Are You Happy?

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Are You Happy?
Mar 302016


Tomorrow is my birthday, and always on the eve of my birthday I take stock of my life – it’s a sort of personal new year’s eve. Hovering in the background, but not always prominent, is the question “Are you happy?” It’s a good question although it is fraught with all manner of complications, mostly having to do with definitions. What is happiness? Good question. We often read about such-and-such country being the happiest in the world. But what’s the metric being used to come up with a winner? Self reporting is not very reliable because different people, even within one country, have different scales of value. Using external measures that can be quantified is no more reliable because there are built in assumptions about what makes people happy – salary, vacation time, marriage duration, health, life expectancy  . . . or whatever.  Are you invariably and inevitably happy because you have a good job with plenty of time off, a good marriage, a healthy life etc. ? They are all good things, but I don’t define my happiness in those terms.

Asking myself on the eve of my birthday whether I am happy or not is a simpler question because I am in charge of the scale of values; but it is by no means an easy one. My simple answer today is “yes, I am” but it needs explanation, caveats, and twiddly bits. What follows has solely to do with ME and my values. I am not giving advice.

My old college flatmate, JD, and I are best friends and have been writing to one another for decades about all manner of things. A few years ago we discussed happiness and came up with a three-tiered system:

  1. Contenment
  2. Happiness
  3. Joy

Definitions are not going to be very precise, so I’ll give the general idea. Contentment is about one step above being neutral (which would be, not happy/not unhappy). To be content is better than that. It means that everything is pretty much working out. I’d say that’s been the state of affairs for most of my adult life, with forays into happiness or depression. To be content means there’s not much about your life you want to change. Maybe you’d say that to be content means you have a big comfort zone.

Happiness is of a different order. After JD and I had come up with the system I invented an exercise for myself. I took out my notebook and ruled up a blank page with two columns, one labeled “HAPPY,” the other, “UNHAPPY.” In hindsight I realize that I should have had a middle zone which would have been a grab bag of minor things on either side of the line such as drinking a beer (minimally good) or washing dishes (minimally bad), but I was going for deeper issues. By “happy” I meant things that are deeply satisfying to me; things that when I do them I am totally absorbed by, lost in – that is, things that I can do endlessly without wanting to stop.

My “HAPPY” list was easy to complete – writing, cooking, photography, and travel. They are actually all intertwined with one another. When I travel to new places, for example, I write about it, take hundreds of photos, and learn cooking techniques. A glance at my other blog, will make that clear. But they also work effortlessly by themselves. I’m planning a birthday dinner party for tomorrow, and I have spent much of today planning, shopping, and cooking – all making me delighted. It’s hard work at times, but I don’t mind in the least.

Joy, is yet one step higher. You might use other words such as “ecstasy.” I can’t imagine anyone living in a permanent state of joy, but it might be possible. I’ve experienced pure joy a few times. These are moments when I feel utter pleasure with the world, when I feel invincible, when I feel overwhelmed with good feelings. You have either experienced this feeling or you haven’t.  If you have you will know what I am talking about. If you haven’t, nothing I say here will explain it.

I’m not going to discuss my “UNHAPPY” column. It’s personal and private, and this blog is not my open confessional. I’ll say only that a couple of entries were surprises to me when I figured them out. My point, in this regard, is that this exercise cannot be idle. You have to really ponder for some time. I’d say it took the better part of two weeks to be satisfied with my choices.

Then what? What was the point? Simply put, I then had a plan of action – do only the things that made me happy, and avoid the things that made me unhappy. The middle ground of inconsequential things was what it was – you have to wash the dishes and take out the trash. No big deal.

From that time until now I have followed that plan. But there’s more to it than simply deciding to do the good stuff. You have to have the ability to do it. For most of my life I have been encumbered by duties and responsibilities that have not allowed me to just travel or write when I felt like it. I’ve had a house and car, a job, a family, and all the rest of it. That means I’ve had to invest time and money on repairs, bills, commuting and so forth. Now it’s different. Six years ago I walked away from my house and eventually sold it and its contents as well as my cars. I paid off all my debts with the proceeds, and have a little left over for emergencies. Eventually I will draw retirement. My son has graduated college and currently has enough money to support himself. That means I am free to do as I please.

Everything I now own will pack into two suitcases and a backpack. I used to have nearly 5,000 books, a kitchen full of dishes and utensils, a house full of furniture, and on and on. I left it all behind. Sure, I miss certain bits. My cast iron skillets that I took years to season were just wonderful, and I used them almost every day. But in Argentina, China, and now Italy I can cook quite well without them. Since leaving New York I’ve had six kitchens – some great, some barely adequate. But I’ve made wonderful dishes in all of them.

