Understanding Millenials Through The Eyes of Kierkegaard

Photo by Peter Bucks on Unsplash
Photo by Peter Bucks on Unsplash

I write as one untimely born. I write as a millenial to millenials, whom by the end of this sentence may already be bored of the writing of this millenial. How wearisome it is to read something that doesn’t immediately capture one’s attention! Is it because one’s heart is searching for something else? Are you still reading this? Then I am surprised. And I trust you will then read on. This seems to be the paradox of the millenial — a person stuck hoping for an experience they remember and when such an experience finds them, they are remembering what they had hoped for. It is no wonder that the travel industry much profit from the wanderings of 20 year olds. Once a person has tasted the novelty of another country, they have engaged all their senses towards its sights and its sounds. The senses then dwell and eat away at the person while he or she works. Slowly but surely, its memories float to the surface and before they know it, they are off again in search of what they had remembered. But once there, what they had hoped for vanishes and is replaced by what they had remembered. And the chase goes on.

One of the ways reading Kierkegaard has helped me is to understand my own generation from the eyes of someone who lived 200 years ago. While we each have one life to live there are a few ways we can live. Kierkegaard captured this in his 3 stages: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The aesthete lives for their immediate pleasures, the ethical for their responsibility to others and the religious by their faith in God (which transcends responsibility). But these 3 ways of living are not equally valid, as Kierkegaard hints at in his use of stages. Instead each one builds on the other until the highest mode of living is found in the religious.

From my own reflection, it seems that the typical millenial is characterized most by their search for the aesthetic. This is unsurprising given that global youth culture is marked by secularism. In secularism the lost of the religious mode of being gives way to the mode of responsibility (the ethical) but what millenials are subconsciously realizing is that without the religious there is no ethical. After all, who are other people to tell you how to live? Instead one is left with the individual including their tastes and what strikes their conscience. Do what makes you happy – as long as it doesn’t harm anyone (that you care about). The reduction of life to the immediate are present in many ways: in the preoccupation with lifestyles, in boredom and in the anxiety that comes with having to make decisions that ultimately have little meaning. These are problems that haven’t gone unnoticed. But their solutions seem far from simple and I hope to be able to start to pry them out little by little as I read further.

Further Reading

https://www.iep.utm.edu/kierkega/#SH1c

https://www.amazon.com/Either-Fragment-Life-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140445773

https://www.amazon.com/Stages-Lifes-Way-Kierkegaards-Writings/dp/0691020493

https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2019-03/connecting-with-the-new-global-youth-culture?fbclid=IwAR0CFxrebbnK5LTGIu3K9_Ro4ovyBslQcE5V6QRGv2OjNgj6WIASgL1X414

Gillette’s Ad Reveals Our Cultural Confusion About Man’s 2 States

What is a man? Over the last 2 weeks, I’ve been challenged to think more about this. It wasn’t a challenge because the concept of masculinity was previously unknown but because such a clear idea was being undermined. Recently, Gillette released a type of ad that I’ve been seeing more and more of. Rather than featuring a product, the ads center around who the company is rather than what they do. As a men’s razor company, the ad was addressed to all males but it clearly expressed a narrative that Gillette wanted to identify with and would cause controversy — toxic masculinity. Within 2 minutes I was treated to ‘manly’ behaviors from cat calls and mansplaining (someone still has to explain what this is to me) to kids wrestling and dads barbecuing. The message was that this isn’t ‘the best men can get.’ Instead, Gillette called on men to hold one another accountable to behaviors that have long been justified as ‘boys being boys.’ This was obviously a good ad right?

While some applauded Gillette and saw it as an encouragement towards male accountability, many more could do little but roll their eyes. ‘There goes another attempt to demonize men.’ As for me, I had 2 initial impressions of the ad. I didn’t have any idea what the ad had to do with their actual product nor did I feel the urge to buy more of it. So it simply seemed a bad ad from a marketing standpoint. But I’m not a marketer nor a critic so writing about this aspect of the ad wasn’t going to help anyone. My second reaction is what I wanted to write about and it was directed towards a deeper problem — the message of the ad. I was concerned because it reflected the confusion around sex and identity that has engulfed so much of the society I live and breathe in. In life there are certain things that you just have to live and let live. Toothpaste squeezed from the top rather than the bottom? You just have to grin and bear it. But the confusion around sex isn’t one of them. Being confused about sex doesn’t just hurt women but the men Gillette claims to help. Not knowing how to relate one’s self as a man or a woman means not knowing how to relate to each other. It means people without differences, unity without diversity and existence without meaning. Categories are how we understand being and male and female have always been a part of it. As a Christian, being unable to understand my design means being unable to relate my self not just to others but to God. So gender confusion hurts people because it doesn’t just affect lifestyles but existence and meaning itself.

