Sermon writing is a mix of art, spirit, inspiration, and chutzpah. It is also darn hard. To get a real appreciation of what goes into writing a sermon, try it! You then can get a real appreciation of the wonderful job our minister does each Sunday. I was told that the key to delivering a good sermon is to “identify the good news!”
Now, identifying the good news can be a pretty difficult task, particularly if you are exposed to the media. For some reason, those who decide what “news” is fit to disseminate seem to chose those events that play up natural disasters and human-created evil deeds and suffering. Those stories seem to attract our attention and apparently help sell the things being advertised. Where, then, where can we find the good news? Perhaps, for the time we dwell in this sanctuary, it is fitting and proper that we should search for the news that is good.
So, then, what is the topic for today’s good news? I would propose that around the world, no matter what our situation – rich or poor; educated or not; of one race, religion, gender, or another – we all want to be happy and to avoid suffering. Our every intended action: how we choose to live our lives within the context of the limitations imposed by our circumstances – can be seen as a quest to answer the great question that confronts us all: “How am I to be happy?”
We all want and hope for happiness. We have, indeed, defined the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. We have fought wars and constituted our government supposedly to guarantee that right. So, how can we obtain happiness? I see several paths to achieve that goal. Each involves attitude and perspective. And – here is the good news – each is available here and now!
For many years now, I have been looking into this happiness business. I thought that perhaps I could distill the thoughts and investigations of others into a potion that, taken daily, could lighten and brighten my day and the days of those around me. This potion would give perspective to what I had and what I did, and it would enable me to share my insights and joy with others.
In my various career incarnations, I have worked with some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet. I have been exposed to those who were publicly admired, looked up to, and whose lives seemed ideal. Yet, behind the façade, I learned there often lay unhappiness, discontent, fear, and dissatisfaction. What was the problem? What might be the solution?
Let’s look at three routes to happiness:
Everything we do, not only as individuals, but also as a society, can be seen in terms of this fundamental aspiration to be happy – one that is shared by all sentient human beings. The desire to be happy and to avoid suffering knows no boundaries. It is in our nature. It needs no justification. Everywhere, by all means imaginable, people are striving to improve their lives. Yet, it seems that those living in the materially developed countries, for all their industry, are less satisfied, less happy, and to some extent suffer more than those living in the least developed countries. The current “occupations” railing against the 1%, the richest, may partake of some of this malaise.
If we compare the “have’s” with the “have-not’s” – the rich with the poor – it seems those with less material things are often the least anxious and unsatisfied, even though they are plagued with physical pains and suffering. As for the materially rich, many do not know how to use their wealth intelligently. They often are so caught up with the pursuit of acquiring still more that they make no room for anything or anyone else in their lives.
In their absorption, these “rich” people seem to lose the dream of happiness that the riches were to have provided. As a result, they are tormented, torn between doubt about what might happen and the hope of gaining more, unsure of the nature and authenticity of their personal relationships. They are plagued with mental and emotional suffering – even though outwardly they may appear to be leading successful and comfortable lives. This inner suffering is clearly connected with growing confusion as to what constitutes morality and what its foundations are.
Let’s get back to finding the “good news.” Here is a simple start: during my search for a shortcut to happiness, I found and was fascinating by a simple equation:
How might this work? Well, let’s plug in some numbers to represent worldly goods. If we have five and want ten, then we are at 50% satisfaction or happiness. You can substitute pretty much any material item: have one car, want two; have a two bedroom home, want one with four – you can fill in your own blanks and, if you don’t, the folks on Madison Avenue putting out the advertising certainly will. It is un-American and disrespectful of “the American Dream” to not want more than you have.
Now, let’s say you have five, but only want two. Well, you can even give away three and still be 100% satisfied and happy. Simple? Yes. Flawed? To some degree, yes, because we know that there is a lot more to life, to being happy, than just possessing worldly goods. And, we are off to a good start. Reduce your wants. Chose what you have. Magically, your happiness increases. You can do that, and you can do that here and now. Good news!!
