What’s the Point?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

In their wisdom, America’s Founding Fathers summed up some self-evident truths and presented them as a cornerstone in the foundation of the most enduring democracy and, arguably, most successful nation in all of history. For nearly 250 years, the United States has been fighting for, testing, arguing about, and often imperfectly, moving these principles forward at home and abroad. Our great experiment, with all of its flaws and challenges, remains a bastion and beacon for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the great features of our founding, and the principles laid out in both the Declaration and the Constitution, is the room they allow for argument and discourse. Somehow, they allow enough specificity to guide us meaningfully while giving space for argument over interpretation and actualization. Some might argue that these gaps have fostered great strife but I would rebut that they have also enabled our country to scale in a massive and highly integrated way. Despite personal preferences and beliefs, our founding structure and rule of law have largely maintained our steady worldview. They have given us just enough rigidity and flexibility to evolve.

Recognizing the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right is a fantastically brilliant bit of fuzziness built-in to our Declaration. We do not have a right to actual happiness but we are free to chase it in whatever way we desire as long as our pursuit does not break laws or otherwise impinge on the rights of other citizens. So what is happiness?

Happiness is a tricky word and leaves lots of room for interpretation. Loyola Marymount Professor, Christopher Kaczor, describes four levels of happiness: level one reflects bodily happiness in the fulfillment of basic human needs like food and shelter, level two centers on achievement in what status, power, and wealth, level three happiness stems from love and service to others, and level four is agape, love of God – the place where we begin to approach true joy.

The fact that one word needs four levels to begin to break it down and is supplanted with the word “joy” at its highest state, points to the broad sweep of possibility in its pursuit. Kaczor’s point with the levels is to highlight the fact “happiness” is fleeting in most of its forms and our pursuit of a particular level often leaves us wanting for more as it fades. From there, we begin to fill our need for happiness with things that ultimately do not make us happy.

In his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, psychologist Martin Seligman introduces his PERMA model suggesting that positive emotions, engagement, relationship, meaning, and achievement, are the keys to the highest state of happiness which is flourishing. Seligman’s argument is that these are the fundamental elements necessary for us to flourish in this life and the degree to which we are experiencing them will dictate our ongoing happiness.

In the 5th Century, St. Augustine wrote of the “Imago Dei,” the image of God in the soul of man as the source of fundamental human dignity – a central theme to Catholic teaching. The notion of fundamental human dignity is the ultimate inalienable right and is foundational to justice in the core sense of giving the other his or her due as a beloved son or daughter of God. Augustine saw our mind as composed of memory, understanding, and will, empowered with reason – all reflections of the Creator. If we are each endowed with the image of our Creator imprinted upon our very soul, then there is inherent value, dignity, in us as human beings.

In Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote “For the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God.” This line is often misquoted as “The glory of God is man fully alive” but one might interpret the spirit of Irenaeus’ message pointing toward human flourishing – an existence fully alive with positive emotion, full engagement in existence, loving relationships, meaning in work and activity, and achievement through the stewardship of gifts given.

From a governmental perspective, protecting the right to pursue happiness may be enough, particularly when the very notion of happiness can be defined so personally. However, for us as parents, teachers, friends, siblings, and leaders, perhaps there is higher call and deeper possibility. If every person has a fundamental human dignity and justice demands that we we give them the due of that dignity, what is our responsibility? Looking in the mirror, if we are called to flourish, to be fully alive, what is our duty to ourselves?

Maybe human flourishing is the point. Our flourishing and the flourishing of those around us. Let’s break it down.

  • Capacities. Charisms. Gifts. Vocations. Purpose. Call. Practicing at the top of your license.
  • Giving. Everything. Pouring yourself out for those you love. Loving everyone. Sharing. Leading. Following.
  • Feeling. All of it. Joy. Sorrow. Pain. Pleasure. Satisfaction. Hunger. Desire. Detachment. Sacrifice. Receipt.
  • Using the gift brings joy to the Giver. Glorifies Him.
  • Making a difference. Mattering. What we do in life echoes in eternity. Touching one soul. Changing the world.
  • Leave it better. Be a good steward. Show up every day. The signs are all there.
  • This moment is our closest point to eternity.  Remember who you are. Who you are made to be. Love like you are dying. Because you are.
  • We have the playbook. We know the path. God calls each day. But it is we who get lost. Leave the path. Wander. We get in our own way. We choose.
  • Never enough. If not stuff, then happiness. It not happiness, then pleasure. If not pleasure, then power. If not power, then control. If not control, then clarity. If not clarity, then…
  • Where’s the joy? Where’s the peace? Where’s the love? The patience? The kindness? The goodness? The gentleness? The generosity? The faithfulness? The modesty? The chastity? The self-control?
  • The gifts must be accepted. They must be accepted, internalized, and acted upon. Action begets the fruits. Action.
  • Think, yes. But the mind spins. Action breaks the cycle. Action moves, energizes, engages, what we know and how we are called. Action creates momentum. We cannot think our way to motion or momentum. Only action moves us forward.
  • Action. Love. Give. Jump. Run. Talk. Touch. Laugh. Dance. Throw. Smile. Write. Listen. Look. Imagine. Draw. Play. Pet. Move. Exert. Walk. Live. Act.
  • Action. Action. Action.
  • Time moves on, it does not wait. Seize the day. Make your life extraordinary. Delayed obedience is disobedience.

What’s the point? If we approached our relationships as a solemn duty to help the other flourish, what would happen? If we led this way, loved this way, trusted this way, and forgave this way, every day, what change would occur in our little worlds?

Too vague? Perhaps a bit too foo-foo? A focus on the dignity of the individual and his or her flourishing is wildly pragmatic. If the people working for us are flourishing, it will help our customers flourish. If our children are flourishing, it will help their friends flourish. If our spouse is flourishing, it will help our children flourish. If our friends are flourishing, it will help their families flourish. And, if all of these people are flourishing, we can’t help but flourish too.

Why have a government? Why have an organization? Why have a community, a society, a culture, or a family? What’s the point? The Founding Fathers were on to something, but let’s not just pursue happiness. Let’s flourish. How? Help enough other people get there and we can’t help but find ourselves fully alive.

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