The 2 Natures

In the book of Genesis, the first two human beings are created by God in his image. As his image, their responsibility would be of mediating between God and being, ordering the chaos of creation into the paradisical garden of Eden. But the first two human beings disobeyed God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The reward of having their eyes opened is for themselves a curse. One of the curses for Eve the first female, is ‘your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.’ One result of that curse was the splitting of humanity into 2 natures – good and evil. So while Adam the first male was designed to order creation, the goodness of that order would now be twisted and perverted. The loving order and stability of Adam would now become the iron fisted ruling of a tyrant and it has continued in this way. In me there exists the wise king. Yet behind him lays the dark tyrant. They both look similar and at times it can be hard to tell who’s who. The courage, strength and aggression of our fighting men have often been the turning tide of wars. Yet these very same traits have caused the rape, pillaging and destruction of whole cities.

It seems to me that men are capable of heroic displays of virtue but are at the same time, history’s most destructive force. But I don’t think such a design was accidental. I have often looked up at the night sky to observe the beauty of the stars. But it was only when the sky was darkest that their light shone the brightest. Augustine himself recognized this when he observed that God would often use prosperity to remind us of his goodness and great calamities to remind us of our need. What we needed was something stable and unchanging. It was a reminder that what we needed was God himself. What men need therefore is true masculinity and the very God who restores them to it. I do not think the present threat in our society is excessive masculinity but rather a lack of it. When men protect those under their care the world is a safer place. When men create meaning rather meaninglessness the world is a truer place. And when men live as men the world is a more beautiful place.

With further reflection, I’ve become more sympathetic towards Gillette’s attempt to address this social problem. Let me be clear – I don’t endorse it. But I think it was their way of saying that there were wrong behaviors that males had justified as being intrinsic to who they were. This was badly expressed through the phrase ‘boys will be boys’. When I think about the encouragement to ‘suck it up’ as though stoicism saved anyone, I can see Gillette’s point. But harmful behaviors that are usually expressed by males does not mean that males usually express these behaviors. And I think this is what confused people and caused the controversy. Sexual harassment is no more a product of masculinity than lying is to femininity. Unless Gillette and those under the sway of toxic masculinity understand man’s two natures, they will only be able to address it by eradicating maleness itself. When you realize that men die on the job more than females, that they are the most frequent victims of homicide and that they account for 97% of war casualties, that’s not a great idea.

The Biggest Reason Why Most Resolutions Fail

Why do most resolutions fail? These days it seems people hesitate to make any resolutions. Others do it half-heartedly expecting that they will fail past March. The good thing is that I think this betrays the reality that we know how impossible change is. Having seen the countless attempts we’ve tried to improve our lives and failed we are a little bit wiser. Change is hard because I think what we do isn’t separated from who we are. I think the reason they fail is because people for the most part remain themselves at the end of the year.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

To understand how resolutions connect with the change we want to see, it is helpful to ask what resolutions are. At its most basic level, I think resolutions for most people are expressions about what they would like to achieve. It is a show of will. By gritting one’s teeth, one attempts to stand up to one’s self to stop doing one thing and start doing another. And then we fail. And fail again. And make resolutions for the next year. While this is annoying, when you’ve lived long enough it can become just another fact of life and something you apathetically accept. But I think it does raise the question of whether there was something wrong with the original resolutions that people make. Is it because the will wasn’t strong enough or because it wasn’t genuine?

