Sunday, 21 November 2010

On happiness

Sinéad O'Connor seems a strange place to start this post, but for me she is emblematic of our age. She feels passionately about things, and this causes her to make dramatic gestures that seem crazy, rather like some secular version of some of the Old Testament prophets. She has passion and fire, but this energy is unfocussed, undirected, and lashes out in all directions so that she can always be relied upon for a headline, a soundbite, that is as passionate as it is unreflective.

For a while she lived with a journalist called John Waters and had a daughter by him. He, in common with many Irish people of his generation, rebelled against the Church and lost his faith, believing himself to have profited by the loss. In due time, and through many journeys, he found it again, better than ever, and he also found Communion and Liberation which gave him a vocabulary to understand and articulate what he had been through and what Ireland was going through. He put it into a book, called Lapsed Agnostic which contains a lot of wisdom, and I commend it to you, especially if you know something about Ireland, though its wisdom is much wider.

The book is a kind of rebellion against revolution and at the same time a pæan in its praise. Years ago, in the eighties and nineties, I noticed that the authorities in our Church were still insistently employing the language and rhetoric of revolution and of change, which was strange, given that they were very clearly in power and making damn sure that revolution and change from their view of things was not gonna happen. In its own way, I suppose, it wasn't that different from Fidel Castro continuing to wear military uniform long after it had anything but symbolic relevance.

Did you ever watch any of those iconic comedies of the 90s, Absolutely Fabulous? There, Edina Monsoon, the mother, played by Jennifer Saunders, is an ageing revolutionary who just happens to be stinking rich and selfish, and is completely blind to the fact. She longs for her daughter, Saffron, a very buttoned-up conservative (with a small c), to embrace her 'values', and at one point asks her with passion 'Why can't you just rebel?' Saffron quietly says 'I thought that's just what I was doing!'

Waters writes from the point of view of Irish politics, observing that the politicians likewise, by presenting themselves constantly as forward-looking, embracing constantly blue-sky-thinking, have seized the initiative of revolution from the young and have refused to let it go. They monopolize revolution, and have stolen it from those to whom it naturally belongs. This has an enervating effect on the young, who simply will not engage with the political process at any level because the situation has been created where all politics are simply sat upon with the dead weight of authority administering with what ought to be their own language of revolution. But, of course, nothing ever does change, least of all for the better. The promise of one government after another that it will do away with the past (yet again) and create a new future simply seizes the spirit of youth from the young and makes them cynical.

The issue, I think, is deeper. Our society has become so consumer-led that it is incapable any more of perceiving the truth that happiness and fulfillment are far better achieved by self-giving than by satisfying our own wants and desires.

I was discussing this book with a colleague recently, and she made the sage observation that when she was growing up, the message given by Church, governments and schools was to consider just what the young people could give their lives to. It set before them a purpose and goal which was in some degree transforming. My colleague then contrasted this to what happened increasingly from the 60s onwards, which was to enable young people to organize their choices so as to get what they want out of life. It might seem a small difference, but the consequences have been catastrophic.

Life is now organized around the next pleasure and how to get it. Relationships likewise, and the whole advertising industry is organized around convincing people that they can perpetually have dinner without ever washing up. While the West is engaged upon this orgy of indulgence, the 'soma' of Brave New World, the poorer world struggles to satisfy the appetites in our own; it supplies cheap goods, but also drugs, sex workers and much more; these tear apart societies in the poorer world as much as in our own. And ultimately, it is no wonder that people do not care what government is doing. And it is no wonder that when the Church suggests that this 'soma' is bad for us, she is not listened to.

What it comes down to is that the real revolution is the Gospel, and, unlike the faux revolutions of our politicians, it is new in every age. Instead of arranging our lives around the next pleasure, the Church suggests that instead we should ask ourselves 'who can I give the next pleasure to?' It holds up marriage as the example of this love par excellence, since it reflects this exact self-giving relationship which exists between the Church herself and Christ.

It would be wonderful if our schools again could help our young people to consider their vocation in life. Not 'how do I get what I want?', but 'what am I called to be, to give?'

Not only would our young people be happier, but so would our world. In a world like this, Sinéad O'Connor with all her fire and passion might have done something truly great.


Anonymous said...

Not that he is the best role model, but John F Kennedy's 1960 quote "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" comes to mind. Thank you for this thoughtful blog, Father.
Simon Cotton

Ttony said...

This really is very good - some real food for thought. Thank you.

Tom Piatak said...

An excellent piece.

P Standforth said...

Very thoughtful post, thank you.

It seems to me sometimes that the most rebellious thing modern teenagers can do is to go about with a tidy haircut, and a smart suit and tie - and I've seen a number do this. All the routes of 'rebellion' have been monopolised by their parents, and what is left is what once would have been not outrageous, but conventional!

Geoff Callister said...

Fr Sean,
Your excellent piece really should be seen by a wide readership. It's the sort of worldly, incisive analysis that our misdirected culture needs. It's also a darn good read! I reckon you should suggest it as a feature piece for one of the national papers: the Telegraph would present the best chance of publication, but - dare I say - the Guardian OCCASIONALLY risks such a countercultural view, and that could have a more beneficial effect on the sections of society that most need such a message.

Pastor in Monte said...

Gosh, how kind. But, Domine non sum dignus!

Amanda said...

I agree with Geoff, fantastic post! Very insightful. Thank you!

GOR said...

Well said, Father! There is a need to explain, to young people especially, that there is more to life than the here and now - and to remind us older people about that too. It is sad for me to see how consumerism, secularism and the pursuit of fleeting satisfaction have gripped my homeland, Ireland, in the past few decades. Perhaps the current economic situation will serve as a wake-up call, reminding everyone that there is nothing permanent in this life and that we are called to higher things.

Anna said...

A word on Sinead O'Connor, if I may.

I understand spurring people on to great things, and the value of praying that God would direct them to be used by Him even more.

However, do not underestimate how God has used Sinead O'Connor so far. In her early life, she was terrorized by her mother at home. Later, like a plant craning toward sunlight, she was able to write songs that had the ability to heal. In turn, those who were in pain themselves listened to her voice and were ministered to and restored onward, toward a life refreshed. Those people then went on to do the things they were meant to do, with a healed wing, made as good as new, and stronger. God's hand on the shoulder through the voice of someone who had reached out to Him in a time of pain. His beauty showing though the cracks of a broken spirit. Let's be thankful for all that Sinead O'Connor has done and pray for God to use her even more and to fully protect her.

I, for one, am terribly grateful for what God has done through Sinead O'Connor. In the past couple of weeks, I have learned more about her early life, but until this point when her music spun on my CD player, I had no idea of her biography (except that she is Irish). I have dealt with something similar to what she did, though not as extreme. It was never my focus, but when my father who is a soul mate to me passed away thirteen years ago when I was 20, I was left very much grieving and also facing a "less-than-perfect" mother, as she has described her mom.

The miracle is that the special *knowledge* contained in the songs was conveyed to me intact, even though I had no idea about the nature of the hardship she endured. Her music played a role in the dressing and binding of wounds... and not only those mentioned above, but many different kinds of trials and times of personal growth.

She really isn't secular at all. Her image might be made into that, but not actually herself.

Jackie Parkes MJ said...

I love some of Sinead's music..very haunting..I enjoyed this post too.