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Katie van Schaijik

Fake wisdom

Jul. 10 at 11:23am

A facebook friend has linked a list: 15 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy.  It's not my kind of list. It strikes me as a typical instance of cheap pop-psychology bromides masquerading as wisdom. It's not that there's no truth in it at all; it's that much of what's said is reductive, ambiguous and superficial. It glosses over the real problems it pretends to resolve.

Example: The first thing the reader is urged to give up is "your need to always be right."  Well, okay. No one should "need" to "always be right."  But it's not very helpful in the concrete, is it?  Take a case in which I am convinced I am right.  You accuse me of lying and I deny it.  Is my denial to be interpreted as coming from a pathological need to always be right? 

Is it egotistical for me to insist that I didn't lie? Should I, say, drop the claim that abortion is objectively evil, given that my friend doesn't agree?  Should I "let go" of the point out of "kindness" to her?  

Is the author suggesting that we abandon our sense of right for the sake of unity?  Is she suggesting that it doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong in a given case?  She seems to be. At any rate, she says nothing to guard against that interpretation. 

She writes (very typically of the self-help gurus of the age) as if there no such thing as objective reality involved in inter-personal disputes. It is only two clashing subjectivities. The way to happiness, then, is to be kind and non-judgmental. Just stop clashing. Insistence on truth and right is arrogant and divisive.

In reality, though, persons commune with one another through the medium of truth. To abandon truth for the sake of friendship, then, is to abandon the only conditions in which real communion can come about.

Of course there are cases of people who are so crippled by an inability to admit fault that they render themselves incapable of real relationships.  But the problem there is the inability to admit fault, not an insistence on right. 

Real wisdom teaches us to take ourselves less seriously and truth more seriously. We should be more interested in truthincluding perhaps very painful truths about ourselvesthan we are in saving face or coming out on top of a dispute.  We should learn to distinguish between our opinions and objective reality. We should humbly remind ourselves that what we see may be incomplete.  We should be open to the truth another person may be mediating to us, and to the emotional subtext in a given dispute.  

But we should take care never to suggest that truth claims as such are arrogant, or that there is an opposition between believing we're right about something and being kind, or that it's better to deny the truth we see than to be in conflict with another person.  All that is false.

The rest of the list isn't much better.  Here's item number 7: Give up the luxury of criticism. "Give up your need to criticize things, events or people that are different than you."

So, is criticism a luxury, then? If I criticize, am I being self-indulgent? Is it always better not to criticize?  Is there no such thing as a duty to criticize? Must criticism spring from an ego-centric rejection of difference, or might it not be a self-forgetting concern with objective reality? Can not my criticism (of an internet post, say) have nothing to do with my own prejudices and insecurities and everything to do with my concern for truth, and for others?

Why not say instead something like, "Remove the log in your own eye before you take out the speck in your brother's"?

I can understand why unbelievers would find a list like this appealing. Christians, though, should recognize it for the pseudo-wisdom it is.


 

Peter Brown

Another test for reductivity is to see if the advice can be applied to itself.  For example, #7 "Give up criticism" is itself a criticism--of criticism itself, in this case, or at least of those who are so un-progressive as to assert that some differences actually matter.  

A deeper logical problem with the list is that, in its evident desire to achieve nirvana (note item #14, "Give up attachment"), it simply refuses to take seriously those whose highest values are *not* happiness, the desire to love and be loved, and/or the desire to be understood.

I'll leave alone the question of whether it makes sense to order one's life around achieving happiness, or whether happiness, pursued for its own sake, can be expected to prove just another self-stroking will-o'-the-wisp.  

Peace,
--Peter

#1 - Jul. 10 at 8:19pm | quote

 

Patrick Dunn

Peter Brown, Jul. 10 at 8:19pm

A deeper logical problem with the list is that, in its evident desire to achieve nirvana (note item #14, "Give up attachment"), it simply refuses to take seriously those whose highest values are *not* happiness, the desire to love and be loved, and/or the desire to be understood.

I'll leave alone the question of whether it makes sense to order one's life around achieving happiness, or whether happiness, pursued for its own sake, can be expected to prove just another self-stroking will-o'-the-wisp.  

Peace,
--Peter

That is a good point about highest values.  So often, even in Christian circles, I find the assumed highest value to be seeking happiness.  Is that really Christian?

Ultimately, God does want our happiness, though it is a lot more complex than what many conceive of when they speak about happiness.  The Christian's highest value ought to be, I believe, seeking the will of the Father.  Wasn't that Christ's highest value? 

And, in terms of happiness, to seek it out so direclty seems to conflict with the paradox of losing ourselves to find ourselves. 

#2 - Jul. 11 at 8:54am | quote

 

Jules van Schaijik

You're right, Peter, about her "evident desire to achieve nirvana." Even though, in point #14 she distinguishes between attachment, a bad thing, and love, a good thing, the overall message is clear: nothing matters.

Happiness = giving up

#3 - Jul. 11 at 10:02am | quote

 

Rhett Segall

I agree with the epistemology of the foregoing comments, i.e. that happiness is the fruit of good actions and dispositions and not something we should directly aim at in our choices. However, I would qualify this statement by saying that attentiveness to our own happiness is a common sense approach to a healthy discernment.

A friend tells me that the simple question “Does this (a relationship, an occupation, a goal, etc.) really make me happy?” should be a guiding principle of our life. If a person has not educated him/her self to the nature of true happiness their life can all too often be confused by equating happiness with pleasure, power, etc.

Jesus tells us that He gives us His joy and St. Paul tells us that a sign of the Spirit is joy. No doubt about it, as Jesus said “in the world you will have trouble…” St Augustine eventually realized this. I think he is a powerful example of a person motivated by a yearning for true happiness and recognizing the choices that were necessary to achieve this.

#4 - Jul. 13 at 8:10am | quote

 

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