Last month, my excellent daughter Susanna found an excellent deal on a flying lesson through Groupon. Remembering that I'd always wanted to go hang gliding (but figuring that was a little reckless for somebody with so many offspring counting on her), she generously forked over some additional babysitting money and surprised me with a lesson too.
Cruising at 2,500 feet above Gaithersburg--which looks a lot more picturesque from the sky--the instructor asked if I was looking at the instrument panel or at the horizon.
"The horizon!" I replied instantly. "It's too beautiful not to!"
His eyes lit up. "Exactly!" he replied. "You'd be surprised how many people get up here and spend the whole ride with their eyes glued to the dashboard."
The metaphor is irresistible. We're always losing perspective and missing the point: God-fearing people racking up devotions and forgetting all about union with the King of the Universe; teachers neglecting to notice the mind-boggling wonders of that universe in the heat of rushing to finish the science textbook; mothers, eyeballs riveted on recommendations for optimal feeding and sleeping habits, forgetting all about enjoying their babies.
As our instructor pointed out, you actually do a better job when you keep your eyes on the horizon rather than the buttons and dials. Do check the instrument panel--you don't want to find yourself hurtling to earth, no matter how much you enjoy the scenery on the way down--but you'll never become a true pilot by focussing on the minutiae to the exclusion of the sheer fun of it.
I don't just mean we need to stop and smell the roses. I'm thinking of a tendency that Christians are susceptible to, a tendency to discard and suspect the good things of this world, to refuse to enjoy them unless they can demonstrate some obvious utilitarian value, some capacity for leading us to a more supernatural and "noble" plane. As Fr. Martin Rhonheimer points out in Changing the World: The Timeliness of Opus Dei (which addresses a much broader topic than the title suggests):
Worldly things are not to be reduced to "mere means." They are to be elevated to their highest and final purpose: to manifest God's creative love and splendor.
I grant the importance of not absolutizing the goods of this world. I know how easy it is to attach yourself to the gift at the expense of the Giver--but some people, and even some theologians, leap from the discovery that earthly goods are finite and non-absolute to the conclusion that they're illusory and dangerous--that our main response to them should be suspicion and detachment. This is a shame.
And what about the lingering sense that it's not right to enjoy life when there's so much suffering in the world? Cardinal Ratzinger (who as Pope Emeritus Benedict celebrated his 90th birthday the other day} had this to say decades ago in The Salt of the Earth.
Something I constantly notice is that unembarrassed joy has become rarer. Joy today is increasingly saddled with moral and ideological burdens, so to speak. When someone rejoices, he is afraid of offending against solidarity with the many people who suffer. I don't have any right to rejoice, people think, in a world where there is so much misery, so much injustice.
Does this make sense? It does, up to a point. But, he continues:
The loss of joy does not make the world better--and, conversely, refusing joy for the sake of suffering does not help those who suffer. The contrary is true. The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good.
Discovering the good and rejoicing in it is not a selfish indulgence, it turns out:
Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on.
In fact, it's a more effective motor for spreading the circle of happiness and decreasing the domain of misery. Cardinal Ratzinger continues:
In this connection it always strikes me that in, say, the poor neighborhoods of South America, one sees many more laughing, happy people than among us. Obviously, despite all their misery, they still have the perception of the good to which they cling and in which they can find encouragement and strength.
As we carry on the absolutely necessary work of sharing the joy and decreasing the misery, we should guard against spreading the contagion of our own spiritual poverty and short-sightedness.
In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give. That the world is basically good, that God is there and is good. That it is good to live and be a human being. This results, then, in the courage to rejoice, which in turn becomes commitment to making sure that other people, too, can rejoice and receive good news.
I'm not saying fun will save the world. But a misguided suspicion of "useless" happiness can only make things even worse.