How to be happy

November 18th, 2020

You’re not supposed to stand on the top three rungs of a ladder. I did it anyway, even though I recognized at the time what a bad idea it was.

This was a 32-foot extension ladder. Even leaned against a wall at a precariously straight angle, it had not brought me safely within reach of the eaves of the house I was painting. So I had climbed up to the highest rung and stretched as far as I could, fighting the temptation to look down at the concrete patio below.

You might think that this was stupid. Maybe it was. But the truth is that I needed the money. So I did my job with my 22-year-old heart pounding in my chest and sweat pouring from my brow.

Among the various life-lessons I’ve drawn from this experience is that it’s best to admit that sometimes you’re climbing the wrong ladder. And the consequences of climbing the wrong ladder can be very serious.

In the United States we frequently use the image of ladder-climbing to describe the pursuit of individual success. And we tend to equate success with happiness.

We feel compelled to achieve at higher and higher levels and to advance in our careers. Loads of books and articles and motivational speakers assure us that they have the best formula for how to climb our own ladder with speed and confidence.

Fewer voices urge us to consider whether the ladder of individual success is the right ladder to climb. But it’s clear that Jesus is one of them.

Climbing this ladder assumes that my success is undiminished by anyone else’s failure or even that I can get ahead at someone else’s expense. The reason people spend the energy and take the risks to ascend this ladder is that they equate success with happiness. And this is a life-distorting illusion.

Jesus teaches us that the happiness of each is bound up with the happiness of all. When he taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus was telling us to recognize a basic fact of our existence. We are all in this together.

My well-being cannot be separated from yours. To truly love myself involves loving my neighbor. All of my neighbors. Whether they look like me, think like me, vote like me or speak like me.

And so Jesus is challenging us to rethink why we do what we do. Instead of striving to make a better place for ourselves in the world, we can work to make the world a better place for everybody. Take for instance what Jesus says in the Parable of the Talents. (Matthew 25:14–30) It goes like this:

A landowner left town for a while. Before going, he gave three servants each different measures or talents of gold to invest on behalf of his household: five, two, and one respectively.

On his return, the servants with five and two talents handed the landowner a tidy profit. The happy landowner entrusted them with even more responsibility for running the place.

The third servant had buried the gold and simply handed it back to its owner. In response, the landowner kicks him to the curb.

Notice that each of these servants is charged with working for the benefit of the larger household to which they belong. They have not been given gold to pad their own pockets or merely to enrich the only landowner. They’re rewarded with greater responsibility for the well-being of the household.

By contrast, the servant who buried the gold flatly refused to care for those with whom he shared a common life. He did nothing to nurture the well-being of everyone, himself included. His fate — being cast into the outer darkness — reflects the bitter isolation resulting from a life of self-absorption.

Jesus never says that we shouldn’t strive to be happy. He just told us the truth about how to do it. To truly love ourselves, we have to love our neighbor. We’re all in this together. Anytime our love for self excludes love of neighbor, we’re climbing the wrong ladder.

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This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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