The bottom line is that I am happy because I am free. I don’t have to worry about leaking pipes, or clogged fuel lines, or house taxes. In fact I don’t worry about anything. There’s a saying in Italy that comes in similar forms in other cultures. “If you have a problem and you can do something about it, do it. If there is nothing you can do, accept it.” Case closed.

This summer I’m thinking of grabbing a rail pass and tooling around Europe for a month, then settling down to write for a couple of months. In the process I’ll cook, and photograph. Then I’ll teach for a bit to pay for food and housing before moving on to my next destination – unknown as of now. That’s it; that’s my life. I’m happy with it. Something could go wrong, of course.  I could get sick, have an accident, have my few valuables stolen. I’ll take care of those things if they happen. There’s no sense in worrying about them now. Tomorrow is another day; today I’m happy.

That’s my birthday eve musing. Last birthday I was living in a hostel in China and was mostly at the contentment level. Now I’m in Italy having stepped up to happiness. I don’t know what’s next and I don’t care. I’m happy now and that’s all that matters to me.


Unpacking Easter

 Bible, Religion  Comments Off on Unpacking Easter
Mar 252016


The Easter season is not quite the same secular, materialistic, frenetic jumble that Christmas is in the West because it still retains some semblance of Christianity. Nonetheless, I am inclined to “unpack” the season in the same way that I did for Christmas because there is a rhythm to the season that is important to me. For my Christmas exercise you can go here

Where Christmas has the contour of anticipation (Advent), BIG EVENT, and response (Epiphany), Easter has a similar contour of Lent, BIG EVENT, and Pentecost, but it is much more complicated and drawn out – about one-third of the year. Easter is also different in that, although it is a spring festival, it is not fixed in the calendar in the way that Christmas is. In fact, setting the date of Easter Sunday was the major impetus for calendar reform at various times. In simple terms (it’s a little more complicated), Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox (21 March), which, because of the vagaries of full moons, means it can fall anywhere from late March to late April, and meaning that the full Easter season can start in February and end in June depending on the moon.

The Easter season begins with what I will call Carnival, that is, the period of blowout leading up to Lent. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, so the day before (Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday etc.) and also previous weeks in some cultures, is a time to party before the hammer falls. I’ve enjoyed Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Murgos in Buenos Aires, and, now, Carnevale in Italy. It’s a good season to follow on from Christmas and get prepared for Lent. I’ve always made pancakes (crepes) with sugar and lemon on Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day in England) as a special treat.

Ash Wednesday begins Lent – 40 days of prayer and meditation as a way to prepare for Easter. Fasting during this period was an important element in times past, and still is for some people. It was common practice to avoid meat, rich foods, and alcohol during this time. Now it is still common for people to “give up something” for Lent. This practice has never been a part of church doctrine but it falls within the spirit of fasting. In basic terms, classic fasting involves eating only one meal per day (with two small snacks), and avoiding rich foods. The good news is that you don’t have to fast on feast days, and there are many in Lent. For starters, every Sunday is a feast day, but a lot of others fall within the period. For me, the other piece of good news is that if you are over 60 (according to Catholic doctrine) you are not required to fast: I will be 65 next week.

I don’t buy into any of these church dogmas, but I do observe Lent. This is not very Presbyterian of me, I know. My pastor when I was a teen preached a sermon before Lent one Sunday on how Presbyterians have to be solemn, sober, and self denying all 365 days of the year, and not just when we feel like it – like those godless Catholics over there. Well . . . he was an idiot. Our lives need rhythm. I find that devoting Lent to extra prayer and meditation is a salutary way to prepare for the joy of Easter. In times past I observed a classic fast, but nowadays I’m a bit more lax with the physical side. I’m allowed: I’m old !!

The tradition on Ash Wednesday is to go to church for a special service of prayer and penitence, and then receive the mark of the cross in ash on your forehead. Traditionally the ashes come from burning the remaining palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service mixed with a little olive oil. When I was an active pastor I held an evening Ash Wednesday service, which was always well attended.

