I’m no longer content with being happy, but I have learned to be happy with being content. Perhaps I should say, that I have found happiness is not consistently satisfactory, even the pursuit of it which, in the United States, I have as a recognized, natural right. It would be safer and more honest to say that I do, now, find satisfaction in choosing contentment over happiness as a preferred state of being.
I wasn’t born this way, and I didn’t wake up on morning after reading philosophy the night before, suddenly enlightened and enlivened. I still struggle to be content though the struggle does not feel so strenuous as it once did. It required a great deal of heartbreak, a total and utter destruction of the world paradigm that had been inculcated in my mind and heart from my first human interactions. For me, the loss of faith was a necessary though not sufficient waypoint in finding contentment preferable to happiness. I am a mere human primate that still craves monoliths, icons, and ideals that might be considered unchanging or everlasting. That was partly due to the religious conditioning to which I was subjected and that I perpetuated by writ and by rite into adulthood. I also believe such a yearning for the absolute it is part of our nature. When that all collapsed around me, I quite naturally sought out new guru’s and scriptures to rebuild a foundation for my morality and for how I perceived and interacted with the world and its inhabitants. Curiously, my morality didn’t crumble into degeneracy and debauchery and dishonesty. I simply felt compelled to excuse or give basis for my morals. While I owe something to my faith tradition, I found morals went deeper than that. And my reasons became human solidarity where, once, the adolescent, “my dad/God told me so,” had been my natural, scoffing reply.
After six years, two episodes of significant depression exacerbated by personal and professional challenges, I feel I have come out the other side better-off than I had been early in my faith transition. Unlike early Mormon malcontents and apostates–the Thomas Marsh’s and Martin Harris’s–I have better explanations for misery and for the natural world. Even during my extended moments of unhappiness, I knew that I could no longer be happy as a Mormon. I am confident I would have been more miserable had I returned to activity after breaking away. In the first two years after reasoning myself in atheism, I did try going back. I tried believing. I accepted callings within the church including being twice a bishop’s councilor—the first being when I became an atheist and remained covertly. When I was to be released, the next bishop asked me to remain in the position despite me revealing my mental and spiritual state to him. I accepted the call. I tried without lying to anyone. I felt more lost. The misery of trying to reconcile what I knew with what Mormonism required me to believe and claim as knowledge had no balm to soothe and no tincture to cure. Those were not the extent of callings I accepted as an atheist. None offered comfort and certainly not happiness. How could one be content living a lie when you were aware of the facts?
Confession: yes, Mom; yes, Bishop; yes, President (insert name of geriatric, white male and don’t forget the middle initial!)—I am NOT happier since I left the Mormon church. You may also be right in your solipsistic accusation that, when I experience happiness, I “only think I’m happy.” And this is a big part of the problem and part of why I, and many others, experience such heartbreak in leaving Mormonism. Aside from the loss of friends, the alienation of and by family, the infantile position you feel yourself in when the meaning for life crumbles into ruins around you, the accompanying social and professional suicide, and the strain on marriages and parent-child relationships each apostate must prepare for a confrontation with happiness itself.
There exists a familiar pressure from the ex-Mormon community to feel happier than I did when I was an active Mormon. Unlike the days when I followed the prophet, it’s a passive pressure. Reading or hearing fellow ex-Mormons describe how much happier they are rings with a similar tone for me as hearing active members describe how happy they are. I don’t doubt that many or all of them are. Maybe I’m supposed to be happier and, if I’m not, I must be ex-Mormoning incorrectly. (I’ve experienced this, too. “You’re not praying intently.” “You’re not reading the scriptures with an open heart.” You’re not Mormoning correctly or you’d call it Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Sainting“) I will say that I find a greater degree of validation for experiencing melancholy or despair from the ex-Mormon community than I did from Mormons. I’m not inundated with encouragement that makes not attempt at empathy. No one tells me to count my blessings or reminds me of how happy they remember me being. They demonstrate understanding and support without expectation.
The other aspect of needing to feel happier post-Mormonism is to show my family that they were wrong. I am happier! I’ll show Mom and Dad and everyone else that I’m happier! Sob, sob. Sniff, sniff. Can’t you see how Happy I AM! Luckily, I’ve already disappointed them severely enough simply in rejecting their mythology that I’ve grown quite comfortable with being a disappointment in this matter. And I’ve developed–not necessarily a thick-skin–but a healthier perspective on happiness since leaving the faith. It doesn’t make me happier, but now I no longer expect it to and I feel no guilt or shame, I don’t feel compelled to say or show happy expressions, when I’m genuinely feeling down or even outright miserable.
