Monday, August 25, 2014

The Secret to Happiness is...

With all due respect to the artist "Pharrell", happiness involves far more than just listening to some catchy little pop number that makes you feel happy… or at least it makes you feel happy the first five thousand times you hear it, until you really do begin to wonder whether or not the devil wrote it simply as a means to torment you. Do you remember the song Mmm Bop? Shiny Happy People? "Don't Worry Be Happy"? Oh yes, I think you do, and I think you know exactly what I mean. And what about all those times when as a youngster you were given free reign to eat all of the candy in creation if it pleased you, only to find out that what started out as a candilcious dream, has ended in a candy-coated nightmare? Does any of this ring a bell to you?

At any rate, when I was in the fifth grade, and Atari was at its height, I asked my parents if they would buy me the game "PacMan" for my birthday. Mind you, this was the very same PacMan that had completely won the hearts and minds of the ordinary American, so much so that there was even a #1 song called "PacMan Fever" on the radio at the time. In my mind, having this particular video game was the very definition of what it meant to be happy. As a matter of fact, had I known the words of the prophet Simeon, I may have uttered them at the mere thought of receiving such a "beatific gift"; "Lord, now you can let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen salvation."

Finally, the day of my birthday arrived, and as I began to open my birthday presents, I quickly found myself shuffling through all of the "lesser gifts" (if only to get to the grand prize). But as I tore through all of the wrapping, I never stopped to notice that I was slowly running out of gifts. I felt like a contestant on the Price is Right who had just made a costly miscalculation on the Showcase Showdown. The next thing I knew I had finished opening all of my gifts, and the gift that I had so long coveted was no where to be found. So you may be wondering how well I was able to disguise my dismay? Disguise? Are you kidding me? Who said I even tried? I cannot say just how visibly displeased I looked, but I know this much, if memories serves me correctly, I did very little to hide my disgust. Poker has never been my game, and I was certainly in no mood to play it on this occasion. "How could they do this to me?! I deserved that game, and instead of giving me what I wanted they give me this stupid crap. This is the worst birthday ever!"

Yet just as I began to disqualify myself indefinitely from any future gifts, my mother, in her classic style, pulled from the cushions of the couch one final rectangular box, one that she apparently "forgot" about altogether (I am not sure why a forgotten gift would be under the couch cushion, but that was part of the surprise). Yes, in spite of my poor attitude, she nevertheless handed me the much coveted prize; the one and only, PACMAN! Oh the shame of my ingratitude! I was deeply embarrassed, but what I felt even more intensely was the great joy of getting exactly what I wanted. I pulled the wrapping from the package, thanked my mom and dad, and ran to plug it into the console.

Did it meet my expectations? Was it the video equivalent of the beatific vision? Let me just says this right now: if Atari PacMan is what heaven is like, then we are all in BIG trouble. Oh my goodness, it barely even resembled the original. Sure there was a PacMan like creature on the screen eating pellets or whatever they eat (they looked more like giant hyphens to me). But nothing else on the screen really resembled (at least in a satisfactory way) the arcade version. The most "exciting" moment in the game occurred when you ate all of the "pellets" and successfully cleared the board. So what did you get for this fabulous accomplishment? Are you ready boys and girls? You got to repeat the same level over and over again, with the additional reward of receiving a new "PacMan" each time (indicated by the spectacular green dot below).

My point is this: I was bored with that stupid game within about an hour of receiving it. All of that energy and nonsense over something so frivolous and fleeting, and what for? Still, you may be tempted to point out that in the end I did ultimately show gratitude for what I got. But the truth is I was only thankful because I got exactly what I demanded from my parents. And even then my sense of gratitude was extremely brief and superficial. Yet what this incident revealed was something far more important than my ultimate displeasure with a toy.

The First Law of gift-giving is that nothing is deserved. Indeed, the moment that something is demanded it ceases to be a gift. The man who deserves everything enjoys nothing, while the man who deserves nothing, awakes to find that the whole world is covered in wrapping paper. Hence, the secret to happiness is gratitude- not the kind that comes from getting precisely what is asked for- but the kind that is constantly marveling at how much has already been given. Do not go about praying the loathsome prayer of Veruca Salt (i.e. "I want it now"), rather pray to see with gratitude all that is presently in front of your eyes, and then proceed to thank God for the very eyeballs through which you saw it all in the first place. Do this and the whole world will be granted unto you.

