Paradox and Contradiction

Life, Liberty, & The Pursuit of Happiness*
Life, Liberty, & The Pursuit of Happiness* (Photo credit: anitakhart)

Call it reversals, call it paradox–Christianity is full of them, and they are a sometimes insurmountable stumbling block for people contemplating religious belief. To destroy yourself in order to find yourself, to die in order to live, to consider yourself blessed when you are mourning, or poor in spirit, or persecuted…to people steeped in the idea that our purpose on earth is the pursuit of the good life, these concepts are foreign and threatening and, well, nonsensical. Why should I deny myself enjoyment and pleasure? Why should I deliberately impose restrictions on myself that are difficult or unpleasant? The more I indulge myself, the happier I’ll be. The rest of it is moral repression imposed by people trying to control the ignorant masses.

Thomas Merton once thought so.

“Here I was, scarcely four years after I had…walked out into the world that I thought I was going to ransack and rob of all its pleasures and satisfactions. I had done what I intended, and now I found that it was I who was emptied and robbed and gutted. What a strange thing! In filling myself, I had emptied myself. In grasping things, I had lost everything. In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear.”


“There is a paradox that lies in the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of a man. The paradox is this: man’s nature, by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems. If we follow nothing but our natures, our own philosophies, our own level of ethics, we will end up in hell.”

(Quotes from The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton)

Notice he didn’t say capital-H Hell, as in a place where Satan torments you for all eternity. He said little-h hell, as in a life full of misery, anger and bitterness.

And he’s right. The 2012 “Better Life Index” found that our country is #1 in terms of personal wealth and #12 in terms of happiness. Out of 36. Another survey, the “Happy Planet Index,” listed the U.S. as 105 out of 187. Ouch.

Granted, it’s not a terrible ranking. And granted, plenty of people who call themselves Christians are also bitter and angry and miserable. But let’s consider the possibility that if all our wealth of TV viewing and video game playing and enrichment activities for kids and wide-screen TVs and smart phones and wall-to-wall carpeting and supersized master bedrooms and sporty cars and vacation homes at the beach and girls’ weekends and football games with the guys–if all those things can’t make us the happiest place on earth, then…maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree altogether.