The words originally performed by Jimmy Ruffin and made popular to my generation by Paul Young have become suddenly salient and profound: “As I walk this land with broken dreams, / I have visions of many things. / But happiness is just an illusion / Filled with sadness and confusion.“
I’ve been to the top of the mountain. I’ve seen behind the veil. I’ve participated in the rites and unquestioningly paid ten percent of my annual, gross income. There is not happiness there, either. I used to tell people there was. With conviction, even tears–those learned expressions all Mormon’s know–I testified of happiness that comes from obedience. It takes a vulnerable person to bring the honesty out of others willing to, as Orwell said, face unpleasant facts. No one wants to admit that altruism is less a motivation to them than money or prestige or relaxation. In fact, we all feel guilty when we don’t put altruism or charity on a list of our fundamental motivations. Like happiness, we feel compelled to claim it for ourselves even when we don’t feel it. Then, living in our contradictions, as everyone does, we claim happiness or altruism when, in practice, we hoard billions for a rainy day.
In his Rubaiyat , 11th-12th century Persian polymath and poet Omar Khayyam, expressed his doubt openly and beautifully. I encountered the Rubaiyat early in my journey out of Mormonism. And I have found it immensely reassuring. Khayyam said:
“Nor idle I who speak it, nor profane, / This playful wisdom growing out of pain; / How many midnights whitened into morn / Before the seeker knew he sought in vain. / You want to know the Secret—so did I, / Low in the dust I sought it, and on high / Sought it in awful flight from star to star, / … My soul went knocking at each starry door, / Till on the stilly top of heaven’s stair, / Clear-eyed I looked—and laughed—and climbed no more. / Of all my seeking this is all my gain: / No agony of any mortal brain / Shall wrest the secret of the life of man; / The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.”
Most ex-Mormons I know were not idle in their devotion. As Kayyam said later in Rubaiyat, “The unbeliever knows his Koran best.” To understand the mysteries of God, we were told to prepare for and participate in the silly rites of the Mormon temple. Many of us stood at the “silly top of heaven’s stair” in great and spacious Mormon temples, seeking knowledge from “on high.” Once through the confusion and the communal and familial pressure; once honest enough with ourselves; in the “wisdom” that grew from our pain; beyond the “agony” of our “mortal brains” and hearts–we finally understood the secret. Searching for happiness or knowledge “taught [us] that the Search is vain.”
Not only is the search “in vain” it is itself “vain.” Consider Kayyam’s most famous line from Rubaiyat: “And do you think that unto such as you, / A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew, / God gave the Secret, and denied it me?— / Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.” The vanity of those who think their form of happiness or their Search is superior? Perhaps it’s simply an error of translation. What matters it! The search is not only “in vain” it is propped up by tithing-hungry old men who claim humility as they vainly declare their spiritual and philosophical superiority. The vain flock to this and join the Search.
Happiness is an illusion propped up every day by imposed facades on the faces of normal people. We hide our pain from one another. Social media personas typically present curated lifestyles, even of those close to us, and rarely do they air dirty laundry. While we are painstakingly aware of our own misery, we are deprived of seeing it in others. The oasis of happiness seems a pleasant destination in the midst of the desert. It is not that happiness is fleeting, it is a mirage. It is not to be found as a destination but, as Orwell suggests in Can Socialists be Happy?, “Happiness” is not a goal to be achieved but a “by-product” of striving for worthy goals–human brotherhood, social and political justice, and economic equality, just to name a grand-eyed sample.
On a personal level–one cannot base their happiness on things like familial harmony or professional success where the choices of others can so dramatically challenge it. We cannot count on validation from other people or entities because, as Jerry Seinfeld once said of people, “they’re the worst!” The acquisition of wealth or health can be problematic as markets out of our control and nature itself may seem to conspire against us. I may take heart in the words of Paul, who suggested that, despite his life nearing its end at the hands of executioners, he had “fought the good fight,” he had “finished [his] course.” It is in striving toward worthy goals that we find contentment. Happiness may come at moments and ought to be basked in when it does–it certainly should never be spurned as undesirable. One can be content while melancholy or disappointed. Depression poses a real challenge to contentment. But, in my experience, happiness is not the answer to depression.
Neuro-philosopher (I made that up) Sam Harris observed, “Some people are content in the midst of deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world. This is not to say that external circumstances do not matter. But it is your mind, rather than circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life.” Not your happiness, mind you. Suicide rates are highest in countries with the highest levels of social, religious, and personal freedom. They have the highest standards of living yet they find living has lost its allure. It’s not about convincing yourself that you are in the midst of bliss but, to me, accepting that life is filled with just as much doubt, depression, and disappointment as it is with bliss, elation, and excitement. Likely, it is subject to far more of the undesirable emotions.
I did search for what I could raise in my life as scripture and began collecting icons. Many came from the world of literature and philosophy. I remember what I felt and thought the first moment I read the work of David Foster Wallace. Oddly, the man has amassed something of a cult following of people who dissect his fiction with the fervor of monotheistic apologists. Unlike L. Ron Hubbard, he didn’t seem to have any desire to lead an actual cult. A friend an I (Hi, friend!) have, on occasion, discussed what books we have adopted with a scriptural deference. Neither of us sees any literary work as infallible, but we do find some books worth re-reading. In my own process of collecting insights, David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” (May 2005) is at the top.