Lent is longer than Advent and, though the Sundays have names, their themes are not quite so evident. The names are based on the first words of the introit in Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran traditions for each Sunday as follows:

Invocabit – First Sunday
Invocavit me et exaudiam eum
He shall call upon Me

Reminiscere – Second Sunday
Reminiscere miserationum tuarum Domine
Remember, O Lord

Oculi – The Third Sunday
Oculi mei semper ad Dominum
Mine eyes always on God

Laetare – The Fourth Sunday
Laetare Jerusalem
Rejoice Jerusalem

Judica – The Fifth Sunday
Judica me, Deus
Judge me, O God

The fourth Sunday is also called Mid-Lent Sunday, and Mothering Sunday in some churches (especially in England). In imitation of U.S. tradition, Mothering Sunday is now Mother’s Day in England. But the original meaning of “Mothering” is obscure. The tradition that appeals to me, although not validated by sources, is that in pre-Reformation England this Sunday was a day off for servants and indentured workers to visit their “Mother” church, that is, the one where they were baptized, hence a day to go home (and in the process visit their parents). In the 19th century in Britain it is well recorded that the day had become such an event in some parts. By the 20th century the tradition had mutated substantially, and now is plain old Mother’s Day.

The sixth Sunday is Palm Sunday, marking the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and the start of Holy Week. There are some great hymns for this Sunday and mountains of traditions worldwide that I’ve experienced. I always gave out palms, and insisted that people wave them a lot when they sang the hymns. Always joyous. In Catholic countries, in particular, you can get elaborately woven decorations made with palm fronds on this day. You’re meant to put them, or your palm branch, by a holy item at home.

Maundy Thursday in Holy Week marks the Last Supper. I always held a Tenebrae service that evening. The Tenebrae takes many forms. Mine was a blend of Jewish seder and classic Christian rite. The Tenebrae is the symmetric opposite of the services of the Advent wreath. In the latter, week by week, more candles are lit, but in the Tenebrae all the candles are lit at the beginning, then extinguished one by one until the room is in complete darkness.

Maundy Thursday is remembered as the time when Jesus instituted the sacrament of Communion at the Last Supper. So I began the service with a communal meal that roughly replicated a Passover meal. We would have lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs, plus readings from the Haggadah (responsively between my son and me). Then we switched to gospel readings concerning the Last Supper. At the end of each reading, the reader extinguished a candle set in a wooden cross-shaped holder. At the last candle the room was plunged into complete darkness, and an elder hammered nails into wood as we sat in silence. Very powerful.

On Good Friday it is common to have cross walks in addition to church services in which the crucifixion narrative is retold. I did them in my parishes, sometimes in conjunction with other churches in the parish. This event is a simple perambulation of the streets with one (or several) members of the congregation bearing a cross.

Holy Saturday is something of a quiet day, although it is often the day for the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, as it is this year. It’s also the traditional day for the Bacup Britannia Coconut dancers to do their circuit of the town (in Lancashire). A special and strange folk custom I attended for many years in the 1960s and 70s. It’s a sort of “business as usual” day between major events.

It’s good to get up before dawn on Easter Sunday and go to a sunrise service. By dumb luck, the first I ever performed was on my birthday (which almost never falls on Easter Sunday). You are supposed to go to a high place and sing Easter hymns along with relevant scripture passages. “He Arose” is my hands down favorite to sing at this service, belted out at the top of my lungs, even in driving sleet !! Regular Easter Sunday service is always packed – guaranteed to be the best of the year.

I always made an Easter basket for my son on this day – filled with chocolate eggs and other goodies. Easter lunch/dinner was always a roast leg of lamb with all the trimmings. This year I managed to get a little cut of lamb to keep the tradition going. A whole leg is a bit much for one.

The Sunday after Easter is called Low Sunday (which pastors joke is named after the low attendance figures). It’s actually a favorite of mine. It marks the day when “Doubting” Thomas saw the risen Jesus for the first time. I always preached about Thomas and his initial lack of faith. When I was tidying up my mother’s flat after she died I came across some hand written notes of hers on Thomas. As I read them I realized they were notes that she had written on one of my Low Sunday sermons that a parishioner had sent her on tape. A deeply compelling moment for me to think that I had ministered to my own mother.

The end of the Easter season is Pentecost Sunday – 50 days after Easter. This marks the descent of the Holy Spirit on the gathered people in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 2:

1.When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

For many evangelical churches (Pentecostalists) this is a defining moment. For me it is rather akin to Epiphany—the close of the season with a last hurrah, before returning to normal life. The original Jewish holiday on which the event fell was Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks (50 days after Passover – “Pentecost” is from the Greek for “fifty days”). The Feast of Weeks was a grain harvest festival, but in the Ashkenazi tradition it has become more associated with dairy products. So I usually make a meal of nice breads and cheeses, but don’t mark it much outside of a special church service.

