A blog for Catholic men that seeks to encourage virtue, the pursuit of holiness and the art of true masculinity.
Contentment: The Secret of Happiness
November 6, 2014
It was a beautiful, clear Colorado day. My friends and I loaded the back of a truck with guns and ammunition and drove out to a section of state forest often used as a shooting range by locals. We also brought with us old junk to blow to smithereens, including a TV set and some zombie targets. It was to be good, manly fun.
When we got to the range, my friend produced from his pocket a small digital computer called an iPaq and announced that it too would be used for target practice. When I saw it, I could not help but burst out laughing. These iPaqs used to be all the rage in the tech world, the prized possession of every man with a briefcase and a BMW. After all, they had color screens, could check email, and boasted a whopping 128MB of onboard storage. For these stunning features, one would pay a mere $600.
And now we were using it for target practice.
The once coveted iPaq was eventually disintegrated by a shotgun, but it taught me an important lesson that day: Don’t get too attached to the toys this world offers. For truly, all temporal things are more or less like that once shiny and dazzling iPaq. They are thrilling for a moment, but then quickly forgotten, to be used one day for target practice, or worse yet, to be left rotting in a landfill.
A tech enthusiast myself, this lesson has been difficult for me to learn, and in many ways I am still learning it. But technology is by no means the only temptation. Perhaps iPhones don’t thrill you, but you covet the latest sports car or boat—it could be a thousand different things. Whatever your personal temptation, we must all purpose in our hearts to reject the siren song of materialism that deceitfully promises us that, if we could just have one more thing, we would be happy.
What then is the antidote to the deadly pull of materialism? Are we to reject all possessions and live in a bare monastic cell? God certainly does call some to that way of life, but for most of us, material things are a necessity and a fact of existence. I propose two solutions.
Appreciation is the aim
First, gratitude. The world thrives on discontent, and it promises that happiness comes with buying just one more thing. This is a lie. We are surrounded by thousands of gifts from God’s hand, and most of them cannot be bought in a store. We simply don’t pay attention to what we have, and we are not grateful. If we would be really happy, there is no more important gift to cultivate than sincere thankfulness.
A preeminent example of a man who knew how to be grateful, and who was therefore supremely happy, was G.K. Chesterton. His writings are filled with an infectious joy for the simple reason that everything delighted him. From sunrises to cigars to street lamps, Chesterton saw God in all things. Even existence itself filled him with shock and wonder and praise.
Nor was Chesterton content to keep his exuberance to himself—it poured out on thousands upon thousands pages that were his effort to share what he had found in ordinary life. If you want to learn to really appreciate things, especially everyday, humdrum things in a new way, I encourage you to read Chesterton. You will find gems like these:
“The aim of life is appreciation; There is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.”
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
“There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”
“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
Second, detachment. That is, enjoy things gratefully, but see them for what they are—quickly passing and ultimately unsatisfying. The reason we are unhappy is that we see things as ends in themselves, rather than as means to the ends of loving and praising God more fully.
The saints were happier than we are because they were deeply convinced of the ephemeral nature of created things. They were not captivated by the newest fashions, or the latest innovations, for they simply saw that in the light of eternity, these things were utterly irrelevant. The saints knew that all material things were simply signposts pointing us toward our Creator, the source of all real joy.
Does that mean the saints never took pleasure in anything? Of course not. In fact, it took far less to please the saints because their joy was spiritual. We pass by a thousands miracles each day without notice, all the while complaining about our troubles. But the saints didn’t. They took notice of God’s gifts, and things that fill us with indifference—a bird or a blade of grass— filled them with wonder and delight.
Where is your treasure?
The conclusion of the matter is this: Don’t be greedy, be grateful. The Christmas shopping season has already begun, and retailers are promising us that more things equals more happiness, so spend, spend, spend. But reject this idea. It simply isn’t true.
Where is true happiness found? Ultimately, it is found in God alone. As St. Ignatius of Loyola teaches us, we should use and appreciate the things of this world as much as they point us to Him. But if a thing is distracting us from God and becoming an end in itself, we should reject it. Most of all, we must remember the command of Our Blessed Savior, who had nowhere to lay His head, “Lay up treasure for yourselves in heaven, where there is no moth or rust to consume it, no thieves to break in and steal. Where your treasure-house is, there your heart is too.”
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