Originally given as a university graduation speech, the oratory was soon transcribed and published. Both the audible and written versions are worthwhile. Wallace was particularly concerned with the detrimental effects of ubiquitous, easily accessible entertainment on mankind. He struggled with drug addiction and depression throughout his life. He spent time in drug and alcohol rehab as well as multiple stays in psychiatric hospitals. He may have seen entertainment as another potential addiction and a fix worth avoiding and chose not to have a television in his own home. None of this diminishes his contributions to the world, in my estimation. He never claimed to be more than a man and certainly didn’t proclaim divine inspiration for his work. He struggled to find meaning and insight in the post-modern world that valued irony without insight into improvement. It seems obvious he craved some kind of spirituality but, perhaps, couldn’t bring himself to adhere to any religion for long. Several snippets rom “This Is Water”:
An outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough.
Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.
Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.
Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
“Yeah, but Mr. Byrd, all of this is in the Bible and The Book of Mormon. No wonder you’re not as happy. You went searching for what you already had.” Well and good for you, dear reader. For me, anything that I must adhere to by divine injunction, no matter how I feel about it, when it outrages reason and when facts fly in the face of its purported truth, is a challenge to contentment and happiness. It requires me to lie to others and, most of all, to myself. This is tried-and-true prescription for misery.
For me, the insights of This Is Water proved even more profound when I found out, after reading it for the first time, that David Foster Wallace died by suicide in 2008. Just three years after expressing insights that may have prevented some from choosing suicide, myself included, the speaker succumbed to his own depression.
Just before I read This Is Water and listened to the speech, I had become enamored with Christopher Hitchens. I recall that on multiple occasions, Hitchens would be asked by an interviewer if he counted Orwell or Jefferson or any other of the many literary and historical individuals he would routinely quote as a hero. Hitchens would nearly, invariably respond that he rejected the idea of heroes and the collection thereof. He simply admired men for their contributions but never raised a mere human above the message.
Recently, I attended a continuing education course in my profession. Two fellow participants and I seemed to share a lot in common other than our careers. We spent one evening speaking about subjects that went far deeper than our shared career. Late into the night we discussed religion, philosophy, relationships, and politics. After I shared some insight or another, one young man asked where I learned all of the things I was sharing? He could not believe that an atheist had stumbled on these things without God or a really good life coach. It also seemed to matter to him I was not a Trump supporter as he was. I expressed my concern for people voting for a man who, in no way, represented the ideals that they had espoused for decades. The man was being placed ahead of ideals, that is a massive danger to free society. He pressed for my reasons for thinking this way. I shared my perceptions on totalitarian rulers and the methods they use to come into and maintain power. But the idea of putting a man ahead of an ideal brought us to David Foster Wallace. I shared with the young questioner that when we live our lives in fear of losing something—beauty, reputation, power, sexual allure—we cannot be content and any happiness is quick to abate. We find our lives continually and chronically unfulfilling. Our happiness becomes dependent upon external validation of these things. And what if our idol or hero turns out to fail in living up to the message that they have so powerfully communicated to us? What happens when a man who’s words saved your life, takes his own? Positive progress gives way to backsliding; happiness seems not only elusive but futile.
Perhaps this is why some Mormon men run to their bishop to confess sins as simple and as common and as victimless as masturbation. They become dependent on their Bishop declaring them worthy. They stake their happiness on that interaction and the declaration of a person in authority telling them they are worthy. It becomes as much an addiction as the sin they confess. It may even drive the behavior for the chance at feeling forgiven and reconciled.
I am content and, I would even venture to declare myself happy to say that I can and do appreciate David Foster Wallace’s insights into living a peaceful and meaningful life despite his tragic end. Among the other insights he shares during the short and profound speech, Wallace also says of the things we worship: “The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious.”
Already alluded to, a phrase bidding to be one of the best known in world history states that governments are and ought to be formed to ensure that humans need not fear their “self-evident,” “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are abridged. Mormon founder Joseph Smith took the right to pursue happiness further in stating, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence.” He gave this bit of advice and counsel and, in his self-proclaimed station as THE divinely anointed prophet of God, revelation, in an essay written in the wake of his wife finding out he was practicing
polygamy, sorry plural marriage, behind her back. Consider, with a spouse angry of and unsupportive of the polygamy he already practiced with many other women, that in the same essay, Joseph said, “[God] never has—He never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness.” (History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Volume 5, pg134-35).
Honey, you may not support me having clandestine wives (Emma was still woefully ignorant of the extent of Joesph’s plural marriages) but you won’t be happy if you don’t support me because God said so. I know. I’ve been lying to you even though the Book of Mormon says that ‘the liar shall be thrust down to hell.’ I know that it also says that ‘many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord1…Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.’ I know I’ve told you I wasn’t doing this, but there was this angel with a flaming sword that threatened to kill me if I didn’t do it. I know you saw my ‘exchange’ with little Fanny Alger between the slats in the barn. But now you know that you can’t be happy if you don’t accept it and let me do it and support me?
In the same essay, he would go on to say,
Happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God; but we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know, unless we comply with or keep those we have already received! That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time he said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted, by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the Kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added.