I don’t think that’s the case. I think when people make resolutions they genuinely desire, hope and believe that they can change. Resolutions are done when the will is most firm and the vision is most clear. With the destination in mind, the heart goes along and charts the route. But the problem may be the direction of one’s will. In life, few things are done well by aiming directly at the object as an end in itself. It seems that to operate a business well, one must seek to serve rather than to profit. To lead well, one must seek to embolden the people they lead. On the other hand, leading to obtain power leads to the manipulation and usage of people like tools in a shed. So in order to change what we do, we must first change who we are. Because a large part of our accomplishments proceed from our habits and then our character, changing who we are involves changing our virtues. We must have an image of who we ought to be and strive to embody it. Like Narcissus whose continual reflection of himself turned him into a flower of vanity, we become what we behold for long enough.

For me and countless others, change is something I’ve struggled with. From my childhood till now, I have often realized that I am not who I ought to be. And trying to figure out whom I ought to be has been like looking for fish through muddy waters. But what I discovered at 17 remains true even now — that there is none who so embodies what it means to live the good life and to be fully human as the man the Bible calls Jesus. Yet he was more than a man. He was the embodiment of the divine and because of that change hasn’t just been possible but it has occurred simply by beholding and believing him. For me, change has come from a change in spirit and the spirit through faith. While I’m sure 2019 will continue to challenge who I am and who I ought to be, I know like the apostle John that it isn’t in vain.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. – 1 John 3:2

I hope that you too would see and experience true change in 2019 and that you would become the person you were called to be.

When Good Ends and Evil Begins

What makes evil, evil? Is it evil to hate a person in my mind? Or if I pretend to love them while secretly hating them? What if I openly hate them? What if I pretend to love them and then hate them by working against them without their knowledge? What if I murder them? You might say, ‘that’s enough. Of course you shouldn’t murder them!’ So abstractly labeling the latter as evil is easy. But if you’re required to retrace your steps backwards then it’s not so clear when good ends and evil begins. I think the default is to pass over every stage until the last one. In the age of the trite and trivial, it’s easy to pass over the early behaviors because they have less obvious consequences.

In truth, they’re all evil though varying in degrees. That seems overblown until you realize these behaviors or thoughts aren’t isolated incidences but states of being lived in the presence of an infinite person. Like my mother used to say, ‘it’s your attitude.’ When we pass over these small ‘bad’ actions without recognizing its evil, it’s akin to severing our vessels from our heart. These little behaviors are symptoms of our inner condition and who we are. Imagine the physician who points out to the patient that he has peripheral vascular disease. The patient retorts, ‘nice try doctor but these aren’t my vessels.’ Yet the madness of severing our behaviors from our self is seen everywhere. The malady becomes terminal when blinded by our spiritual sickness we can no longer recognize the good and evil we attempt to define. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not to know good and evil. No, the food poisoning sets in before that.

In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard described the severity of sin (the Christian conception of evil) as terrible precisely because it occurred before God –

”…there was much truth in the idea, even though it has occasionally been misused, that what made sin so terrible was its being before God. From this people proved the eternity of hell’s punishment and then later became cleverer and said: ‘sin is sin; it is none the worse for being against or before God.’ Strange! Even lawyers talk of aggravated crimes; even lawyers distinguish between crimes committed against public officials and private citizens, prescribe different punishments for patricide and ordinary murder.

Wronging God infinitely heightens the severity of sin because God is not someone external, who exists outside ourselves like a police constable. Instead, he is a constant relation relating to our self. And the magnitude of our crime is judged based on the self’s standard and the person its been committed against. And it has always been this way. What would one think if a child murdered his father? Would such a child have committed the same crime by murdering his dog?

Kierkegaard wrote that the self has a conception of God yet does not do what God wants and is disobedient. Thus God is never sinned against occasionally but always as long as one was in such a state. Now the higher the consciousness of one’s self, the more intensely the awareness of the self’s standard of measurement – God. The more conception of self, the more God and the more conception of God, the more self.

Calvin, the Swiss theologian recognized the link between the knowledge of one’s self and of God:

“For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty”

The state of evil therefore lies in the will. And its severity lies in its relating of the self to its foundation, God. Evil is evil because it says “this is good for me!” and defies God for good is not ‘for you’ but rather ‘for God’. He is the person of infinite goodness. After all, Nietzsche remarked that good and evil were simply expressions of the will to power. A person who sins is a daughter who slaps her father whilst sitting on his lap. “I would rather sit on my own lap than yours, thank you very much!” Her crime lay in slapping not an inconsequential person but her father who gave her life and of using the elevation of his lap to do the very deed. Little girl, don’t you realize that you can’t slap your father without sitting on his lap?

