Would you describe yourself as perfectly happy? Perhaps you’d say you are somewhat happy or happy enough, but not especially so. We often get the general impression that lasting happiness is far-off, practically impossible, not to be hoped for in this life.
When we are made to confront our own unhappiness, it can be distressing, especially when contrasted with the good life proposed in the Gospel. Time and again, we hear it preached: The Lord promises surpassing happiness to those who come after him. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). And yet, very few people seem to enjoy this abundant life. Made suspicious by this apparent contradiction, many of us set aside the work of truly being happy, and instead content ourselves with simply being busy.
Instead of seeking to be truly happy and arranging our lives accordingly, many of us have chosen to be busy. It’s become
the default response in any conversation: “How are you?” “Busy!” “So busy!” “Crazy busy!” But, upon hearing this response for the umpteenth time in a day, the question that naturally arises is “Why?”
Many of us, I suspect, take on so much because we feel like we need to in order to justify our existence. Here we are, feeling a bit unfulfilled and lost. We had hoped that life would amount to more, but it hasn’t. With this recognition comes a sadness. It’s not so much depression as a kind of existential ache:
It’s 10:45 a.m., and I’ve already had my second thought of lunch. Am I hungry or just anxious?
I’m driving to work, and my phone inexplicably conks out; I can’t make calls, and I can’t listen to podcasts. Am I bored or just sad?
My friend cancels our evening plans, and I immediately seize the opportunity to catch up on house cleaning, chat with my brother, and watch a show. Am I efficient or just terrified of being alone?
In these moments, how often am I content to wait, to think, and to register the experience? How often do I simply refuse to do so? With the wordless intuition that my life might be a bit light on meaning, I find it far easier to engage in feverish activity rather than to sound the depths of my solitude. So I come to fill my days with busyness because I am afraid. By fragmenting my life — parceling it out among myriad tasks — I barely keep at bay the creeping suspicion that maybe none of this matters.
All of this running around distracts us from the truth of our lives. Alternately perturbed and paralyzed by our inability to do anything significant, we give up on being real protagonists in the drama of our existence. Instead, we become mere observers. This, at first, seems counterintuitive. You’d think that all our activity would have us feeling more engaged and more empowered. Instead, the opposite proves to be true. We often end up feeling trapped by overcommitment and prevented from taking on more meaningful tasks.
Rather than really taking hold of our life, it feels like things just sort of happen to us. We get swept along by other people, caught up by their stronger wills and whims. We can’t say no, and so we say yes, but under duress and with the secret hope that whatever it is gets canceled. Looking out over this landscape, we may be tempted to believe that “real life is elsewhere.”
Whatever this is before me, this is not real life. It is arbitrary. It is accident. My genuine self and my genuine experience lie somewhere on the other side of the present moment. These things here are to be gotten over, to be gotten under, to be gotten around. If I end up learning something, it will be in spite of them, not from them. The devil may be in the details,
but God surely isn’t. To make matters worse, this attitude of escape is often paired with a kind of magical thinking about the future.
And so, many people find themselves adrift: strangely discontented with the present, groundlessly hopeful for the future, entirely unclear as to how to get from here to there, and all jumbled up by a flurry of activity. At a certain point though, the habit becomes untenable.
Though I may have learned to content myself with a life that is dispersed and disintegrated, thoughts of something more continue to crop up. This is not the “abundant life” promised by the Lord. In fact, this isn’t anything like what I imagined.
What is to be done? Rather than look abroad for some self-help scheme to make sense of life, Catholic tradition instructs us instead to return to the very things from which we have been averting our gaze. In the end, real life is not elsewhere. It is here and now, and its true meaning needs to be first discovered and then pursued. It’s not just the externals that need adjusting (weight loss, job security, state in life). Nor is it the cast of characters that needs replacing (housemates, work supervisor, on-again-off-again boyfriend). Those changes mean little without an interior transformation. Ultimately, I’m the one who has to change my approach toward the meaningful things that fill my life, and I won’t be happy until I do.