This is precisely how authoritarians operate. Joseph Smith gave his followers a recipe that would enable his soft, theocratic tyranny to continue in a coarser, crueler form under Brigham Young.
Joseph, er, God, would go on to back up the essay’s sophistry with a real threat, not of unhappiness, but of actual destruction and loss of salvation. In the section of the church’s Doctrine and Covenants that authorizes and outlines how polygamy is to work, he tells those like Joseph’s wife, Emma:
Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same.
For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.
For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world.
And as pertaining to the new and an everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God. (Doctrine and Covenants 132:3-6, emphasis added)
I think it was important that you understand the circumstances under which–or into which–the aforementioned essay referencing happiness came about. Happiness is mandated! Along with telling Emma and other doubtful saints made uneasy by their sick feeling of disgust and betrayal, they are told in the same essay:
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another…Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is…Everything that God gives us is lawful and right…if we should seize upon those same blessings and enjoyments without law, without revelation, without commandment, those blessings and enjoyments would prove cursings and vexations in the end, and we should have to lie down in sorrow and wailings of everlasting regret. But in obedience there is joy and peace unspotted, unalloyed; and as God has designed our happiness—and the happiness of all His creatures, he never has—He never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which He has designed…
And we atheists and agnostics are the one’s being told that our morals are situational or, at least, that they lack the credibility of being absolute. Those more clever apologists have abandoned the word absolute for objective. “What can a person not justify without God?” they cry out! I reply, “What evil cannot be justified, indeed, what wickedness has not already been justified in the name of God?”
As for happiness, many are raised to think that happiness is the natural and inevitable result of obedience to God’s every command. We begin to find our happiness is conditional and that unhappiness is our fault in every instance. After all, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence.” The striving for perfection while holding up a Savior or a man or a church as the perfect embodiment of divinity is a poisoned chalice. Orwell further said, in Can Socialists Be Happy?, “Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” The perfection-mongers can’t be happy until you’re either conscripted or converted among them or until you are safely secured in the bowels of Hell for your well-deserved, eternal punishment. The attitude Christopher Hitchens described as, “Created sick and commanded, under pain of eternal torture, to be well again,” is the “essence of sadomasochism.” A “creepy and sinister impulse” in the religious who, having been told they are incomplete, spend the rest of their lives being reminded that “without God, they are nothing.” Their inculcated emptiness begs for them to find icons of perfection, which they are reminded they will never, ever attain in this life, and to base their happiness and confidence in the virtues of that individual–usually a male. Thus, they can never see nor will they admit any wrong-doing by their prophet or Savior since their entire hope in life, their happiness, comes from having a lamb without blemish. A willing scapegoat upon which to heap their pretended sins. Posed an imaginary problem and offered a pretended solution.
You’re right, Believer. I do not feel as much happiness since I left the Mormon church. What I have come to realize is that, since I’ve left, I no longer have to convince myself that I have to be happy all day, every day. Felling melancholy, low, or even despondent, is not a punishment— organized as a natural consequence or directly imposed by divinity. Being unhappy is a natural part of life as a still-evolving primate with a large prefrontal cortex capable of over-thinking its circumstances when a disproportionately large adrenal gland and overactive limbic system respond to all manner of stimuli.
Mormonism is just one of many religions that hijack people’s emotions, convincing them that physical experiences like frisson or elevation emotion are the result of God speaking to them. Mormon’s simply plagiarize from the New Testament fruits of the spirit. But if you feel any unease, depression, even sorrow–nature’s way of warning you that something isn’t right–there exists a milieu of shame. Lack of happiness equals a lack of the Spirit as a result of sin or simply doubt. If I wasn’t happy, I was made to feel I had failed. I must have been sinning or not reading scriptures or praying often or intently enough. I should be spending more time at the temple. (Oh, god…please not the Temple again…) There existed, in every instance of less-than-happy emotion, a reason to blame myself. Happiness was the object of my existence. It was right there in the Book of Mormon—the most correct of any book!—“men are that they might have joy.”2 Geez! “Wickedness never was happiness.”3 If I’m not happy, I must be wicked. That big, bad guy, Satan, works so “that all men might be miserable like unto himself.”4
I will give some credit to the Mormon religion. For as puritanical as their religion is in practice, at least in theory they expect happiness to be a part of their life–and if that fails, a definite guarantee to the faithful after death. For many, they can endure decades of misery just for the hope of bliss when they die. H.L. Menken once said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.” Mormons don’t entirely subscribe to misery and the purifying power of both spiritual and temporal poverty though that is one way of encouraging the weary. Despite being told I cannot possibly be happy out the church, I also get to hear that, if I do experience good feelings about life, “I just think I’m happy.” To them, in reality, what I feel is a counterfeit. From the outside looking in, I feel that I can say with confidence, that when you continually tell someone that they have the truth and tell them how happy they are, they do a good job of equating what they feel to happiness and then giving all the credit to the church for it. My happiness is Mormonism was a choice despite my feelings. Outside of it, my melancholy is an admission and acceptance of how I really feel. I have license to feel down from time to time. And I experience no happy-facade-inducing-shame to convince others and myself that I’m worthy, righteous and, therefore, happy.
