The Pursuit of Happiness

The framers of the United States Declaration of Independence famously included in the list of unalienable rights “the pursuit of Happiness.” The document contains many other important ideas and is worthy of deeper study than most citizens afford it, but that concept of the pursuit of happiness is an elusive endeavor to say the least.

The Declaration does not define happiness. It does not consider the achievement of happiness to be a right, only the pursuit of happiness.

While I am certain that there is value in the pursuit, I remain skeptical about whether or not people achieve or earn or find - or what ever is the right word - happiness. Is it possible to reach happiness in this world.

The question has been bouncing around in my mind because I just finished reading a contemporary novel. It isn’t the Great American Novel. I’m not even sure that it is a good novel. I picked it up on the recommendation of a seminary professor and it took quite a bit of reading before I could figure out why it was recommended. Having finished the book, I can’t quite decide whether or not it was a good recommendation. I suspect that reason that it was recommended is that it represents a shift in contemporary Jewish fiction. Some of the great late 20th Century novelists like Bellow, Potok and Wiesel wrestled mightily with themes of what it means to live in a post-Holocaust world. After a major European power, assisted by the inaction of many other nations came close to exterminating Jews altogether and in the process murdered more than six million, is happiness really possible? With the distinction between the victims and survivors being so narrow - mostly just a matter of random chance - can the distance between heaven and earth be great? The novels even wrestle with major theological themes. With so many victims, the notion of heaven as a sort of holding place for those who have died is brought into question.

As the 20th Century drew to a close, those same fiction writers began to wrestle with the passing of generations. When one generation vows to never forget, what is the responsibility of the next generation? This is not an idle question. There is strong evidence that trauma is indeed generational. A couple of major studies have revealed significant post-traumatic stress in the children of Holocaust survivors. Some have even indicated that such stress may be more severe in the second generation than in the first. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel took on the question in his 1992 novel, “The Forgotten.” One of the principle characters is a Holocaust survivor who is losing his memory to an unspecified illness. The possibility that all he has witnessed might be surrendered to oblivion is horrifying to the character in the story and, by association to the reader of Wiesel’s novel.

As we move towards the second quarter of the 21st Century, a few new novels are appearing from Jewish writers who are exploring the impact of the Holocaust on the third and forth generations of the survivors. What is the impact of a tragedy this scope? Is it truly possible that the sins of one generation are visited upon others to the seventh generation?

When it comes to happiness, however, I don’t believe that gentiles are exempt from the deep questions of Jews. We too have been witness to overwhelming tragedy.

I was born in the first few years after the Holocaust. My father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. But there has been enough trauma in the world in my lifetime to make me well aware of the depth of horror and the capacity of humans for indescribable evil. The Pol Pot regime in Cambodia caused 2,000,000 deaths in less than 5 years between 1975 and 1979. The 1994 Rwanda genocide resulted in 800,000 deaths. 200,000 died in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995.

The violence didn’t end with the close of the 20th Century. Estimates of casualties in the Syrian Civil War vary between 346,612 and 481,612. the violence has been going on since 2011with no end in sight.

In a world of such extreme violence, where we have become numbed by counting victims in the hundreds of thousands, is happiness a realistic goal for anyone?

Looking at the personal lives of my neighbors, one has to at least ask, “Is there something about contemporary Americans that makes us particularly bad at the pursuit of happiness?” Every day I hear new stories of betrayal, divorce, affairs, bankruptcies, broken families, traumatized children, workplace harassment, bullying and more. Even churches, long held sanctuaries from some of the evils of the world have been fraught with scandal and places of terrible abuse. It isn’t hard to get the impression that when it comes to pursuing happiness, 21st Century Americans are particularly inept.

Still, there is great inspiration in reading the founding documents of our nation. And there is great hope that a band of colonists who have witnessed the displacement of the indigenous people of the continent, who are well aware of the evils of slavery, who have experienced the tyranny of monarchs, and yet who can still envision the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right. For them, merely surviving is insufficient. Life is the right of every human, but there is more. Humans are meant to experience liberty. Life and liberty alone are still left wanting. It is the pursuit of happiness that is required for the development of meaning and purpose.

It is clear that one does not have to achieve complete happiness for its pursuit to be filled with meaning. All life is a journey and when we focus on the destination we fail to understand the value of the journey itself. If we think exclusively about happiness, if we constantly ask ourselves, “Am I truly happy?” we may be disappointed with the results. Deep and abiding joy comes not from achievement, but from the pursuit.

We will continue to pursue. And in doing so we will keep alive the glorious vision of our founders.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!