Complement this article with:

  1. The Sickness Unto Death, Soren Kierkegaard.
  2. Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
  3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin.

Little Sins

One day K was like any other 7 year old and the next day he was a thief. Like most boys his age, his penchant for sweet things commonly led to a host of foolish decisions that characterize young men. He was not old enough for them to amount to serious consequence but neither were they profitable for his growth and maturity. As often as other children would eat at the cafeteria, he would spend his money on sour straps, ice cream, sour jawbreakers and the like. You could say it was a precursor to obsession. To him, there was nothing quite like the first taste of sugar. From the moment it hit his tongue, his mood would light up. As the sensation trickled down the back of his throat, he would come away from his treat with eyes afresh and his brain acutely attuned to his surroundings. To his teachers it was clear that such a habit could only end in 2 ways: a maturing and refining of his appetite and subsequent renouncement of his former tastes, or a poverty of health from the endless cycles of consumption and withdrawal that still haunted older folk.

So it was no surprise that a new packet of mints that had recently been released to the market caught his attention in the middle of a supermarket this particular afternoon while shopping with his mom. They had started off the shopping trip like any other, with mom buying the necessary household items first before proceeding to dad’s more ridiculous and then K’s sister’s even more absurd demands. After multiple denials and negotiations with him and his sister, they approached the line at the counter. A transparent turquoise box winked at him from out of the corner of his eye. He was transfixed. Turning to it, he noticed that it had a sign reading, ‘Tic Tacs’, ‘new’ and ‘improved’ then other random letters that he could recognize but not quite string it into words that meant something. His hand extended out from him, picking up speed as it went along and then sure of its destination, snatched the box into his fist. Then like a man in shock of the treasure he’d found, presented it towards mom. ‘Mom can we buy?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why? I want it.’ ‘Because we don’t need it.’ ‘I need it!’ K’s mom began to unload her groceries. The distant look on her face was all he needed to know that his request was over before it had begun. This was all too much for him. ‘Noooooooooo!’ And then he stopped himself. This had happened to him too many times to know it never ended well. He stared at his mom as a well of hatred shot up and overflowed in him, darkening his mind and causing new and fresh thoughts to arise. As he swallowed and attempted to suppress such overwhelming emotion, a new impulse now impressed itself upon his mind. He felt at peace, though quite numb toward his mother, and stopped glaring at her. His face contorted itself then relaxed, relieved from the birth giving of such emotion. He unclenched his fist which were beginning to shake from holding the box of candy so tightly. He hadn’t even been aware that he’d been doing that. ‘Okay.’ He half smiled, as though reluctantly obeying although he never wanted to obey more. It was too suspicious otherwise, and what was needed here and now were not tantrums but cunning. He placed the box of Tic Tacs back onto the shelf. His mother was surprised, taken aback at the fact that the conflict was now over before it had begun. Then the immediate demands of the grocery trip set upon her and wasting no time she returned to unpacking the supplies onto the cashier’s table. In her heart she attributed its resolution to what she most hoped for – K’s moral growth as a result of her careful parenting.

K quietly returned his attention to what he and his sister were doing and began to help his mom by unloading more of the groceries onto the table. Once he was sure that she had directed her focus elsewhere, he grabbed as many of his groceries that she’d approved of; cereal boxes, yogurt, canned fruit, hot chocolate, and chucked them onto the conveyor belt with arms outstretched. The cereal box toppled over onto the floor just as he intended without breaking the packaging, enough for his mom to notice what he was doing but without attracting undue attention for a prolonged period. ‘Oops!’ He chirped. He shrugged his shoulders. He proceeded to pick up the cereal box with his back towards his sister and his mom now lifting paper bags back into the shopping cart. As he was straightening up with the box in one hand, he swiped the box of Tic Tacs without looking at them as though he had lost control of his other hand and then placed the two hands together on top of the cereal box, covering one another. Once he’d placed the cereal box on top of the groceries both hands were brought together, until approaching his pockets they drifted apart and then stuck, one in each pocket, where they nested.