For me, it’s no longer changing what you think about that matters, it is changing how I think. I don’t need to pretend I’m happy or ignore undesirable, horrific, or mournful aspects of life. I can acknowledge my unhappiness, recognize and own it, then focus on striving for contentment in the areas of my life over which I have some influence. Focus on being responsible for what I can be. A close family member, still active in Mormonism, seemed eager to tell me that all I had to do was “change what I chose to feel.” They were asking me to think positively and ignore negativity. That doesn’t work for me. It’s self-deceiving and self-defeating. Again, it means that if I’m not happy it’s my fault for how I look at it. Member-in-good-standing or degenerate apostate, happiness is an illusion. In both cases, it is something that happens to me. I can choose it but when I fail, there is guilt in the failing. I’d rather let myself be unhappy if that’s how I feel, and acknowledge contentment despite disappointment.
Those in religion are also taught the value of contentment but it is used as a means to trap them. When confronted with questions to which there is no answer, they are taught to be content to get an answer after they die–refer the question upward and give God the credit and the blame for their ignorance. The religious are taught to be expected to be content with bad explanations based on bad evidence or none at all. They are assured and content that feelings confirm not only truth but, indeed, even fact. Of course, this only applies to their faith or the many conspiracy theories to which the faithful seem prone to participate. In almost every other area–including the veracity of faith’s not their own–they would never accept such poor explanations.
Literature has been paramount in my transition to finding peace after Mormonism. Most ex-Mormons are familiar with the wise insight of the manservant, Lee, from John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” That is how leaving religion felt. Learning what that means entails intense and prolonged moments of unhappiness. But, no matter how depressed I became, I never felt that returning to church would actually help. There is no cure for deceit in a church that, by apostolic decree, doesn’t seek apologies nor does it give them. In addition, if perfection meant being happy, that pressure was also, largely alleviated, with respect to the sinful nature of unhappiness. The pressure was not divinely appointed even if I felt some expectation from fellow ex-Mo’s or to show my family I was what they said I could not possibly be.
Consider the novel and story of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Years after leaving his asceticism, Siddhartha was challenged by close friend who remained that, had he stayed and continued to learn from the Shramanas, Siddhartha would have learned how to walk on water. Alas, by leaving his faith, he had missed out on this spiritual power. Siddhartha replied, “I do not wish to know how to walk on water.” With, perhaps a bit of contempt he adds, “May old shramanas content themselves with such wiles!” I see in Siddhartha, a man who did not find any more happiness outside of his religion. He may have found less contentment. But what contentment he did find was not in believing the unbelievable or striving for the unattainable. Abandoning the “vain search” offered something “the stilly top of heaven’s stair” could not–contentment without convincing one’s self that they can walk on water. What good is walking on water as an old man if it means giving up your youth to pursue it? Shunning all the real, tangible wonders and woundings of life to do something that will die with you. Even in an age of credulity, Siddhartha learned to value the tangible and find unaffected contentment therein.
Why hold out for eternal bliss in a heaven no one has ever experienced and certainly never demonstrated including the men who claim divine authority to reveal it to you? No less than the first prophet of God to have his word’s are recorded in the “most correct” book on the Earth, teaches his sons, that “no man can return”5 from the “cold and silent grave.” Lehi teaches6 just a few verses later of the resurrection—a doctrine no other Old Testament writer seemed inspired to clearly teach let alone define. The fact is that everyone who speaks of what Heaven or Hell have no more experience with it than you or I.
Jesus started off well by instructing his followers that “in this world” they would “have tribulation.” He then gave them the injunction to “be of good cheer” because of his alleged triumph over said world.7 It would almost make allowing yourself to feel despair or unhappiness into a sin itself.
I much prefer the insight from The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. Regarding the titular hero of the Greek myth, Camus says in the closing paragraphs of his analysis:
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.
I see no call to cheerfulness. No injunction to be happy and no declaration that happiness is the point of existence or ought to be the condition of it. Victory comes, for Sisyphus, not in the choice of how to feel, but in how to act despite how he feels. Perhaps he knows some sense of satisfaction that would draw a smile on his beleaguered face. I do not suspect that he has any sense he will earn reprieve from the eternal, mundane task laid before him. He is conscious of his fate and the seemingly pointless labor eternity demands of him. Yet, the victory comes, not in carrying the rock to the top. No! Victory is in the moment when he turns back, having watched the stone tumble to the base of the slope for the most recent of a countless number. He will not let his fate overwhelm him. He may not be happy, but he is content to endure without pretending to be happy.