At one time in my life, starting some nineteen years ago, I spent the better part of four years working at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, which bills itself as the world’s largest center for holistic studies. It was and is a great camp for adults. Each week and every weekend, hundreds of people gather to examine ways to better their lives and seek the answer to happiness for themselves. Their workshops are lead by teachers and facilitators among who are included many of the best-known men and women who purport to have found “the” answer.
At the end of their time at Omega, most participants left with a “high” – they believed that they had a, if not, the answer. Then they re-entered the “real world” and usually lost what they believed they had found. They wanted validation from their family, friends and associates – validation hard to find from those who had not participated in their workshops. This “real world” did not offer the support they would need to continue on their path – something that needs to be built into our “good news” template.
At Omega, I lived in a small tent, where I could not stand up. My clothes were in a cardboard box outside the tent that was a daily gathering place for the biggest black ants I had ever seen. Someone gave me a cushy air-mattress to sleep on. I earned $50 a week. I lived in community. My basic “needs” were met. I openly shared who I was at that time, not who I had been – a practiced shared by the others who worked there. I stopped judging, listened to others and began to really “hear” what they were thinking and saying. I served those who came to find answers, becoming “the space between the notes” that allows the notes to be heard. I was happy.
The problem, then, is how to apply these answers, how to follow the route or routes we have discovered and mapped out to our own happiness, how to stay on the path in “the real world” – a world that is not particularly happiness-friendly.
I think I would get pretty good agreement from this congregation if I made a flat-out statement that worldly goods – “stuff” – alone do not equal happiness. Of course we have a need for a certain amount of material things. However, there is something wrong with the current “American way” of creating desire and artificial needs that go way beyond the basics. The advertising that permeates our daily lives is designed mostly to create dissatisfaction with our current state. “If only I had . . . . you can fill in the blank . . . then I would be “happy.” And when you get it? Well, it is on to the next thing. So, if this “stuff” isn’t happiness, then what does create happiness? What is the nature and importance of happiness?
The problem is not materialism as such. Obviously, material gains satisfy us on a physical or sensual level. An animal’s quest for happiness is restricted to survival and to the immediate gratification of sensory desires. Think about blissful your dog is when you toss her a treat, or scratch his ear. However, sensory gratifications, though pleasurable, are not permanent. The relatively brief elation we experience when appeasing sensual impulses may not be very different from what the puppy feels after he’s gobbled up that treat. “Where’s my next one?” In the same way, when we try to fulfill our immediate sensory desires, temporary relief is soon followed by craving for more. At best, the happiness we derive from eating a good meal, or from other ways we get “high,” can last only until the next time we feel hungry or feel “down.”
A second path to happiness can be found in people lie Barry Neil Kaufman, whose book title: “Happiness Is a Choice” tells the whole story. This approach was the theme of Bobby McFerrin’s song: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” You can let events determine the state of your life, or you can be your life’s author. By deciding to be happy, to say “no” to unhappiness, you acknowledge your capacity to choose your beliefs and feelings as well as your ability to take a directorial role in guiding your responses to events and to people with a clear and conscious intention. If you chose not to believe a supposed crisis or problem will be bad for you, that’s saying no to unhappiness. Changing yourself by decision enables you to go directly to the experience of happiness and love.
In this mode of taking charge of how you hold things and events, you are urged to seek and create happiness in itself and for itself. You don’t need a reason to be happy. Making up reasons is part of the game we play when justifying unhappiness. And, if you want to create and live in a world filled with people who are more loving, accepting, peaceful and supportive of each other, you must first give the gift of happiness and love to yourself. We cannot reach out to give something we have not yet experienced inside. So, you can decide: . . . right now . . . to be happy. More good news!!