It seemed like the lights in the store suddenly got brighter. K’s face heated up and he could even feel the reddening around the ears that he experienced when speaking in front of the class. He attempted to stand up straighter to relieve his flushed face but found he couldn’t. It was as though the weight of the store had suddenly come crashing down on his young tender back. All his thoughts were now towards the little package in his pockets and ensuring its safety. The voices of his mother and sister seemed far off. The line moved along and they headed towards the invisible twin pillars which could beep and detect if you had stolen anything. Just like magic. Like a dream, he followed his mom, gliding along the floor. Here came the first test. The two pillars came up towards his face, imposing its presence over him and then just like that vanished and he was through. He exhaled a sigh of relief. ‘What’s wrong? Are you tired of shopping?’ K’s mother squinted at him. ‘No! No! Nah. I’m fine. Fine. I mean tired. Just tired. Let’s go home.’ ‘Okay. Come along now you two.’ His sister skipped behind him and ran up to take hold of her mother’s hand. K lagged behind so that he could feel the box of Tic Tacs still in his pockets. It would be his little secret. It was then that as they were leaving the supermarket section and turning towards the direction of the parking lot that he caught sight of the security guard. A dark skinned and tall man, he stood upright facing the exit of the store. But K could swear that he was being watched out of the corner of his eye. He shoved his hand down the pocket more. To anyone else the security guard might as well have been staring at the wall. Yet K couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. He shrugged. Surely if he had known he’d have come up to them by now. Nevertheless as they walked past him, he made sure to walk on the right of his mother and sister, using their bodies as shields from the penetrating gaze of this security guard. Time froze as they passed him. The shopping mall din became a quiet hush. If K had uttered a word he was sure he would have heard him. They passed one another in total silence. Then, nothing. As soon as they reached the parking lot, it was sunny again. The gentle vroom vroom of cars starting up reached his ears. And everything returned to the way it was. He heaved a sigh of relief, almost gasping for air. He was free. And yet as he jumped into the car, cutting in front of his sister and laughing, he felt like a piece of lead still remained in the square of his back like a backpack worn too long.

K did not remember how the rest of the afternoon passed, simply that it was a blur, liked a heated day of summer. The next thing he knew was that he and has family were on the rooftop of a car park, walking towards the elevators in order to reach the movie theater for dinner and a film. It was then that he experienced those first irresistible pangs, the ones people get when seeing a ‘do not touch’ sign or when standing over a cliff’s edge. As he walked by his mother’s side, never had he had more of an urge to speak, to confess his heinous crime and to attest to the world of his wicked misdeed! With every step his heart pounded and ached. With every sentence that passed in conversation with his mother, he would feel the sweat build up in his hands. His lips trembled. His mouth motioning to form ‘Today I…’ The final barrier and only solace was the strength of his stubborn 7 year old will. As they waited for the elevator he would fight to suppress it, swallowing and distracting himself with the very same candy that he stole. And offering it to the parents and sister he would be complimented for his generosity to her today. How cunning. And how wretched he was. The elevator still did not come. It seemed to like the 1st floor too much. The warm orange 1 shone above the elevator for what felt like an eternity. Would it ever come? Would it get here in time before K’s soul could hold back no longer or would he be able to crawl into the comfort of his favorite theater in time, suppressing all thought for the time being? The elevator light hit 2 and K could finally take it no longer. ‘I did it!!!’ I did it. I did it. It was me.’

K’s mother did not think much of that fateful night. Nor had she remembered it now in her mid age. But K had not forgotten it even after 20 years. The memory of that night stood out clear to him as though viewed from a film camera. He could recall it at a moment’s notice if he chose to. In every other family member’s memory it had long since receded into the category of vague impressions like food one has tasted before or a trip they had once taken overseas. There was no reason to have remembered that night. There had been no consequences, rather he had even been commended for his honesty. He was not sure which one was worse, the guilt of his memory that could not fade or the praise of his parents for precisely what he knew was wrong. Of course they had simply dismissed it as a childish thing that he would grow out of soon. And so he did. In his mind however he could never quite get the stare of the security guard out of it.