For a time I found myself feeling as Dickens’ heroic Sydney Carton except, I identified with a rather pathetic, early version of the man. It was said of Carton in the early chapters of A Tale of Two Cities: “Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”
In the process of confronting his misery, he found friends in Charles Darnay, his wife, Lucie, and their children. An entirely platonic friend, beloved by this family, Carton found contentment, if not happiness, with them. He could not make Lucie, whom he love, love him romantically in return. He would tell her, as she struggled to reject his advances while remaining friends, “…Your unselfishness cannot entirely comprehend how much my mind has gone on this; but, only ask yourself, how could my happiness be perfect while yours was incomplete?” Carton would go on to trade places with Lucie’s condemned husband who was found awaiting the guillotine because he refused to let an innocent man suffer for his sake. Mr. Darnay would live and Carton would go on, in contentment, to sacrifice his life to ensure the happiness of Lucie.
Comparative happiness or, happiness made apparent by contrast, may have some merit. As I mentioned previously, George Orwell, in the essay Can Socialists Be Happy?, suggests that happiness ought not to be a pursuit but a by-product of worthwhile pursuits. He observes of Dickens’ impoverished Cratchit family, “their happiness derives mainly from contrast…The Cratchits are able to enjoy their Christmas precisely because Christmas only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.” No prosperity gospel thinking here. Simply the rule and role of opposites offering contrast. The bitter makes the sweet all-the-sweeter in comparison. Can we truly understand happiness when we think we must experience it perpetually and feel it as the natural course? Of course. But any interruption to the expected feeling is an indictment of you for some sin our doubt. Is an eternity of bliss truly desirable?
Is the Heaven offered by monotheism truly worth dying for? Many people heard the apocryphal teaching of Joseph Smith that, in essence taught, that the lowest degree of heavenly glory awaiting mankind after judgment was so grand that, if he could see it, he would cut his own throat to get there. This teaching may have taken root in Mormon lore from a speech by then church Patriarch, Eldred G. Smith. “The Prophet Joseph Smith told us that if we could get one little glimpse into the telestial glory even, the glory is so great that we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there (BYU Speeches, March 10, 1964, p. 4).
Scholars have been unable to find an original statement made or attributed to Joseph Smith by any contemporary observer. I understand that Mormon philosopher and historian, Truman Madsen, spent a good deal of effort trying to track down this teaching attributed to both Smith and one of his proclaimed successors, Brigham Young. At best, he found a statement attributed to Wilford Woodruff—a contemporary of both Smith and Young—but reported in the journal of another contemporary, Charles C. Walker in August of 1837. Walker reports that Woodruff reported Smith saying: “Elder Woodruff said the Prophet taught this, roughly: that if we could see what is beyond the veil we couldn’t stand to stay here in mortality for five minutes. And I suggest from the context that he was not talking about the telestial kingdom. He was talking about what it was like to be in the presence of God and the family” (Truman Madsen, The Radiant Life, p. 91).
Notice the vagueness of the statements. The assurance of some unspeakable glory and bliss that would be so preferable to the knowable now as to compel one to suicide. Hiding behind weakness of imagination or language, they simply assure a person of how amazing it will be.
Orwell, in Can Socialists Be Happy?, offers a criticism of any utopia from the Stalinist attempt to fictional imaginings including those created by religion. If we consider their banal musings on Heaven, with its green fields and harp music or prolonged family reunions, this quip is all-the-more amusing: “All ‘favorable’ utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.” Stalin, at least according to Martin Amis in his memoir, Inside Story, and confirmed by nearly any account you read of Soviet indoctrination8, not only postulated perfection, he demanded happiness until people credited him with it. “Stalin had become a Tsar: children now chanted, ‘Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood!’” Indeed, Amis also notes that “A happy child is no better than a gerbil or a goldfish when it comes to counting its blessings…” Indoctrination doesn’t care. For the devout, teaching children how to think is less important than what to think. They truly believe that if they “train up [their] child in the way he should go…when he is old he will not depart from it.”9 Children who do not understand happiness any better than a goldfish, children who still find great happiness in the myth of Santa Claus, are then inculcated with visions of utopia and promised they’ll get it when they die if they don’t sin. Presents at Christmas for good behavior.
Who can deny that a child behaves, often, just as they are raised up? But I prefer to temper my enthusiasm with the idea of William Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” as I raise my children. I’d raise them up to think freely and to approach information fearlessly. Let them make their own choices for happiness without fearing how my happiness may be affected simply for what books they like or what political party they align themselves.
What all of this hearsay, conjecture, and perpetuation of apocryphal ideas demonstrates is the fervor and yearning of people to find happiness where they can. Even Mormons who are outwardly very happy, genuine or affected, cannot shake the craving for assurance that there is even more happiness to come. That the misery they endure now, including the prospect of suicide, will be worthwhile to make it to heaven and its attendant bliss.
I have never experienced the soul-stifling misery or known the perpetually uncertain hunger that Dostoevsky’s characters often do. The bright student, Raskolnikov, in the misery he made for himself, continually sought to justify the murder he had committed. In contrast to Sydney Carton, Raskolnikov finds that happiness, for himself, is the only reason to live. “No, life is only given to me once and I shall never have it again; I don’t want to wait for ‘universal happiness.’ I want to live myself, or else better not live at all.”