Sin gives us a terrible astigmatism, a far-sidedness that renders us blind to the goodness that is right in front of us. I think this is why God spends so much time praising the poor and the child alike, for the poor man recognizes that anything added to life is a luxury, and the child sees the world in a spirit of wonder because everyday some new marvel is thrown at him. The question is how does one develop this disposition if one lacks it? The best way to accomplish this (on a practical level) is by moving away from an impersonal and generic gratitude for things, and towards a more "particular" kind of praise, a litany of thankfulness that focuses on praising the particular. From the most obvious, to the most odd things- we must take the time to single them out and praise them. I think when people pray to God they believe it has to involve either asking Him for something, or saying something profound. This manner of prayer about which I speak is so simple anyone can practice it. Merely think of all the things you are grateful for, but be as specific as possible. For example, you should not only thank God for the existence of your father, but you should thank him for your father's laughter (if it pleases you); you should not only thank God for your spouse, but for your spouse's nose (as I do); thank Him not only for the trees and sky, but also for the dirt roads that wander who knows where, and the rusty mail boxes attached to mysterious homes built on the side of mountains. A man who praises such things will never run out of reasons to be grateful to God. This is the creative work that must be undertaken if one is to truly be happy.

You might wonder what this spirit of gratitude would look like in practice. Simply watch the following viral video, and you will get a good glimpse of what true happiness and humility look like. Unlike me on my 11th birthday, this child expects nothing (as should be obvious by the way he reacts to receiving a cutting board), and so when he receives something which is truly beyond his wildest imagination, he genuinely responds as one does when winning the lottery. Yes it is true, the man (or child) who sees the world with a grateful eye, does indeed feel as if they have won the lottery, no matter how much he has materially.


  1. Hello. I've come to this blog after watching Sean Chapman on the 'Journey Home' program. The hour for the program ran out before Sean was able to complete his story about his return to Mother Church. Where could I find the complete story?

    Lovely blog, by the way.

  2. Hello Randall! Well, unless they invite me back, or I blog on it, there really isn't a "finished" version of it recorded. But if you would like to know anything about the rest of my journey, I would be more than happy to share it with you. Thank you for your interest!

    1. Incidentally, when I first began blogging, my wife set up the account under her name. It is for this reason it registers my response under her name. Sorry if there was any confusion.

    2. Hello Sean. Yes, I would love to hear the rest of your story. I am a Catholic convert (Easter Vigil 2006) and I am fascinated by the stories of others who have come, or returned, home.

      I figured you were posting under your wife's name. I'm probably about the same age as you and I didn't know any girls who were obsessed with Atari PacMan!

    3. I think my question was too vague. I think where the "Journey Home" program ended you had come to the point in your story where you had begun to turn toward the Church. Was there a definite moment where you realized you needed to come into the Church? Also, the program describes you as a 'revert'. I assume you had been baptized, but had you ever been confirmed? Did you go through the RCIA process? Did you have any hang-ups with any of the Church's teachings?

  3. I think after the big "dream" that I mentioned on the show, I realized that I couldn't "fence sit" any longer and I decided to give myself entirely to Christ after that point, it was only a matter of when (which was soon after). Yes, I was baptized and received first communion (which I mention earlier in the show). As far as being confirmed, once I decided to return, I really began to study the Faith meticulously, so within the year, our priest waived the whole RCIA process (especially since I was good friends with the woman who ran it and was in communication with her constantly). Initially I did have a few hang ups with a few of the moral teachings, as well as perhaps the Immaculate Conception, but what was central to me was whether or not Jesus was God, and if He was then the Catholic Church had to be the "true Church" because in my view it presented the fulness of faith, and if I was going to follow Christ, which for me was difficult, why do it half way (viz. I had already been catering my faith to suit my disposition, why continue that as a Christian). Thus, it was a matter not so much a matter of obedience to one teaching or the other, but an obedience to the whole person of Christ which was the biggest obstacle. I hope that helps!

  4. Yes, thank you! Also, I meant to ask, do you teach somewhere now? By chance I caught most of a repeat of your appearance on the program and I never did hear what it is you do now. I got the impression that you teach.

    It's interesting that the Immaculate Conception was a difficult teaching since Saint Mary really drew you to Jesus. Also, what do you make of the army dressed in rags in that dream? Specifically, why rags? I can venture an answer, but I want to hear your interpretation.

  5. Hi Randall, I am presently teaching high school (10th and 12th grade). As far as Mary, I think it was the mystery of a human being (just like us) being completely without sin that I struggled with, especially went it seemed like an add on to the deposit of faith. Only later, did I begin to grasp its deeper meaning and context. In terms of the dream, I will keep it simple. The soldiers of God wear rags because it is their humility which is weaponry (dare I say their violence), not conventional weapons.

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