It was late one night when K was awake reading as was his custom. His son lay in his bed, and his wife was asleep next to him. And this is when they came. It began with a soft knock on the door. K thinking it was simply the house settling, lay content and continued to read, his eyes crawling to and fro over the lines of each word against his bedside. It was nice to enjoy the stillness of the night. Rap rap rap. Again came the knock. This time louder, just enough to produce the sound of wood on wood so that it could not be mistaken. Now K was puzzled. Who could that be? Believing it to be one of his neighbors, he slid off the bed and into his slippers. Grabbing his coat from a hanger he tip toed over to the entrance of his house and pried the door slightly open. In any event such an action would have been careless but it was a safe neighborhood after all. “We are here for Mr. K.” “I’m sorry I don’t believe we’ve met before, there must be a mistake.” “He does not make mistakes.” In the door way stood 2 men against the cold night air. They wore long dark over coats and must have been dark skinned for he could barely make out their faces. Being hidden under two hoods did not help either. He felt the eeriness behind their tone of voice and so did not dare to draw the door open any more. “Please step out for a moment Mr K.” This was a fairly reasonable request. The street lamps were on and the lights in the houses around his cul de sac were still on. Witnesses. Making sure he still had keys, he locked the door from the inside and closed it behind him. “All right everyone, I’m out. What’s so important that you need to talk me like this? It’s 1 am for goodness sakes.” One of the men murmured, “it’s a matter of life and death sir.” “Life and death? Please. I can’t even see your faces. How do you expect one to take you two seriously.” They stepped to the side allowing the light of the street lamp nearby to illuminate their faces. It was the sight of one that caused a chill through K’s bones. Suddenly the air seemed freezing and he wasn’t sure if he could feel his feet any longer. Underneath one of the hoods lay the same unmistakable face. It was the dark security guard from his childhood. He did not doubt it for a second. In fact it was almost as though his own self had been waiting for such a day to happen. In that moment he knew that he must go with them. “Please come with us Mr K.” “Why?” “You know why. You have always known why. Come. You still ask a lot of questions. Not much has changed in 20 years has it?” K hesitated. Not a moment too soon, he felt their arms around his. Not dragging, but guiding him down the steps and onto the curb. He felt his legs numbly obeying him, following their arms one step at a time. He knew that there was no point in struggling. They passed through the street, up the road and took a left turn onto the main road, which was illuminated by one lamp. There were no cars in sight. As they walked along the road they passed lit houses on one side and trees on the other. Every now and then, an owl’s hoot could be heard. K thought it was funny how none of the lit windows ever had anyone in them. After winding through the trees on one side of the road they finally stopped at a clearing no bigger than a soccer field. Despite having lived in the area for 10 years he had never been here. A sign into the clearing read “The Potter’s Field.” The two hooded men looked around as though scanning for something. Having located it at last, they brought K over to the far side of the field where a great ditch had been dug. By now K knew that there was no leaving. To deal with the situation he resorted to his dry humor like he always did. “You know security guards are meant to return the culprit to the store and recover the items that are lost.” The less familiar one chuckled. “I like him.” “By nature the job of guards are to keep people out. It is the person in which crime is present,” replied the security guard from the mall. Swinging K up by his arms, they lay him down softly in the ditch. From their coats they procured two shovels and begin to pile the dirt back from where it came. They dug, one shovel in sync with the other, not breaking a sweat or changing their breathing. As dirt began to pile up on K’s feet, he remarked, “but everyone has done something small like that in their life!” One of them nodded, the other as though speaking for him replied, ”We come for everyone eventually. But when is not up to us.” “Then who is it up to?” They shrugged. “The owner. We simply come when he sends for us.” Finally, K’s entire body was covered. Only his eyes remained, as though treading water. It was just long enough to see one of the guards procure a box of Tic Tacs. He just made out the letters “new and improved.” He walked over past K’s head and placed it just past him, in front of a large flat stone. As his vision darkened and his eyes began to see red around them, the guards slunk away, leaving nothing in the field except the wind and the rustle of leaves. On the flat stone over K’s grave behind the Tic Tacs, an engraving with ragged edges worn by age reads “awaiting the return of its rightful owner.”

