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December 6th, 2010:

Felicità – Happiness

Written for World Mission, Manila, Philippines

The U.S. Constitution opens with a resounding declaration of the right to happiness for all human beings. In everyday life this pursuit of happiness, in America as in all Western countries, for many people it is reduced to the accumulation of things – whether money, up-to-date electronic gadgets, roaring cars. The idea that being happy is the same with possessing a lot of material goods has become part of modern culture. Or, in our cases, happiness becomes “fun”. “Have fun” you are told if you go to a party, but also if you go to attend a concert, or a lecture or for shopping. It seems that life without “fun” is no longer life. But can happiness be synonymous with accumulation of material goods and entertainment?

In contrast to the ‘have fun” as a way of life, there are a thousand stories of everyday despair. It is reveling that in the richer western world the number of suicides continues to grow. It seems that the growth of material well-being goes hand in hand with an increase of feelings of being a failure, of diseases of the mind – but especially those of the soul, such as depression – and the desperate attempt to buy happiness with drugs, designer clothing, and all the external signs of appearance of happiness. I was recently told by a friend of mine in his fifties living in France “Sometimes I go out of curiosity to the places of entertainment frequented by my twenty five years old son, perhaps with the excuse to offer him a ride back home. While driving back I feel sick, because I have seen hundreds of desperate, unhappy youngsters who believe they have fun making noise all together and filling themselves with alcohol and other drugs. I wonder if my son goes to those places simply because they are fashionable, or if he goes there because he does not know the inner happiness that in an grown-up person must come from fulfilling responsibilities, making informed choices, complying with the inner values. Is he immature or a person with no ideals? “.

One Sunday morning in a church at Tubalange, on the outskirts of Lusaka (Zambia). Small, poor peasant houses, mostly made of mud and galvanized sheets. Red clay fields that are dry after the last ears of corn were harvested, and a group of Italian visitors who have come to take part in the Mass. Before the final blessing, the lay community leader asks me to introduce the visitors, then all the present line up to to personally welcome and shake hands with the visitors. Someone starts beating a drum, others join in, clapping hands and beating more drums. A young girls starts a song. Then another song and another one, and in a few minutes the small community of about hundred people is singing and dancing, women howling with joy, and guests fully involved and exhilarated. After the final blessing, one of the guests tells me “This is the most spontaneous and heartfelt celebration I’ve ever attended. This explosion of joy cannot be feigned , it can only be an expression of a deep inner happiness that these people have in the depths of the heart.”

So what is the secret to happiness? According to the philosophers, happiness consists in the full realization of oneself. It is not in the things we own and the rewards we receive from others, such as prestige, satisfaction, power. But to achieve self realization we must not desire what is unattainable, not compatible with our present situation, as we learn from the Buddhist or Stoic moral. Neither we can reach happiness if we aspire to a happiness that can only exist in a different world, which is unattainable here and now, as it is suggested by a certain vision of Christian spirituality. All these seem more like ways to avoid disappointment and do not fall into desperation. Rather than a way to be happy in practicing them there is the risk of falling into cynicism, and never be able to experience happiness. Happiness is a life experience that we must be able to welcome, not trained to reject it.

Gitau is a street child of perhaps ten years of age, with a bleak history of neglect and rejection. Yet even just looking at him with affection makes him break into a wide smile. He has already experienced all the possible disappointments, abandoned by the mother, betrayed by friends, and he should know to be cautious against possible disappointments. But Gitau instinctively knows he is a story within a larger story, in communion with the many stories around him. Perhaps, and I believe it is not an exaggeration to attribute to him certain thoughts even if Gitau has just begun to study the catechism to become Christian, has already aware of the truth of the words of Jesus “Blessed are you, happy are you ….” because in everything you see and feel the presence of God, and never lose hope, indeed you are rooted in the certainty, that God and His love will win.

To believe in the promises of the kingdom of heaven is like to live life in fullness already here and now, waiting for a higher level of life. It does not mean to delude ourselves with what is rationally impossible. Yet certainly it is to deny hopelessness and the desperation of the soul. It is not denial of the earthly happiness because we wait for future happiness, but it is rather to experience happiness here so that we become open to the eternal happiness.

We will journey towards happiness and the Kingdom of God not in company of the stoics and the rationalists, but with children like Gitau. Happiness is living immersed in the fact that our little life and history has meaning only within the great story of salvation.

Gitau knows this. He now approaches me and tells me, ‘Father, do you have time to play with me? “. Happiness is a gift that only others, the children, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, the justice seekers, or the Other, can offer us. Gitau, in his search for happiness, is offering it to me.

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