For anyone who lives in New England, the weather this summer has been lovely. The app on my phone keeps predicting relatively low humidity, sunshine, a slight breeze and a chance of a thunderstorm overnight to keep the grass growing and the temperatures lower than usual.
On a more personal level, my immediate surroundings have also been quite pleasant this summer. Our kids have hit a sweet spot of sorts—no one in diapers and no one in puberty—so they sleep through the night, and they can occupy themselves and play together without threat of serious injury, but they still want their mother's attention and affection. This summer, William has learned to ride his bike. Penny has started reading the book I'm writing and telling me what she likes about it. Marilee has learned how to stay afloat in a pool.
Between the pleasant weather and the pleasant children and the more leisurely pace of summertime, I started to get worried. Call it a vestige of my Puritan heritage, or evidence of many years of unexpected sorrows, but all this delightful ease was making me nervous. Then I read Jesus' parable of the sower. He describes a farmer who scatters seed in four places. The first two seeds never grow much, but both the third and fourth seed take root. And yet even though the third seed grows, it fails to mature because it is "choked by life's worries, riches, and pleasures" (Luke 8:14). As I enjoyed yet another evening on our porch swing with my children asleep and a book and a glass of wine as my companions, I wondered whether I was deceiving myself. Maybe this easy pleasant moment was not a good gift but actually an example of me being choked by pleasure.
Around the same time, I happened to reread C.S. Lewis' The Weight of Glory (which is certainly worth reading in full if you haven't of late). Lewis writes about the longing we have for the "far off country," our union with Christ in heaven. But he also writes about the ways in which we taste and see and feel that union here and now. All the beauty and truth and goodness here is a shadow, Lewis says, of the real beauty and truth and goodness we will experience in full in the world to come. So perhaps these simple pleasures—the porch swing, William sounding out words cuddled next to me, the ripe tomato, the salty kiss after my husband emerges from a swim, the sound of Penny singing "Here I Am to Worship" in the back seat of the car, Marilee's exuberance over ice cream and lightning bugs, the orange glow that streaks the sky—perhaps these pleasures are not choking me but actually drawing me closer to eternity.
Arthur Brooks wrote a piece for the New York Times this past week about happiness. He details the typical ways we try to achieve happiness: fame (whether via Hollywood, reality television or plain old Facebook status updates), fortune, and relationships. He offers data to demonstrate how unhappy these pursuits make us. In short:
Bar none, the unhappiest people I have ever met are those most dedicated to their own self-aggrandizement . . . People who rate materialistic goals like wealth as top personal priorities are significantly likelier to be more anxious, more depressed and more frequent drug users . . . and across men and women alike, the data show that the optimal number of (sexual) partners is one.
Brooks offers an evolutionary argument to explain this longing for happiness and the reasons we seek after these goals in ways that hurt us, but he goes on to write:
More philosophically, the problem stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can't quite pin down what it is that we seek.
Funny, that's what C.S. Lewis said seventy years ago. And it's what Jesus preached about two thousand years ago when he said that worry and pleasure will choke us but that hearing his words and putting them into practice would lead to abundant life. Brooks comes to the conclusion that we tend to "love things and use people" when we should "love people and use things." Fair enough. Lewis takes it one step further when he says we should pay attention to our longings—even the longing for fame, money, and relationships—because those longings point us toward the one who can fulfill them.
And then there is Jesus. He cautions against riches and pleasure, the pursuit of a material reality that ultimately deadens and chokes spiritual growth. And yet he also promises life to the full for those who follow him.
As I pondered whether or not the pleasant aspects of my life were decoys, leading me astray from the straight and narrow, or good gifts to enjoy with gratitude, I remembered another passage. It comes in Acts, after Stephen has been martyred and the church has been scattered due to persecution. It comes at the end of a few hard and harrowing years. It reads:
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
Jesus, Brooks, and Lewis all agree that pursuing pleasure—be it by way of social media "likes" or multiple desirable sexual partners or a ginormous bank account—will leave us empty. And yet God does give us times of peace during which we are invited to enjoy the many gifts we have been given—the beauty of the solitary egret standing at the edge of the marsh, the warmth of the little hand in mine, the sweetness of a friendship that has endured the decades. And so I am enjoying this time of peace, encouraged by the Holy Spirit, and trusting that God will use it to bear much fruit.