“…And the Pursuit of Happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence, 1776)

David Cowles

Mar 25, 2022

We honor ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ as inalienable human rights, but not all of us can say with assurance that we are always on the side of ‘life’ and ‘liberty’. Sometimes we can’t even agree on what these words mean, and we certainly don’t agree on how these rights should be applied in specific situations. (For example, many of the men who wrote the Declaration themselves owned slaves. We don’t always see ourselves through the eyes of civilization or the lens of history.)

We honor ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ as inalienable human rights, but not all of us can say with assurance that we are always on the side of ‘life’ and ‘liberty’. Sometimes we can’t even agree on what these words mean, and we certainly don’t agree on how these rights should be applied in specific situations. (For example, many of the men who wrote the Declaration themselves owned slaves. We don’t always see ourselves through the eyes of civilization or the lens of history.)


But the ‘pursuit of happiness’? Now that–that–we’ve got down! That’s something we know something about, something we know only too well in fact. Some might say that Americans invented the pursuit of happiness. No matter that we all have different notions of what constitutes happiness! Whatever it is, we’re pursuing it vigorously and nonstop.


But do we ever get there? Are we any closer today than we were years ago? Or, are we hamsters, mindlessly running on a wheel-to-nowhere, locked in a cage?


In Jewish tradition (Kabbala), two virtues can be mirror images of one another: Netzach, for example, refers to restlessness, while Hod refers to gratitude. It is the restlessness of Netzach that makes us want to leave the world better than we found it, while it is the gratitude of Hod that allows us to find perfection in the here and now!


I am reminded of Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It begins with “Yes…”, and 1600 lines later, it ends with the very same “…yes.” It has been called literature’s Great Amen. Joyce balances a keen eye for folly and a sharp ear for suffering, with an overwhelming sense of the ‘rightness’ of it all.


Christians sometimes refer to this dichotomy as ‘the Kingdom already’ verses ‘the kingdom not yet’. Spirituality calls us to get comfortable with this apparent contradiction. In the famous Serenity Prayer, we ask our higher power for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”


Successful living needs this balance. If we cannot recognize the immediate presence of ‘the kingdom already,’ then we cannot dream of the future presence of ‘the kingdom not yet’.

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