After Pentecost comes the “meadow period” – the long haul from Pentecost to Advent (about half the year) when the liturgical color is green, hence the name.

Have a happy, and contoured, Easter.


 Religion  Comments Off on Nationalism
Mar 132016


It’s not particularly clever or original of me to think of the 19th century as a watershed period in the creation of modern ways of thinking. What I want to focus on is the development of a particular brand of nationalism at this time – sometimes called modernist nationalism –the sense of personal identity centered on a culturally homogeneous political state. I find this ideology completely repellant and unnatural, but it is with us for a long time I fear. At its worst it leads to fascism and allied totalitarian regimes, but even at its “best” I believe it is detrimental to Christian belief.

The 19th century in Europe opened with the Napoleonic Wars which culminated in 1815 with the Treaty of Vienna, designed to prevent imperial aggrandizement of the same order recurring. The idea was to create a balance of power between states, augmented by neutral buffer zones. In this way, no single state would (in theory) be capable of dominating the others, and the neutral zones were supposed to keep states at arm’s length from one another. You can see the underlying logic, but you can also see the inherent flaws in that logic as the 19th century unfolded.

The Austrian Empire was one of the power blocs of the treaty, along with Spain, France, and the United Kingdom. But Austria, more than these others, was a mish-mash of all manner of ethnicities: Germans, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenians (Ukrainians), Romanians, Croats, Venetians (Italians) and Serbs. Each wanted their own nation, rather than being part of a hegemonic empire that spread a thin, but powerful, veneer of conformity and control over the entirety. Tensions boiled over in the revolutions of 1848 (coinciding with, but not provoked by, the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels). Troubled times. By the end of the 19th century, the map of Europe had been redrawn. The separate German states and Italian states had unified into the nations of Germany and Italy, and the Austrian Empire had fragmented into a number of smaller nations.

This 19th century ideal of nationalism is fairly easy to comprehend, as are its weaknesses. If you take Italy as an example you can see the idea behind unification. The nation has obvious geographical boundaries with the sea bordering south, east, and west, and mountains to the north. Within those boundaries there’s a degree of cultural uniformity, although this image is more useful for foreigners than for insiders. I often ask my students in Mantua whether they think of themselves primarily as Italians or Mantuans. It’s not an easy question for them to answer. Many of my fellow teachers refer to themselves in regional terms – Calabrian, Venetian etc. – and they all despise Romans. There’s the inherent weakness of national identity as an ideology.

For several years I taught a course titled The Anthropology of Europe, and my first task was always to disabuse my students of the notion that the nations of Europe represented cultural monoliths. Every single nation in Europe is culturally diverse. In cases such as Belgium, made of a mix of French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings, this is obvious. But if you care to look, it’s just as obvious in Spain, Italy, and Germany. You can take language as a simple indicator of cultural diversity. Standard Italian is an outgrowth of Florentine dialect, but local dialects, such as Sicilian, Mantuan, Venetian, Neapolitan etc. abound. If anything Spain is even more diverse, where standard Spanish is derived from Castilian, but dialects such as Catalan, Galician, and Andalusian are virtually unintelligible to the average Castilian speaker – let alone Basque, which is not even in the Indo-European family. Spanish has numerous dialects in the worldwide diaspora, but they are much more uniform than the dialects internal to Spain. Certain regions of Spain, notably Catalonia and the Basque lands, are constantly pressing for autonomy from Madrid.

So . . . what is a nation? To my mind it’s a conglomeration of diverse peoples unified by a political thread. This supposed unity is constantly reinforced by symbols of nationalism including national holidays, state languages, flags, national costume, national legends of origin, and the like. But, to my mind this process of national unification is merely wallpapering over the cracks. National unity is useful for the political ambitions of power elites. I don’t see the benefits for individuals. Nations enforce border security, control immigration, trade with other nations, or go to war. How does any of that benefit me as an individual? I can see the obvious harm it does: at a younger age I might have been conscripted into a national army and died in a war that was of no interest to me; I have constant battles over visas as I travel; and wherever I go people want to brand me by national identity. I don’t want any of this, especially not as a Christian.

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism within a nation state that was part of the Roman Empire. If it had remained as such it might have died when Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 CE. But Paul had been busy evangelizing all around the Mediterranean, spreading Christianity to a whole range of peoples. Some of his early converts were Jews, but many were not, and he needed to devise a basic system that could cover the cultural diversity he found. Therefore, his rules had to be basic – love God, love one another, be decent, work hard, and so forth. Of course he added some layers of ritual and organization for the sake of coherence. But his message was one of universality. There was no sense in his writings to individual churches that there was a Corinthian or Roman or Colossian Christianity. Those churches had problems he wrote to them about, but he never suggested that the Word should be fragmented to suit individual nations.

