I’m sure most of you know the Fourth of July is a day set aside when, as a nation, we celebrate and recognize the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For those schools that encouraged reading the opening of the Declaration, we learned that we had a right to pursue happiness. Many of us did just that as soon as the bell rang and we could go out for recess.
I need not tell you, there are many adults who are still in pursuit of happiness. I’m not saying they haven’t grown-up. I will only say I know many who are unhappy — old and grumpy. This is not meant to be judgmental. There are two points worth making, however, especially on the celebration of this national holiday.
First, the writers of the Declaration were not original in selecting happiness as one of the rights of every citizen. The idea of pursuing happiness goes back to the days of Moses and Solomon. It continued with Plato and Aristotle. Jesus, Augustine, Aquinas, and all the way to the signing of the Declaration, our thinking was shaped around the importance of pursuing happiness. You see for thousands of years, for generation after generation, happiness was found through a life well lived in pursuit of virtue and character.
It has nothing to do with a pleasure principle or a McDonald’s “happy meal.” Oh, how we have spoiled this pursuit. Happiness is considered today a primary feeling much like a primary color. Not to burst a bubble but feelings come and go. Feelings make for great workers but they’re horrible bosses. You see, we might feel happy on the Fourth of July and then sad the next day. Feelings are fickle. Yet, 87 percent of parents interviewed say, “I want my child to be happy.” So, our kids learn how to buy boats, swap wives, and climb ladders of success.
It is time to put our thinking caps on. Character formation takes us to a place beyond feelings. In fact, if you remember from classical studies, it was Horace who said “To flee vice is the beginning of virtue.” Our biblical background goes back even further and reminds of the prophet Isaiah who says “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” (Isaiah 5:20).
Here is where I come quickly to my second point. The pursuit of virtues — and if you never have had a class in ethics or moral behavior go back and Google “virtues.” Where I want to leave you is with this: in the good old days, happiness was not a feeling, it was a blessing. The Greek word, makarios, is a word that means blessing or happiness. The two words are interchangeable. When you are happy you are blessed and when blessed there is happiness.
Look at the Jerusalem Bible translation of the Beatitudes. “How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of God. Happy the gentle; they shall have the earth for their heritage. Happy those who mourn; they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3-5) You get the point. The pursuit of happiness is a blessing and, believe it or not, we receive a blessing or happiness when we rely upon God. And when we rely on God our character is less a self-centered pursuit as it is now centered on honoring God. Character formation begins as we hold these truths to be self-evident, that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights. So go on, pursue happiness this Fourth of July and may God bless America.