Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Finding Happiness "Now"

A few years ago I was invited to be one of the speakers at a retreat for medical doctors. My assigned topic was "Finding Happiness Now". Big order!

Happiness is that one most elusive quality sought by everybody, at every age and in every profession. It is a "sometimes" experience, but when we get a taste of it we always want more. When we do not find happiness in the ordinary course of living, we sometimes do strange and even dangerous things trying to make happiness happen. Marriage is one of the most common things people do, hoping for institutional happiness, and about fifty percent of the time happiness does not happen. How about a new car or a boat or a new wardrobe or a new house or a new spouse? Some people try chemical happiness--cocaine, alcohol, a vast array of prescription drugs. The initial feeling is great, but the end result is greater unhappiness. Contrived happiness is almost always at best disappointing, and at worst destructive.

One of the propositions upon which our democratic society is established is that everybody should have certain unalienable rights, including the right to the pursuit of happiness. The operative word here is "pursuit". There is no known formula by which we may have constant happiness under any and all circumstances. Happiness is a moving target.

The happiest people I know, and I do know a few happy people, are those whose lives tend to be graced by spontaneity. They are people who do not defer opportunities for happiness. They do not try to wait until they have more time and/or money, or until the children have finished school or until they retire. People who find some reasonable degree of happiness tend to be those who find "corners of happiness" all along the way. The virtue of delayed gratification notwithstanding, happy people are usually people who are happy "now".

I belong to a service club where we sing at every meeting, not very well, but we sing. I am glad nobody records it. There is an oldie, but goodie we sing frequently, "Wait ‘til the Sun Shines, Nellie". Unfortunately, it represents a philosophy of life we tend to practice all too frequently.

This is how it goes.

"Wait ‘til the sun shines Nellie, when the clouds go drifting by,

We'll be happy, Nellie, don't you sigh.

Down lover's lane we will wander, sweetheart you and I.

Wait ‘til the sun shines, Nellie, bye and bye."

I always wonder if she waited!! Bet she didn't. Putting off love, waiting on the weather, big mistake!

It reminded me of the young man who was madly in love, but wanted to delay the wedding until he was in better financial shape. He left home and went to work in the Alaskan oil fields, but promised he would write every day. Every day for a year she got a love letter from him. She married the postman. There are some things that are too important to delay.

Many of us tend to develop a life-style of procrastination based on flawed reasoning and unrealistic expectations of the requirements of our vocation, or an outright egotistical over-estimation of our importance in the scheme of things. Few people in the world are so essential to their vocation that they cannot take a vacation and at least one day a week away from work. The Bible says that after six days of creative work, even God took a day off.

For all our illusions to the contrary, we only have the present - now. The past is gone. The future seems ever so close, but it is always out of our reach. We can dream about it, but it is untouchable until it becomes now.

All we have is the present.

In E. L. Doctorow's historical novel, "The March", which is about General Sherman's march through Georgia during the Civil War, the protagonist is a brilliant field surgeon, Col. Reid Satorious. One day in Savannah the ambulance wagon brought in a young soldier, Corporal Albian Simms, who, during an explosion had a railroad spike driven through his skull and into the front lobe of his brain. Miraculously it did not kill him, but it left him with a rare mental condition in which he remembered nothing of the past, not even his name. He would say something and immediately ask, "What did I say?". He had no concept of the future. He lived in that narrow space between the past and the future which we know as "now". But the boy did seem to have some concept of his situation. One day he cried out in desperation, "All I have is now - that's what hurts. It is always now, now, now, always now". Dr. Reid Satorious walked away and muttered under his breath, "Son, it is always now for all of us, only a bit more so for you".

In a manner of speaking we share that strange condition with the wounded soldier. Unlike him we can remember the past, and we can frame some concept of the future, but all we really have is now - now - always now.

We tend to want to change the past. Old sins and mistakes rise up to haunt us, and we begin to reshuffle the facts of the past, create myths about it, and develop polished gems of oral tradition in an effort to make ourselves look good. But the past is what it is, and none of our skillful air-brushing of the facts can change it, except in our imagination. We tend to think we are in control of our future, but startling unanticipated events constantly disabuse us of that illusion.

We do not know what is going to happen in our lives tomorrow or next week or next year. In one of her recent novels, Sue Grafton begins the opening chapter with a strange but interesting paragraph which reminds us of this salient fact. This is what she wrote.

"Sometimes I think about how odd it would be to catch a glimpse of the future - a quick view of events lying in store for us at some undisclosed date. Suppose we could peer through a tiny peephole in time and chance upon a flash of what was coming up in the years ahead. Some moments we see would make no sense at all, and some, I suspect would frighten us beyond endurance. Time, of course, only runs in one direction, and it seems to do so in an orderly progression. Here in the blank and stony present, we are shielded from knowledge of the dangers that await us, and protected from future horrors by blind ignorance."

Since we cannot change the past, and since we do not know and cannot control the future, out best hope for happiness is "now". Nurture the "now" in your life, and trust God to forgive the past and guide the future. Herein lies the essence of faith and hope and happiness.