The Hebrew Bible places great emphasis on nations (and empires), but the Greek Bible does not: just the opposite. Nations are the enemy. If there is to be any unity at all it must be universal, not local. The people to fear are national leaders (and the rich elites), not the common people. That’s the brand of Christianity I embrace – not the bigoted, nationalistic monster that politicians and their allies (especially in the United States) have created and trumpet. My best advice to you is that if you hear a preacher spouting political rhetoric, or supporting political candidates or parties, don’t walk, RUN away. They are not Christians.

To be continued . . .

Rich or Happy?

 Philosophy, Spirituality  Comments Off on Rich or Happy?
Mar 062016


I’ve already written a little about Jesus’ thoughts on the rich Here I want to extend that discussion. I wrote these words to a friend this morning, “my intention in life is to be happy, not rich.” Afterwards I wondered whether someone might say in response, “can’t you be both?” Good question. I don’t know that there is a simple answer, but my inclination is to say no. Going back to camels and needles for a second, Jesus is saying that if you are rich it is because you value money over other things, especially God. But does being rich prevent you from being happy?

I’ve certainly been dead broke and in debt many times in my life, and have no hesitation in saying that it sucks. Living in a run down hostel and surviving on a couple of bowls of rice a day was not pleasant. It’s not the end of the world, though, especially if you live in hope of better times. I tend to take the approach that hard times end at some point. Once I was flying back to Buenos Aires from London and got pick-pocketed in Madrid. I lost all my cash, bank cards, and driver’s license, so I ended up at Ezeiza airport with no money and no debit cards to get more (which would not have helped because my accounts were tapped out). It could have been depressing but I just said to myself, “you’re not going to live here for the rest of your life; something will happen.” I got the guy at the information booth to call a couple of friends and it all worked out in the end. Worry would have been pointless. Now, if I had been filthy rich that situation would not have happened. There’s no question that having a ton of money greases the wheels. But at what cost?

When I look at people who are swimming in money, I don’t sense a lot of happiness. One common problem is that rich people never seem to be content with what they have. They always want more. It’s pretty easy pop psychology (and probably simplistic) to think of them as people with holes in their hearts that can never be filled by money and possessions, even though they keep trying. Let’s take the current demon of the political scene in the United States: Donald Trump. It is evident that a great many of his followers want to be like him — a rich bully who always seems to get his way. He seems far from happy to me: just the opposite (although when asked he would doubtless reply, “I’m the happiest man in the world.”) He’s constantly saying that he’s the best at everything — and only the Bible is a better book than his Art of the Deal.

Trump is always complaining about what is wrong with the U.S: politicians are losers, immigrants are rapists or drug smugglers, Muslims are terrorists, women are often fat and ugly . . . and on and on without cease. He has such a negative outlook. He’s on a course to “Make America Great Again.” Isn’t it great now? Why be such a malcontent, and why encourage others in that pessimism? Hasn’t the U.S. treated him extremely well? Why would I want to follow a rich person with such a sour outlook? Jesus was poor and was destined for a hideous death, but as Monty Python parodied in Life of Brian, he looked on the bright side of life.

A friend of mine in Santa Fe told me how once he was feeling really down about money and moaning about it to a homeless man, of all people. He took my friend to a busy street and panhandled a few bucks, then went and bought them both some instant noodles which they heated up with free hot water at the store. Then they went outside and ate together. The homeless guy’s comment was, “See, you can always get what you need.” There it is — what you need or what you want?

Two more anecdotes:

Once I got chatting with a homeless man on the street, and asked him at one point if he needed anything. He pointed to a pitiful collection of belongings in a couple of garbage bags and said, “Nope, I’ve got all I need right here.”

Another time I was in the children’s library of my home town with my young son. I was chatting to the librarian about a fierce storm we had had the night before. A young mother was also in there with her two kids and heard us, so she added, “Yup my roof was leaking something dreadful. I don’t have the money to fix it, but I was able to put a pot under it to catch the water, and thanked God I had a pot.”

I know, I know, It’s easy to say, “I don’t want to be like them.” Don’t you? What do you want? As far as I could tell both were happy. They never stopped smiling and laughing. If you had to choose what would it be – rich or happy? Compare these two sentences:

I’d rather be rich then happy.

I’d rather be happy than rich.

Give it some thought.


To be continued. . .