that surprising? Not according to the Bible, because that is how God says things work. The ultimate example and explanation of this self-giving is seen in Jesus, God’s Son.

So what do we learn from Jesus Christ? Here is someone prepared to make this demand on his followers: ‘For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it’ (Mk.8:35). And here is someone who practised what he preached, even prepared to knowingly go to death under torture on a wooden cross. Paul, one of the biblical authors paints an incredible picture of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, enjoying the perfection of heaven, yet giving it all up, becoming ‘nothing’ and living the lowliest of lives and suffering the worst of deaths. All of this, the Bible adamantly insists, was for us.

Great! Here’s the answer to our problem! We just need to stop putting ourselves first and instead look outside ourselves, looking to give rather than to get; giving ourselves to God and to others and their needs. The problem is, we can’t seem to do it. Sure, we can have a go and make things better, but we find we just can’t abandon our first priority – me. There are many people who serve other people, and even turn religious, in order to feed their self-focus. I find it amazing how many people I meet like that. As soon as they find out that I’m a minister they launch into a detailed list of all the things they do for charity or other people! Many people act the same way toward God – he’ll be pleased with this list of things I’ve done and let me into heaven. That’s not the kind of serving others God is talking about – that is a way of comforting myself that I’m a good person.

In that light, perhaps you’re beginning to realise just how hard – how impossible – it is for us to leave our self-focus behind. The Bible says we can’t do it unless God does it for us. He offers to change our hearts – that’s what we really need: change from the inside-out, not just trying to improve our behaviour or appearance. That is what the Christian message offers – not a message of, ‘Come on! Try harder!’ but a message of, ‘You can’t, but God can’. If you think God will be impressed with your efforts you’ve got the wrong end of the stick – you’re loving yourself more than others. But God offers to give you this new heart as an undeserved gift that you may experience life as God intended it as he begins to change you. Then, when you forget about yourself and give yourself away, will you find the fulfilment you were looking for before in yourself – finding it at the very time you’d stopped looking for it!

No comments:

Post a Comment