Is Pursuing Happiness Keeping You from Being Happy?
A Christian Parable about Recognizing Love
Is the very thing you want keeping you from what you want?
You may have heard this story before—the riverbanks of a town are beginning to overflow and everyone is ordered to evacuate. A faithful man prays to God to help him. A family drives by, crowded in a car, offering to take him with them. He says, “No thanks, God will send help if I need it.” A woman rows by in a canoe as the water rises, and she offers to take him along. He again refuses. Finally, he’s on the roof of his house and the water is still rising. He has not lost his faith. A helicopter flies over and drops of rope, but the man refuses again saying “God will save me, go help someone who really needs it.” As the water rises up to his chest, he screams at God, “Why aren’t you answering my prayers?” God smiles and says, “I sent a car, a boat, and a helicopter; what else do you want?”
Like all good parables, there are many lessons we can take from this one. In this case I want to generalize it, because I think it can apply to so much more than faith and prayer. I believe it has profound implications for happiness as well.
The man’s steadfast commitment to getting help from God actually kept him from receiving the very help he wanted. How often do we do the same thing? How often is our pursuit of happiness keeping us from being happy? How often is our drive for success keeping us blind to the success already there, right in front of us?
A few days ago I had a visceral experience of this with happiness. I was catching up with a friend after a few months of being out of touch, telling him how I had been feeling a little down lately. Yet as I started telling him what was going on in my life, I started to see that almost all of the details were extremely good. Once I zoomed out and looked at the bigger picture I saw that I was receiving everything I wanted.
Yet the deeper lesson is not to confuse the form that something takes with the underlying content of the message. The praying man in the flood was unable to see that the God’s content of love was being expressed in the form of a traditional rescue—car, boat, and helicopter. We are often unable to see each other’s love because we are unfamiliar with the language others speak. Nowhere is this more apparent than traveling in a foreign country with different customs—like a country where burping after a meal is a sign of appreciation not rudeness.
It might be useful to take a moment and look at what you want most in your life. Actually, it does not even have to be what you most want; it could be anything you want.
Take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. Make a quick list of a few things you want on the left. Scan the list and ask yourself if pursuing these things is keeping you from getting them.
This likely will not turn anything up in the first go, so take a moment to list on the right the underlying content of what each of the things will give you—for example a new car will give you status, a husband will give you love, winning the lottery will give you safety and relaxation.
Now look again and see if the column on the left invalidates the column on the right—does the work you do to get a new car lower your status? Does pursuing a husband keep you from accepting love? Does buying lottery tickets stress you out?
If any of your wants are being eclipsed by their pursuit, try a different strategy to get what (content) you really want.