A lot of thought and discussion has been given to the exact reasons why we find ourselves in this current economic crisis. There has been ample and cogent analysis pointing out who did what and when to deregulate the banking system and financial markets, as well as a lot of valid ideas as to how to best go about reigning in the fat cats who’ve been feeding at the leaking trough. If there is a silver lining to be found in all of this madness, it’s that the alignment of economic, financial and environmental fiascoes is forcing us to think bigger and outside the box, because every time someone else comes up with another one-dimensional idea for a quick fix, it runs up against a brick wall of a million unanswered questions.
So rather than adding another opinion on whether the stimulus is too small, too large, or just enough, I feel like this is a great time to shift our attention to the Declaration of Independence and that pesky little business of The Pursuit of Happiness.
Einstein quotes seem to be en vogue these days, and there’s good reason for it. After being starved for eight years of any kind of public discourse that appeals to our capacity to look at problems and challenges from a deeper place within ourselves, I think we’re all ready for some extra therapy from the old sage. There couldn’t be a more poignant sentiment to shine a light on the current junction we find ourselves in than this:
No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
It bears a similar message as the oft-used
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
but its essence is broader, more fundamental, digging deeper into the human psyche, prodding to not cut corners or lose sight of the bigger picture.
I went to high school in Germany, where I was taught in my American history class that the word “happiness” in that famous declaration meant money, or material wealth. This definition was presented to us very matter-of-factly and textbook-like, as if it was just completely normal that money was all that mattered to Americans and that there couldn’t possibly be a different interpretation for this all-important precept. Even as a teenager I was struck by the crassness of this assumption.
While there are a lot of other concepts in the Declaration and the Amendments that are subject to interpretation (What’s Liberty? What’s Freedom? What’s Speech?) and have rightfully been argued over since their initial writ, it’s the elusive concept of happiness, marked as one of the foundational pillars of a dawning nation, that has received only marginal attention.
The easy way out of the complex task of applying the word “happiness” to a lowest common denominator and functional meaning within the context of every citizen’s daily life is undoubtedly to understand it in material terms. We all look a lot happier with a roof over our head and food in our bellies. If you live in a pre-industrial society, add a couple of cows and a horse, and you might even have a smile on your face. If you’re a 21st Century denizen you’re probably thinking that that new car and high speed computer sure make life easier, and no one will hold it against you. There is something about creature comfort that’s undeniably “happy” and joyful.
But happiness is bigger and dwells deeper, and that’s where I believe we — not just in the U.S. but in other industrialized nations and increasingly so in developing countries — have taken our eyes off the real prize and become lazy and superficial in our understanding of the term.
I’d venture to say that most everyone in the west would cringe at the definition of happiness as purely materialistic, and in fact I’d dispute that how much property and how many possessions we have makes up more than a small percentage of our happiness. We all know there’s more to life, that in the end we can’t take any stuff with us, and that our most memorable, happy moments were probably when we were doing anything but taking care of our physical needs. And yet, in light of this truism, we have resorted over and over again to let our material motives supersede our more subtle, soulful — dare I say spiritual — needs. In this collective climate of negligence of a more holistic view on happiness it seems that we have allowed for the more intangible yet immeasurably more powerful part of our happiness to dry up and thus subconsciously enabled the minority of materialistic purists to create a system and environment in which the foibles of greed and mindless accumulation of stuff were allowed to not only be encouraged and fed, but made into concrete legislation and law.
Too ethereal and not reality-based? Better to keep matters of the soul out of the political discourse? Separation of Church and State even? I would respond that materialism the way it has been practiced and preached in this country is religion at its most subversive. If you’re looking for dogma and proselytizing, look no further than the high priests of capitalism marketing junk food, fashion and violence to little kids. In a world where corporations enjoy personhood status and you can hardly function without a credit card it is clear who is pushing the real opium. Not much we can do about that, you say? We’re better off focusing on how to redistribute wealth rather than question our longing for wealth in itself? People only think with their wallets and that’s not going to change, you say? Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And human beings have proven they can rethink if the system encourages them and allows them to:
While conventional development models stress economic growth as the ultimate objective, the concept of GNH claims to be based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.
There are many encouraging signs in the way President Obama has approached this current situation to transcend the conversation from purely a crisis of banks and resources to a crisis of spirit. His appeals to our sense of service and community, his example of publically showing his love and affection not only for his family, but for random strangers at his townhalls, and his insistence to not get hung up in the petty and small-minded bickering in our discourse but to keep our hearts and souls tuned in to the broader, eternally more gratifying prospects of our common causes, has already elevated the collective consciousness to new levels no one could have dreamed of just a couple of years ago. Again, “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” and we’re fortunate to have elected a President who has tapped into this wisdom.
I do think it’s important to hold those who imparted the most grievous offenses on the “common wealth” accountable, including the bankers, execs, and all the con men who’ve exploited our collective acquiesence in the race for riches, and I think the worst ones will be exposed once the cover of our poisoned understanding of happiness is removed. However, it is all of our responsibilities to evaluate our own relationship to the pursuit of happiness and balance our own emotional and spiritual budgets. The less acceptable a culture of consumption becomes among the people of this country and the world, the less likely it will be for our leaders to thrive in a culture of corruption. Or as Einstein would say:
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.