A third path to happiness is set forth in a wonderfully written book called “Ethics for a New Millennium,” published in 1999 by the Dalai Lama. In addressing this issue of achieving happiness, he defines the principal characteristic of genuine happiness as peace – inner peace. To achieve this inner peace, he calls for a spiritual revolution. In his view, whether or not a person is a “religious” believer does not matter much. What is important is that he or she be a good human being. And, what then is the prescription for “goodhumanbeingness?” It consists of nothing more than acting out of concern for others.
A two-pronged approach is suggested to finding and holding inner peace. The first relates to our basic attitude – how we relate to external circumstances. As with Barry Neil Kaufman, it is proposed that we do have a choice as to how we view and react to events. Although we cannot always change our external situation to suit ourselves, we can change our attitude.
The other major source of inner peace is the actions we undertake in our pursuit of happiness. These range from those actions that make a positive effect, through those that are neutral, to those that have a negative effect. As we first saw, when we desire things for no real reason beyond the enjoyment they give us, ultimately they tend to bring us more problems. Yes, it is part of human nature to satisfy our cravings, to want to see, to touch, to possess. Yet, as we have first discussed, in the end, this “having” doesn’t last, is transient, and doesn’t create and sustain our happiness.
To apply this to a present-day public concern, we need look no further than the current furor over the pursuit of business and personal profit – without the consideration of the potentially negative consequences that such practices can bring. The joy of rising stock prices, or of profits from inscrutable trading and securities that create nothing but enormous profits for a very few with no benefit to anyone else, has yielded many negative results, affecting people’s jobs, their homes and savings, their standard of living and the possibilities for their children. The entire capitalist system is being called into question. If the likely consequences for the entire populace had been fully weighed and considered, the temporary gain of happiness for the few would have been more than offset by the long-term likelihood of trouble.
Each day, then by engaging in this spiritual practice of being concerned about and caring for others, step by step you can re-order your habits and attitudes so that your own concerns become less important and overwhelming and those of others become paramount. By engaging in this practice, you will find that you enjoy peace and happiness yourself.
This prescription allows you to relinquish your envy, to let go your desire to triumph over others. Instead, you work to benefit others. With kindness, with courage, and with confidence that in doing so, you are sure to meet with success. You practice welcoming others with a smile. You are straightforward and impartial. You treat everyone as if he or she were a close friend.
A direct result of this practice is inner peace. Inner peace becomes the principal characteristic of happiness. This explains the paradox that while we can all think of people who remain dissatisfied despite having every material advantage, there are others who remain happy, notwithstanding being in the most difficult circumstances.
Why is conduct inspired by the wish to help others the most effective way to bring about genuine happiness? Consider the following:
Although each of us may experience similar misfortunes and the same incidences of life such as sickness, old age, and mishaps of one sort or another, the sufferings which undermine our internal peace – anxiety, frustration, disappointment – are definitely less. In our concern for others, we worry less about ourselves and hence experience our own suffering as less intense.
So, what does this all tell us? First, because our every action has a universal dimension – a potential impact on others’ happiness – certain universal rules are necessary as a means
to ensure that we do not harm others. Secondly, it tells us that genuine happiness consists in those spiritual qualities of love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, and humility. It is these that provide happiness, both for ourselves and for others. The practice is pretty simple. The results guaranteed. More good news!!!
How, then, to end up? I would join the Dalai Lama as he says:
“This then is my true religion, my simple faith. In this sense, there is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are: ultimately these are all we need. So long as we practice these in our daily lives, then no matter if we are learned or unlearned, whether we believe in Buddha or God, or follow some other religion or none at all, as long as we have compassion for others and conduct ourselves with restraint out of a sense of responsibility, there is no doubt we will be happy.”
So may it be.
(Based on Sermon of August 4, 2002 at TJMC UU by Arthur W. Rashap)
In this life I am named Arthur William Rashap. I have lived 79 years with a myriad of experiences that have enabled me to enjoy many worlds and to have met and worked with some special people. I want to share this and have the opportunity to interact with you.