Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but it is not as good as it thinks it is at producing happiness. This was the suggestion I heard made by Fr. Robert Spitzer, who was the guest on “Catholic Answers Live” today. He pointed out that we have countless books and programs on how to attain happiness, yet people report rising levels of depression.
This reminded me of Blessed Mother Teresa’s trenchant observation when she was the speaker at America’s National Prayer Breakfast back in the early 1990s. She said: “People ask me, Mother, who are the poorest people in the world. I answer, Americans.” This woman who lived among and helped the poorest of the poor evidently saw something missing in the lives of the richest of the rich of the earth. She believed, I guess, that Americans displayed a spiritual poverty that you don’t see in other, poorer peoples.
I had a chance once to test Mother Teresa’s perception, in a kind of reverse way and an admittedly unscientific way. I was at a conference talking to an anthropologist who studied the people of Madagascar (per capital GDP: $1429). Since she was an American, born and raised, and since she carried out her studies by visiting and living Madagascar, I asked her what was the most interesting or striking thing about them. She replied without hesitation: “How happy they are.”
This is not–I hope it goes without saying–to minimize or romanticize the plight of the poor. It just to remind those of us who are rich that they may actually have something we all too often lack.
Fr. Spitzer’s remarks also reminded me of this great passage from a lecture by the Catholic novelist Walker Percy, who was arguing that the task of the novelist (or at least the kind of novelist he aspired to be) was to diagnose the unseen malady of the times. He said:
And if it is the novelist’s business to look and see what is there for everyone to see but is nonetheless not seen . . . Then sooner or later he must confront the great paradox of the twentieth century: that no other time has been more life-affirming in its pronouncements, self-fulfilling, creative, autonomous, and so on—and more death-dealing in its actions. It is the century of the love of death. I am not talking just about Verdun or the Holocaust or Dresden or Hiroshima. I am talking about a subtler form of death, a death in life, of people who seem to be living lives which are good by all sociological standards and yet who somehow seem to be more dead than alive. Whenever you have a hundred thousand psychotherapists talking about being life-affirming and a million books about life-enrichment, you can be sure there is a lot of death around.
We Americans tend to think that our way of life is the best in the world, in the history of the world. It certainly has many advantages. But at the same time we seem to have a lot to complain about. The disconnect here ought to be an invitation to some more self-examination, prodded by the pointed observations of people like Fr. Spitzer, Mother Teresa, and Walker Percy.