April 17, 2011
A Truly Happy ManBy Vasko Kohlmayer
What most of us ultimately want from life is to be happy. When you really think about it almost everything we do is meant -- in one way or another -- to bring us closer to that goal.
Even though the lives of a drug addict and the CEO of a multinational corporation bear little resemblance outwardly, their actions are actuated by the same motive: They both do what they do, because they believe it will bring them closer to that ultimate goal.
The desire to attain happiness is indeed the great motive force of human existence. It is so intense and universal that its pursuit has been acknowledged as an unalienable human right by the Declaration of Independence.
But here is a startling fact: Even though we all strive for happiness few seem to attain it.
It is true we have all met people who said they were very happy. But this state of mind usually arises when something good happens to us. We obtain a great job or make a lot of money or fall in love, and we feel elated. This kind of happiness, however, is almost always temporary, and it eventually wears off.
But when we define happiness in the true sense of the word -- as long-lasting contentment, inner peace, abiding joy, and emotional tranquility -- it is a rare attainment indeed. Just ask yourself this: When was the last time you met a person who was happy in this sense of the term?
Even more surprising is that fact that despite our best efforts the quest for happiness often terminates in frustration. Many -- if not most -- end up with the opposite of that for which they strive: They are unhappy, and often deeply so.
The statistics are staggering. In the very county in which the pursuit of happiness is safeguarded by one of its founding documents, more than ten percent of the population is on anti-depressants. Worse yet, there are also twelve million alcoholics in the United States in addition to thirteen million abusers of illegal drugs.
This does not necessarily mean that those who stay away from various mood-enhancing substances lead lives of contentment and inner peace. The better one comes to know oneself and others the more one comes to realize that every person is troubled in his or her own way. Even seemingly normal people suffer from serious personality defects or indulge in secret vices. Unmet desires, unfulfilled ambitions, and the ultimate emptiness of what the world has to offer further add to the frustration.
As one grows older, progressive physical weakening and the prospect of personal annihilation in the vortex of approaching death further undermine the ideal of a happy, joy-filled existence. It would indeed appear Thoreau's observation that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation" rings at least as true now as it did in his day.
At times we may wonder whether true happiness is achievable at all, and whether its prospect is not only a chimera of the human psyche. Given what we see and experience, we would not be completely unjustified in thinking that by some cruel cosmic fluke the human race has been condemned to a quest of which the final goal is to remain forever elusive.
In light of this, every encounter with a genuinely happy person -- if he can indeed be found -- should be an occasion of most probing interest. Without doubt one such man was Nicholas Herman of Lorraine. To history, however, he is known simply as Brother Lawrence and his tale is told in a book called The Practice of the Presence of God.
This thin masterpiece -- hardly sixty pages long -- could well be called a case study in human happiness even though that is not its intent. Needless to say, the book's overriding impression is Lawrence's deep-seated joyousness, which palpitates throughout. As you leaf through it, you cannot but realize that here you have finally come across one man who has truly achieved that great goal of human existence.
Neither you have to fear that Brother Lawrence is a fake, a literary creation depicting a type which embodies the elusive the ideal. The structure of the book precludes this possibility. Even though Lawrence is usually given as the book's author, he himself would be rather surprised at this, since he did not write it. The main text is actually a record of four conversations between Lawrence and a cleric, one Joseph de Beaufort, who was so deeply impressed with his interlocutor that he wrote down what he said. By all indications, Lawrence was unaware that his utterances were being recorded, much less that they would later be collected in a little book that would go on to become a spiritual classic.
Lawrence's complete lack of self-consciousness is perhaps the book's greatest strength, since it allows him uninhibited sincerity. The ensuing authenticity makes for a remarkable read, for what leaps at us from the page is one of the most real characters in all of historical record. The sense of immediacy and genuineness that the account unwittingly achieves is truly unparalleled in the realm of non-fiction. You can get some sense of it from a scene at the end of the first conversation. This is how Beaufort paraphrases Lawrence's parting words to him:
Only a man who is completely honest and uncontrived could ever speak like this. Even though he lived more than three hundred years ago, you get the impression he is talking to your from a chair across the room. To many readers he will undoubtedly appear more real than the recollection of a friend whom we just met last week. One almost wants to exclaim, "behold, here is a man of flesh and blood!"
And what a happy man Laurence was. When he says that "he passed his life in continual joy," we do not doubt him for a moment, for even though he was but a kitchen hand, Lawrence's inner joy pours out like a torrent from nearly every page. Beaufort's description of his person strikes a perfect harmony with the general tenor of Lawrence's utterance:
As the reader makes his way through this little book, he is irresistibly overcome by the realization that the lowly monk had somehow cracked the riddle of human happiness.
But how did he manage to find that which eludes so many? I will not reveal his secret here, because I do not want to spoil your pleasure in discovering it for yourself. I will just say this for now: He did not seek happiness where most of us try to find it -- in advancing, pleasuring, and building up his own person. He did, in fact, the very opposite: He abandoned himself and directed his energy and love toward something far greater. And that something rewarded him in a way that eludes description.
May the insights and wisdom of Brother Lawrence, a humble cenobite from Lorraine, be of help to you in that great quest of your own life.