Fr. Joseph Tham, LC
This is a real letter that was written a few years ago in response to my sister question on the meaning of death and suffering. It has been slightly modified, and the names changed to provide anonymity.
Found out this morning that John’s [her husband] dad has cancer of the liver, John estimates that he has 6 mths to 2 years to live. Once he starts chemo treatment in a week or so, life as he knows it will drastically change. The concept of death didn’t quite hit me until now – I went on a marketing lunch with 2 other colleagues, and afterwards we bumped into our managing partner and had drinks with him until now (almost 5pm). I can say that I am not 100% sober right now. Maybe we are more susceptible to truths and feelings when our inhibitions are down. John talked about quitting work now to spend time with his parents. All I could think about this morning was that we’d have to cancel our NZ trip, and John will be gone sooner than I thought [job assignment]…
Death – so definitive a state. Makes all our amusements (shopping for furniture, planning for vacations) and struggles (what to do with our careers) seem so trivial. I know that I should treasure each day and live it fully but I often forget to do so. When I look back on the last 2 years it is often with a sense of regret and lack of accomplishment. What should I do? What is important? I don’t know anymore. Is my greatest failure that I have spent 2 out of 32 years of my life not being genuinely happy or at peace? I was angry that John would consider turning our lives upside down by quitting work and going back to Canada now, but what if this (touch wood) happened to Dad? I’d do the same thing and expect John to understand and support my decision. When was the last time I was truly content and at peace? Probably when I first started at B&E, I was so happy to be working at a big Bay Street law firm after having searched for work for almost a year. Until I tired of mutual funds work and wanted to experience the greener pasture in booming Asia. So is change good or not? Was it silly to fly all the way to London to write a UK law exam to get a qualification that wasn’t essential, just because it’s a goal in itself to accomplish? I will sober up and life will go on. But what is the meaning of all this? I am too tired and sad to think. What if I only had 6 mths to 2 years to live?
What must John’s dad be going through? What is the meaning of life?
I read with interest your recent emails. I will pray for John’s dad certainly. What is his name, I have forgotten? I will also be praying for you and for John in these difficult times.
I wanted to respond to some of your questions, as I am sure mom and the others have also offered their advice. The questions about the meaning of life, and what consists in happiness are questions that have plagued all people of all ages, and philosophers and religions have offered various answers to these questions, which are properly of religious nature—who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? What is the purpose of my being on this earth? What happens when I die?…
I hope I can, without being preachy, share with you my own experience and answers to these important questions which have shaped the decisions in my own life. Being a bit philosophical by nature, I remember seeking the secret formula to happiness early on. I came up with this formula, around the time I was in high school and studying math at U of T. I thought that happiness could be expressed as a fraction:
% Happiness = x/y, where y = desires and x = possessions.
Desire (y) is that which one hopes and desires to possess; whereas possession (x) is what one actually has. Hence, if I desire to have a car, and I got a bicycle instead, I will be disappointed and unhappy as x<y, and the division will leave me a low fraction. But if I get a Porche instead, I will be happy as I possess what I desired x≥y (at least for a while). This is very evident in kids, if Matthew wanted a toy car and got it, he is happy, but if Geoffrey came and took it away from him, he will be crying and screaming. As we grow up, our desires (y) become more sophisticated. We are no longer satisfied with toys, we want to see the world, taste all kinds of exotic food, earn money and degrees, meet new friends, get new house and new furniture, play exotic sports, and experience life to the fullest. The problem is that our desires (y) is always greater that our possessions (x). Once we possesses what we have set out to acquire, we are satisfied but for a short time and turn to desire more and greater things. Just as Geoffrey is happy with his new toy car for a day or two, and begins to look for a new toy. Similarly, we never seemed to have enough, there is always more to possess. It is like what you said in your email, all your achievements did not make you happy. And under it all, there is the threat of losing it all—in death! Death, such an inevitable reality. Thinking back, I believe the death of Grandfather when I was 12 touched me profoundly. How can one find happiness and security if death is so certain and yet such an unknown and uncontrollable factor, as we never know when the sickle will strike?
If x < y (possessions less than desires) % Happiness = x/y = unhappy
If x ≥ y (possessions more than desires) % Happiness = x/y = happy
Hence, the dilemma, how can one be happy in this life, if our possessions (x) is always less that our desires (y), as it seems that our desires are almost infinite (y = infinity)? And our possessions are never secure (x = 0 at death)?
y = ∞ (desire is infinite)
% Happiness = x/ ∞ = 0 = UNHAPPY
x = 0 (no possessions at death)
% Happiness = 0/y = 0 = UNHAPPY
N. B. The last case is special: “y” here are desires that are “potentially” infinite, that is
to say, even though we have many desires, they are limited in quantity. The object of
possession of “x”, God, is “actually” infinite, since God has no limits. The concepts of
actual and potential infinity have been defined by Aristotelian philosophy.
