Watching old war movies with my son ranks high on our list of shared entertainment activities along with waffle making and debating obscure political trivia. One of our favorites is The Bridge on the River Kwai. Filmed in 1957, it depicts the fate of British prisoners of war who survive the Bataan Death March and are then forced by the Japanese to build a railroad bridge in the Burmese jungle. The film opens with a speech given by Colonel Saito, the sadistic Japanese prison camp commander, who admonishes the prisoners to “Be Happy in your Work” or else.
Having watched the film several times, “Be Happy in your Work” has become a comedic catchphrase in our household. We use it anytime we must perform an unpleasant task such as grocery shopping or cleaning up after Otto, our black and tan dachshund.
For those of us who live with a chronic disease we often find ourselves interned in our own version of a prisoner-of-war camp where we imitate what all prisoners do. We fight boredom, manage pain, hope for rescue and struggle to find happiness.
Early on in my childhood, I became aware of my mother’s struggle with polycystic kidney disease. As I became a young adult, the severity of her condition became such that she required dialysis three times a week. She eventually died from a heart attack brought on by the stress of having her blood cleaned.
In any event, I remember asking her at one point if she was happy. She replied, as a good Baptist stoic, that she was content. For her, the two terms meant something different. Happiness was to be gained in the afterlife. Meanwhile, she was content to be content.
How did my mother achieve contentment while being held captive by her failing kidneys? By unknowingly drawing from her natural stoicism and blending it with the teachings of the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine. I must pause here to laugh because, being a good Baptist, she would not have been impressed by anyone with “saint” in front of their name.
She considered her kidney problems to be her “thorn in the flesh” as Paul wrote of his own unspecified ailment – something to be endured in this world. She took seriously Paul’s admonition to Timothy that godliness with contentment is great gain and to not be thwarted by the temptation of material goods. She put into practice the advice of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus that wealth comes not from having many possessions but having few wants and being a Depression-era child, she had a lot of practice
Building upon Paul’s teachings, Augustine wrote a dialogue entitled On The Happy Life where he suggests that happiness comes from the moderation of the mind and not from the virtue of things. He asserts that those who seek to be happy should desire only those things that are eternal and cannot be taken from them. He concludes by suggesting that a “firm faith, lively hope and an ardent charity” are the eternal things necessary for a happy life. Faith, hope and charity – what Thomas Aquinas would later call the theological virtues. For those virtuous souls like Augustine, Aquinas and my mother, happiness was a spiritual reward.
But what about just plain old in-this-world temporal happiness?
For most people, happiness seems to occur randomly when a specific need is met in the right place at the right time. So, if winning a $20 scratch-off lottery card makes you happy then you need to stop at the exact Li’l Cricket and purchase the exact winning card from Big Rhonda behind the counter at exactly the right time before she takes her cigarette break. Chances are that you will seldom find happiness in this manner. In fact, Epictetus advised that happiness could not be achieved if it depended upon luck.
For me, the pursuit of happiness means having the liberty to arrange my life or circumstances to create the environment for happiness to occur. The success of my pursuit depends upon me making the right decisions. Some decisions will bring short term happiness that leads to contentment. Other decisions will bring short term happiness that leads to misery. Practical wisdom comes from the experience of knowing the difference between the two.
Aquinas believed that practical wisdom combined with the pursuit of faith, hope and charity created a unity of virtues. These unified virtues are the products of habitual grace whereby individuals become agents of meritorious action that is beyond their natural ability. Is this the path to happiness? I think that Aquinas may be on to something.
How can those of us imprisoned within the reality of chronic disease or under the debris of traumatic loss that age invariably brings engage in meritorious action beyond our natural abilities? We join the voices of the powerless and by our mere existence offer critical resistance to those who would impose social, political, or ethical power over all of us.
Of course, I am referring here to a unified critical resistance on a societal level. I witnessed the power of this unified action during the 2009 state budget cut debate. Remember that time when the General Assembly had to cut 25% out of the state budget due to the Great Recession? When faced with losing state funds on which their families depended, parents rolled their wheelchair bound children into the lobby of the Statehouse in protest. I am still happy to say that I did not vote against the children.
On a personal level, I watched as my mother’s influence over our family, large as it was, grow even stronger as her health declined. Her helplessness became her power. As her children and grandchildren pitched in to help, her decline became a type of window of grace often used by Flannery O’Connor in her stories – a grotesque window through which beauty can be seen. In our case, my family witnessed an ugly decline transformed into a beautiful transition that would not have been possible without the level of contentment that my mother already possessed.