As we discuss that elusive search for joy that goes on in our lives, we have looked at the cultural myths that get in the way of us finding the joy we deep down long for. Tim Keller describes these as ‘naive primary strategies’.(See previous post).
They are naive in that they are both too simplistic and because they have to do with things that have to go right in our lives for us to be happy. In traditional cultures it is about having the right spouse or family or career; while in more contemporary cultures it is the thirst for success as I choose to define it. But relying on your circumstances for ultimate happiness is doomed to failure because of the experiences of failure or success that we all go through. (There is more on this in the previous post). Psychologists have also pointed out that life circumstances only account for 10% of our overall level of happiness.
Keller helpfully points out that as a result of this we move to precarious secondary strategies to deal with disappointment in not finding joy. We may not even be aware we are doing it, but they are nevertheless powerful influences in our lives.
The first of these Keller calls ‘the switch strategy’. You move from one cultural myth for happiness and joy to the opposite.
I remember a boy in my class at school when I was around 14 or 15. He was an intensely religious Sikh who worked hard and studied diligently. Then suddenly at the start of the new school year he completely changed. He removed his turban, stopped taking any interest in his studies and decided he was going to live care free and for the moment. He became one of the ‘cool lads’ who did as little as possible and became a significant challenge to the teachers. It was such a change that many of us wondered if it was the same person. Although he never talked about it our sense was that he had decided he was going to make a major switch to find, as he saw it, greater fulfilment in life.
Another example is the so-called ‘mid-life crisis’. Here is how C.S. Lewis describes it:
‘The long dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather for the devil.’
There is a similar dramatic change in the previously apparently responsible individual who with the sense of time pressing on appears to regress to a second adolesence.
The 2nd strategy Keller calls ‘the frantic strategy’.
That says because the primary strategy of doing my duty or discovering my dream is not working I need to try harder. You put in the hours, you give it your best in terms of time, energy and effort. You are incredibly busy and because you are so busy you don’t have the time even realise it’s not working. There is an incredibly vast black hole in your heart that nothing can fill.
My time of intense spiritual seeking coincided with me struggling to keep up with my academic studies. Prior to this time I had always managed to pull through by putting in the effort and studying harder. I prided myself in always being able to come through by my own efforts. Then I hit medical school and found that no matter how hard I tried, I just could not keep up with the work. Along with this was an incredible sense of emptiness – a black hole that nothing could fill be that socialising, fitness or doing my studies. (For more on that see the video Just As I Am).
The 3rd strategy Keller calls ‘the cynic strategy’.
It reminds me of the ancient fable of the fox who could not get to some grapes as they were out of his reach. To console himself he decided that they were probably sour anyway!
With the cynic strategy we tell ourselves that there is no lasting joy out there. That this world is not going to give you what your heart desires. That everything is ultimately fake – or even illusion. To try to hope for lasting joy is like hoping for the moon. It is unreachable. So it is not worth trying.
Thoreau describes this as ‘living lives of quiet desperation.’ To shield ourselves we love to make fun and find fault in those who still seeks this ultimate sense of happiness. In the long run when you have given up seeking any joy that is beyond what your heart has right now, you stop living and just start existing. You become less of a human being. Here is how C.S. Lewis puts it:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
As we gain awareness of these strategies in our hearts we can move on to looking to the One who is the source of ultimate joy and fulfilment.
What issues and questions does this post raise for you?