How to Live: Should We Pursue Happiness or Meaning?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Our hearts intuitively seek happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson

The founding fathers of the United States of America were one of the few to formally recognize something all humans intuitively strive for: happiness. Though it is seldom spoken of, it is indubitably behind our thoughts and actions like a hidden judge through whom each of life’s problems are presented. Choices like what to wear, what to say, whom to be friends with, what job we should choose are critiqued on what we believe will give us the maximum happiness. But there are numerous problems with living for makes you happy. Here are what I believe are the 3 biggest.

3 problems with living for happiness

  1. Happiness is a superficial high of the moment. We pursue what we believe will bring us the greatest pleasure but it is over as soon as it achieved, a greater let down than a Disney movie ever could be. To deal with that, we become perpetual children, hopping from one pleasure to another, unsure of when the next big hit is.
  2. The birds of happiness leave their nests quickly, for their wings sprout as soon as one attempts to grasp them, leaving us on an endless chase. Happiness is a goal that never quite seems attainable. It is like a hike up a mountain only to realize you’re in the valley of an even greater one.
  3. I believe however, that the biggest problem to living for one’s own happiness is suffering. While it might seem like a viable option to pursue while the grass is green, what will one do when it is scorched by the heat? By nature, happiness cannot flourish in suffering. That means it is dependent on one’s fluctuating and chaotic environment. Happiness then is out of the question for those living in extreme circumstances and restricted only to the fortunate few of mankind. Worse, it leaves us unable to choose it.

Why living for meaning is better

While defining meaning is less easier than happiness, we can understand it better when we see how it is used. We can all think of things that we would or should live for. Things that give our lives a sense of purpose and usefulness tend to be ones that transcend us, where its ends go beyond our own happiness. The propagation of families and nations were historic sources of meaning for most of human history. Meaning then seems to imply an overarching purpose like a story for your life. The benefits of striving to live a meaningful life include being able to rejoice in suffering. The apostle Paul from the Bible captures it when he says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34). It may seem so distant to us, like the lifestyles portrayed on Instagram, but being able to rejoice in suffering really is possible when we know it is headed towards an even better ending. After all, the biggest question one has when suffering rears its ugly head is “why?” Why. Why. Why. Being able to answer why doesn’t change the reality of our suffering but it allows us the faith to believe that the outcome is worth it, the tongue to taste it, and the strength to endure till we receive it. Aristotle said, “the sum is greater than the parts”, and so it is with happiness. The outcome of living meaningfully produces a joy that is greater and more enduring that any short lived pleasure can be. It even has the possibly to make our suffering seem small (if only we could see it). Living meaningfully is something any person can do in any situation. We are all physically capable of making choices that help us to find meaning in whatever we experience. Meaning after all, is a matter of perspective. But attempting to live a meaningful life isn’t enough so in my next article I’ll be writing about why not all meanings are equal.

The Tyranny of Freedom

In the beginning, God existed absolutely free. He was free to do as he desired, and constrained only by his own character. He made Adam and Eve male and female, giving them their very own radical freedom to live as his image. This meant that they too were constrained only by his character – goodness. They had the freedom to choose where and what they did except for one thing – to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Attempting to eat from such a tree however meant attempting to transcend God’s own character and know good and evil for themselves. They would use their very own freedom to determine good and evil outside of God, wrecking reality in the process. Sadly, the story has continued till today.

Today, we feel free to decide what makes us happy whether that’s the choice of our career or spouse. Yet these choices often makes us just as miserable, with a common outcome of anxiety over our decisions, discontentment with our current situation and a sense of meaninglessness. Our freedom to choose what makes us happy often seems more like slavery to whatever our current impulses are. Freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom.

Yet the key reason why is because freedom was not given in order to determine what makes us happy. Instead, true freedom is choosing what will ultimately make us happy. But how can we know what makes truly makes happy without it being revealed to us? Humans were made free, in order that we might use our freedom to transcend ourselves and live for another. But we were never made free to transcend God himself and live as though we were him. God’s freedom is to determine what is, while the freedom of man is simply to choose. The hope of the Christian is that in the dimly lit cave of humanity, God shone the light of his Son and entered it himself to lead us out, by pointing us back to where we belong – in the freedom of living for him. And he is continuing to do so today.