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Is there to be found on earth a perfect happiness, a fullness of joy, or is there no such thing? Is there some way to make life fully worth living, or is this impossible? If there is such a way, how do you go about finding it? What should you try to do? What should you seek to avoid? What should be the goal in which your activity comes to rest? What should you accept? What should you love? What should you hate?

What the world values is money, reputation, long life, achievement. What it counts as joy is health and comfort of body, good food, fine clothes, beautiful things to look at, pleasant music to listen to.

What it condemns is lack of money, a low social rank, a reputation for being no good, and an early death.

What it considers misfortune is bodily discomfort and labor, no chance to get your fill of good food, not having good clothes to wear, having no way to amuse or delight the eye, no pleasant music to listen to. If people find they are deprived of these things, they go into a panic or fall into despair. They are so concerned for their life that their anxiety makes life unbearable, even when they have the things they think they want. Their very concern for enjoyment makes them unhappy.

The rich make life intolerable, driving themselves in order to get more and more money which they cannot really use. In so doing, they are alienated from themselves, and exhaust themselves in their own service as if they were slaves to others.

The ambitious run day and night in pursuit of honors, constantly in anguish about the success of their plans, dreading the miscalculation that may wreck everything. Thus they are alienated from themselves, exhausting their real life in service of the shadow created by their insatiable hope.

The birth of a man is the birth of his sorrow.

The longer he lives, the more stupid he becomes, because his anxiety to avoid unavoidable death becomes more and more acute. What bitterness! He lives for what is always out of reach. His thirst for survival in the future makes him incapable of living in the present.

… I cannot tell if what the world considers “happiness” is happiness or not. All I know is that when I consider the way they go about attaining it, I see them carried away headlong, grim and obsessed, in the general onrush of the human herd, unable to stop themselves or to change their direction. All the while they claim to be just on the verge of obtaining happiness.

For my part, I cannot accept their standards, whether of happiness or unhappiness. I ask myself if after all their happiness has any meaning whatever.

My opinion is that you never find happiness until you stop looking for it. My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness: and this, in the minds of most people, is the worst possible course.

… If you ask “what ought to be done” and “what ought not to be done” on earth to produce happiness, I answer that these questions do not have an answer. There is no way of determining such things.

Yet at the same time, if I cease striving for happiness, the “right” and the “wrong” at once become apparent all by themselves.

Contentment and well-being at once become possible the moment you cease to act with them in view, and if you practice non-doing (wu wei), you will have both happiness and well-being.

–Thomas Merton

  2 Responses to “Perfect Joy”

  1. I don’t think we are supposed to just be pieces of driftwood letting the current take us wherever. If fate is how the world works then I’m going to stay at home all day, drink beer, and eat potato chips. That would definitely make me happy. At least for a while.

    Maybe the struggle IS what it’s about. We’re supposed to bitch and complain. And figure it out, then bitch and complain some more. Maybe there’s some wisdom in that. At least that’s what I have to tell myself that lately!

  2. There are many ways in which I agree with you. There is a sense in which being driftwood does not make sense – at least not as a strategy. And there is a sense in which the struggle is what it is about.

    For sure. Absolutely.

    But let’s be specific. Because there is also the ability to experience perfect joy in a traffic jam. The question is, where does this ability come from?

    What Merton is suggesting is that this perfect joy does not come from the outside. It does not come from accomplishment, achievement, or any other “acquiring,” whether of money, power, or status.

    But it is a struggle to achieve this state of perfect joy. It means staying centered and grounded in the essence of your pure being, which is not affected by circumstance.

    Also, what Merton is describing is not “fate.” This is not about fate, or becoming driftwood. It is about where true, lasting happiness comes from. Merton is simply pointing out that it cannot be obtained from the outside. Once this truth is realized, and once happiness is truly found, nothing in the outside world can remove it.

    So no, sitting around all day, drinking beer will not make you any happier than money, power, and a successful career. But once you rest in perfect happiness, you may find that you no longer feel the urge to go out and struggle for the things you once thought worth struggling for.

    So there is a struggle that is worth the effort. But the person who attains the career status and success they have struggled for, can lose it at any moment at the whim of the economy. If your happiness is swept away by this, then I would say you picked the wrong struggle.

    To be able to be happy where you are means nothing can take away your happiness. This is a deep spiritual expertise few reach, but it is a worthy goal. And it is here that the driftwood metaphor (a description of Taoism, by the way) starts to make sense – not as a method of obtaining happiness, but as a result of having already obtained happiness.

    I am not against careerism per se. Do what you love. Live your passion. Chase your dream. But don’t do it as a means to some other end. Do all things for their own sake. It sounds cliche and simple, but how few of us actually do this? When we look, we find that we are chasing status, power, money instead of happiness. This is the real danger.

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