In his poem, September 1, 1939, W.H. Auden said it a different way with similar words. On the heels of the Great Depression and the long slog of World War I, events in Germany and Poland ensured the reality of a second World War. Sitting in a “dive”, soaking up the quiet tension of the people around him, he mused upon the faces of the people at the bar who “cling[ed] to their average day” expecting that the lights and music would simply stay on as convention, or that to which they were accustomed–even promised by experience. Everyone lived in a sort of dull, eyes-wide-shut reality that didn’t want to see what was really happening. They didn’t want to confront, honestly, the fact that to do so would require us to “see where we are, / Lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good.” He then expresses that the wasted, spoken air of Important Persons cannot match the coarseness of the average man at the bar. In each human an “error” is “bred in the bone” that “craves what it cannot have, / Not universal love / But to be loved alone.”
Both Dostoevsky and Auden seem to hint at what Thomas Jefferson expressed in a letter he wrote to his would-be lover, Maria Cosway. Titled My Head and My Heart, Jefferson demonstrates the tug-of-war between one’s reason and one’s emotion. His head tells his heart, “The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which he is beset.”
It is obvious Jefferson, perhaps in the attempt at romantic sentiment, is attempting to imply that the head ought to subject itself to the teaching and superiority of the heart. The Heart replies, in part:
Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science…I know indeed that you pretend authority to the sovereign control of our conduct in all its parts.
If acquiring happiness is the emotion that drives us, I think we are bound to be unhappy. Like David Foster Wallace alluded, it can become what we worship. Losing it can be traumatizing. Judging others for what we see as the loss of it, can become the emotional, head versus heart game we play to soothe our own insecurity. Consider the words of Albert Ian Gray’s, The Common Denominator of Success. He admits to failings of imagination and intellect but hints at one of its strengths that we might do well to grant greater attention. He says, “There’s no inspiration in logic. There’s no courage. There’s not even happiness in logic. There’s only satisfaction.”
There is no happiness in logic, but there is a great deal of potential misery in faith. A misery that many are forced to confront with by submitting and deferring to a redemptive perspective of a heretofore only postulated, glorious Heaven. How many LDS parents have found their happiness compromised when a child decides to leave the church? Mine expressed that they were “disappointed.” They’d placed their happiness in the idea of their family being “together forever” based upon the promises of men who cannot possibly know what awaits them beyond the veil of death. Not only that, they placed their happiness upon the words, previously expressed, that happiness comes from obedience and damnation from spurning the free gift of salvation. Words first said by a man who’s lies had been revealed and who needed to have his dalliances excused to his own wife.
Happiness is easily found in escape. Mental escape is easy to be had in the on demand unending availability of streaming video. Autoplay movies and television and streaming games offer a never-ending escape from real life for those who desire it. On par with drugs, alcohol, sugar, and any other substance that can disengage our minds and emotions from interacting with reality, entertainment is a better servant than a master. Phone in hand, the younger generations may now even disengage from the old escape, church. Where else could you dream of and, for an hour or three on Sunday, engage with a fantasy world that is so real to you, you prefer it to the capricious and inexplicable world outside the sanctum? David Foster Wallace, in his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, took a direct shot at American’s and what he percieved as a critical component of the prevailing culture. The monstrous book described drug and alcohol addiction and rehab hand-in-hand with entertainment addiction, and was published in the years when dial-up internet still prevented anything on-demand beyond text and grainy photos. In one description of the main character, we read, “Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.”
I think it’s fair to say that I knew so much more about Mormonism, scripture, and things said by prophets than I did about how and why I felt the way I did about them. At the time it was difficult for me to comprehend the total influence of upbringing and geography on my religious affiliation. I’d been conditioned to notice good feelings and attribute them to the Spirit of God and never think about my feelings beyond that. Thus, the fact that I felt was the extent of my understanding of feeling. I knew bad feelings meant I was sinning or out of tune with God. I didn’t really know why and didn’t think I should ask. God works in mysterious ways, after all…best to leave it a mystery. I hadn’t learned a bit about individual or group psychology or physiology and had been inculcated with a skeptical relationship toward them anyway. I thought I was free to choose—the right was scriptural! In the same verses that declared that men are supposed to have joy, I learned that I was free to choose liberty with God or captivity and death at the hands of the devil.
Orwell’s Principles of Newspeak placed at the end of 1984 offer some insight into the manner in which thought is controlled by oppressive regimes, be they secular or theocratic.
The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.
We don’t talk about Bruno, no, No. NO! Topics that might challenge the founding myths of Mormonism, the current theocratic oligarchy, or might place something rational and empirical on an even footing with the reality faith demanded were diminished and discouraged. I was taught to feel uneasy—unhappy—when my faith was challenged. I was convinced that this was God telling me something was not okay. Thus, so many trusting kids are taken advantage of by adults they are assured are spiritual leaders worthy of their trust. What of the adults scammed of their hard-earned wealth by friends, neighbors, and priesthood leaders? People are not taught how to evaluate a claim to truth or authority. Conspiracy theories are presented the same way their ultimate truth is presented to them in church. And they are happy to believe in nonsensical theories posited by obscure, faceless, nameless anons. And they stare down their “vain” noses at people like me and pat themselves on the back as they repeat in their minds the affirmation: “I’m so happy! They only thinks they’re happy.”