One solution was offered by Buddhism, which states that the problem of unhappiness of man comes from desires (y). Hence, a radical solution proposed by them is to get rid of all desires! Looking at the formula, if y=0, mathematically, Happiness = infinity. Thus, for them, happiness comes from separating and cutting off all human desires… rather radical if not unrealistic.
Buddhist solution: y = 0, % Happiness = x/0 = ∞
Because we are made to desire and possess the infinite. This is the solution proposed by Christianity which I personally found more attractive. I remember reading Pensees of Pascal in first year university which was very helpful in understanding this “The greatness and the misery of man.” “Man know that he is wretched. He is wretched, then because he is wretched; but he is great, because he knows it.” (416) “What a chimera then is man! How strange and monstrous! A chaos, a subject of contradictions, a prodigy. Judge of all things, yet a stupid earthworm; depository of truth, yet a cesspool of uncertainty and error; the glory and the refuse of the universe. Who will unravel this tangle?” (425) (You might be interested in reading his insightful “thoughts” on this paradox of our human condition.)
Our desires cannot be limited because we are not just merely material beings (limited or finite in themselves), but we also have a spiritual nature that seek to embrace the unlimited, the infinite, always not satisfied with the material goods which is finite and fleeting. In other words, materialism brings us fleeting satisfactions, but not lasting joy because our soul yearns for something that lasts forever. In terms of the formula, our desires (y = infinity) and can only be satisfied by the possession of something infinite (x = infinity) so that our happiness will be complete.
Christian solution: y = ∞ but x = ∞
% Happiness = ∞ / ∞ = HAPPY
For me, this thirst for happiness led me to accept in faith in an infinite being who is God, whose possession (x = infinity) is guaranteed because He promised it and revealed to us that possession of Him is eternal, and even death will not rob it away. Death is something we all fear, because in death we lose all, and we have no control over it. The radical message of Christianity is that death is not the end but rather a beginning to the eternal possession of God, our infinite desire. This is what St. Augustine meant when he said, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until it rests in Thee.”
In my search for happiness, I found that this is the chance I had to take, God or nothing. Without God, we are left without meaning in life, an unhappy sad life as in the formula above, x will always be < y. To be coherent with this decision, I had to seek possession of God, my sole desire, the Infinite.
In this search of God, I have come to realize that He is not a distant God, but a real person who revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The possession (or loss) of God begins not only at the point of death (which is definitive either way) but is also experienced here and now where one can enjoy personal friendship with God. Having been called to the religious life is just another step towards this eternal possession of Him, my origin and my end. Materially speaking, I should be very unhappy since I am deprived of many goods and possessions—mom, dad (and pleasing him..), you all, not to be there on Lucy’s wedding or Geoffrey’s baptism, not to be able to get married and start my own family, not to be able to do Chinese paintings when I feel like it, not to have any money or goods, or to travel, and not to be able to make decisions for myself… But yet, I am very happy indeed, because I have the one thing that matters—God, for whom I have left all to possess him and only him. I have no fear of death, because it is an eternal embrace into the love of God.
Another facet in possession of God consists in realizing that happiness does not consist in “having” but in “giving”. It is not by selfishly possessing and controlling others, goods or people, enjoying one’s wimps that one finds happiness. It is rather in seeking the good of the others, at times at the expense of one’s own interest, that often one finds fulfillment. Happiness is opposed to selfishness. In this sense, Jesus is extremely happy on the cross, as he gave his life voluntarily for others at his own expense. I feel extremely fulfilled because I am giving my life away so that others may be happy. Since I found this secret of happiness, it is only right that I have to share it with everybody who is searching for happiness—this is my life.
Sis, I apologize if all this sounds too philosophical or difficult to understand. I just wanted to share with you a bit of my own experience in my search for happiness and meaning in life. I hope that this has been helpful, even though it did not address any of your problems specifically. We ourselves are the ones who can choose to be happy or not based on our life choices. Choose wisely, and perhaps prayerfully, asking God for light and He will not disappoint. I pray for happiness in your life and John’s. I am always available to offer advice and help on any of your spiritual needs.