“Why are you happy?” my bishop asked me last night. That question was the culmination of what was a casual conversation about life. I stared at the wall, unsure of how to respond. My words couldn’t be superficial, yet they couldn’t be obnoxiously verbose, either. “I am conscious of living,” was my response. The conversation then turned to love and gratitude as being the ultimate expressions of a utopian world. Yet the question then became, do we reject the negative or embrace it?
After the conversation ended, I realized where I had first heard of the idea of being “conscious of living.” It was a speech I have referenced before, David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.” Regardless of beliefs, it seems true that “The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death,” or at the very least, the truth we can know is this reality, this existence. I have found that when I coast through life, unaware of those around me, absorbed in some meretricious pleasure for a period of time, I am actually miserable. From a religious perspective, being absorbed by the concept of an afterlife may be beneficial for hope, but should it distract us from the truth of this life? What happens if the eventual reality one conjures up is, in fact, a false, idolatrous hope, or as the philosopher of Ecclesiastes would put it, a “chase after the wind?” That is why when my bishop asked why I am happy, the answer was immersion in the mystery of this life.
But then there is the other question: whether or not we should reject the negative. For some time now, I have been inspired by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Both seem to offer insights into this question. Job is usually interpreted as a commentary on why we suffer, but I think there is more. Otherwise, the answer would be that we suffer because God and Satan make a wager on whether or not we will crack under pressure. Job, as I have come to appreciate it, discusses why the righteous suffer, and contrasts itself with the traditional idea that the righteous will prosper and the wicked face destitution. At the end of the book, Job has an experiential conversation with God. Rather than the traditional monarchical image of God as a king who hands out reward and punishment, God emerges as the ever-present and transcendent force behind the mysterious wonder of existence. Job states:
“I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.” (Job 42:2-5, KJV).
How does this answer the question of the righteous suffering, and challenge the conventional wisdom? Well, in this case, there is no sense of inherent justice. God is awesome and full of wonder, but we are the ones who must accept the injustices of existence. It is up to us to embrace and respond to the negative aspects of life affirming the marvel of existence. When we retreat from life, misery can consume us, however when we are conscious of living, negativity can be overcome.
Ecclesiastes answers the question similarly and more directly. According to Qoheleth, the philosopher of the book, we chase after different idols of fulfillment, trying to make sense of life and create ultimate, unfettered happiness. This is wrong, however. By accepting the difficulties of life, we may immerse ourselves in it. Happiness, in the eyes of Qoheleth, is relative to the negative. As with Job, we can create a real sense of joy out of life’s despairing moments and injustices.
“There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.
Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:)
Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14-17, KJV).
So I reaffirm my answer: I am happy because I embrace life in all of its joys and sorrows, and I try to live consciously, immersed in this world as the one truth I am sure is real.