In or around 1780, in a letter to his mentor and fellow Founding Father, George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson said, “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people…No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” Education and freely accessible knowledge are not sufficient guarantees of happiness, though they may be necessary for a democratic, pluralistic society. And Jefferson was not deluded enough to think that the Constitution was a perfect, divinely appointed dispensation of knowledge or practice. Speaking of his misgivings of the Constitution he was not present to sign, “…we must be contented to travel on towards perfection, step by step.” Whether or not he was happy with it, he stated his contentment in a letter to Reverend Charles Clay, “The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches…we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time, and eternally press forward for what is yet to get.”
I’m no longer convinced that the hamster wheel of obedience and sacrifice to deity can offer true and lasting happiness. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, sounding a bit like Samuel to Saul, said:
Ablutions were good, but they were water, they did not wash away sin, they did not quench spiritual thirst, they did not dissolve fear in the heart. Sacrificing to the gods and invoking them was excellent—but was this all? Did sacrifices bring happiness?
A Mormon leader in my former congregation once told a judgmental story about a work associate. Clearly, this man only thought he was happy. The leader told us how fleeting the man’s happiness was. Apparently he sought fulfillment in worldly things including a daily cup of morning coffee. Akin to those who eat bread or drink water that will surely hunger or thirst again, the leader assured us that those who take of the Living Water or eat of the Bread of Life will never thirst nor hunger again. Even in my most strident days as a believing Mormon, this bothered me. I even challenged him that even he, satisfied as he was with the bread of life and the living water of Jesus, also taught us that we needed to read scriptures and pray every day as well as return to church weekly for the sacrament—communion—in order to remain faithful in such a fallen world. Turns out, for mere mortals, the effects of the atonement of Jesus wear out in about a week. Remember the compulsion for validation of worthiness so many young men crave, returning to their clergyman often to confess just for a taste of forgiveness? So much for not thirsting again.
I realize I’m being trite, but the fact remains that the faithful don’t get a simple one-and-done baptism. They must refresh their faith from day to day. They ought not to bemoan or decry the man who drinks a cup of coffee every day or the woman who exposes her shoulders and treat them like some degenerate addict or would-be prostitute. I’m sorry to say that this is a very real thing.
Paragon of virtue, far apart from what the religious establishment of the time espoused, Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, became a thorn in the side of the church-anointed king Henry VIII, for his stridency in points of doctrine regarding divorce and remarriage. The King and his councillors are desperate for More’s support in the matter. He is a man content with his convictions and under no delusions of happiness. He declared:
If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all…why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes.
I advocate for choosing to be human and to striving for excellence while not pretending to some enlightenment or purity or happiness we may not know or feel. Shame breeds discontentment and depression in the well-meaning. Because of my community expectations, shame makes me unhappy and that makes me ashamed.
In Auden’s aforementioned, ominous poem, September 1, 1939, he leaves us with encouragement. I find no happiness in the sentiment but I do see that contentment under even the threat of war, is achievable. Like him, “All I have is a voice /
To undo the folded lie…the lie of Authority / no one exists alone; / We must love one another or die…May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.”
That is, to me, the essence of contentment. “An affirming flame” from the those “beleaguered by…negation and despair.” No, I’m not as happy as I thought I used to be. But I have earned the affirming flame despite feeling beleaguered, disappointed, and even stuck in a life I may have chosen otherwise had I felt the freedom to do so. I am free, now. Free to move forward. Free of the pressure to feel happy. Free to bask in contentment.
It’s a beautiful and wonderful and mysterious world. I don’t know all the answers. I don’t expect to walk on water or defeat death. And I’m okay with that. It’s pretty amazing.
1 This is from the Book of Mormon, Jacob chapter 2. The Book of Mormon, according to Joseph, was and is the most correct of any book on the Earth. The quotation I used is in reference to David and Solomon having many wives and concubines. Clearly, the most correct book on Earth considers their polygamy to be an abomination. The chapter does go on to state that if God wants to build up a people to himself, he may command such a practice despite his blanket statement of it being an abomination. But in the Doctrine and Covenants—further, canonized revelations to Joseph—God proceeds to “justif[y] [His] servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines” (D&C 132: 1). Why should we be surprised at a religion wanting to have it both ways in regard to sexuality? They even rename it plural marriage and claim it is different than polygamy. Newspeak anyone?
2 2 Nephi 2:25
3 Alma 41:10
4 2 Nephi 2:27
5 2 Nephi 1:14, The Book of Mormon
6 2 Nephi 2:8
7 John 16:33
8 I highly suggest you read Katya Soldak’s insightful essay on her upbringing in the Soviet Union. Try to read it without thinking of how religions indoctrinate their children.
9 Proverbs 22:6