*Warning, contains spoilers for the novel 1984 by George Orwell*
I have recently been reading a famous novel; George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This one is truly a classic. The worldview behind this story is both a terrifyingly potential and a not-so-subtle dig at totalitarianism and various forms of societal control. An Orwellian society is one in which fear and hatred dominate. It is a society in which many of the freedoms we still enjoy in the West are diminished or outright annihilated. In this sad story Orwell speaks of a world without a benevolent God or happiness. God has been replaced by the omnipresent Big Brother; the face of the all controlling Party, and happiness is almost non-existent because it is hardly possible. Individuals – at least, those in the Party - are reduced to instruments in a machine. Doesn’t sound pretty does it? One could write a thesis on the lack of joy in 1984. All that being said; it is here that I start this post because it is only in the valley that we see the top of the mountain clearly.
For this post I have been looking up quotes and I came across this gem; there is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved – George Sand. This line is defiant of all things Orwellian. And it could easily be taken across to Christianity. In Christianity we find more than just a set of rules and moral teachings. In Christianity we find Christ, “the only-begotten of the Father,” who loves each of us. Thus, a relationship is formed. We have a loving God in Christ and a beloved (each of us.) And in humility I make the claim that it is in this that we find our happiness.
But, lets back up a bit. St Thomas Aquinas lists four things that each of us desire in the hope of finding a happy life; power, pleasure, honour and wealth. If you think about it, these four horsemen (if you like) make up a big part of our daily decision making. The desire for power, pleasure, honour and wealth are not exactly bad in themselves, yet, St. Thomas reminds us that searching after the fulfilment of one or more of these desires is not where we will find our fulfilment.
If not in the fulfilment of these human desires, then where? Where do we look in our pursuit of happiness? Maybe it is in our relationships. Maybe finding joy in the communion with others is the answer. Would this then be the pinnacle of perfection? If so, is there nothing greater or worthy than love for our fellow human beings? Christ claimed that, no, there is a higher and more fulfilling answer to this conundrum. In his famous commandment, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength. And love your neighbour as yourself” Christ reveals to each of us that our love for God comes first. In the book of Psalms, the psalmist writes, “In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forever more.” Psalm 16: 11. Then, it may be that it is reasonable to put God in the first place. It may be that this is the answer to our question, the path we are looking for.
Let me ask you a reasonable question. Are human beings fulfilling their potential to love one another (the second part of Christ’s command)? Or, to put it simply, is our love for one another perfect? Clearly the answer is a no. A quick look at the news and this answer will become clear, very quickly. The truth is, there is a degree of imperfection (inordinate desire) in all our relationships. Our love for others will never be perfect. At least, not in this life. What does this imperfection mean then? It must mean that there is a perfection that we are all aiming for. Or, to put it another way, a standard of perfect love that we all seek after. If you look at it this way, then things start to become clear. I would say that, when God is not desired above all else, then all our decisions become quite predictable. This, then, would be the sad story of sin; humanity turning to something other than God to fulfil its longings.
In Christian circles there is a famous quote, “you become what you love.” Then, to love God is to become like him and in becoming like him we will find our identity and our true freedom. This would mean that no human intuition, state, family group or individual could achieve this goal for us. If this is true, then, in each of our lives we must aspire to do three things: first to seek God, then to find God, then to love God. In this way we will find our happiness.
There is a line in 1984 that caught my attention. It is one of those quotes that stays with you because of its simplicity as well as the meaning behind it. It resounds throughout the novel. The quote is, “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.” In 1984, this mysterious place is not heaven at all. It is a place where our main character is ‘transformed’ by pain and fear into a shadow of what it means to be human. In this state, Winston must now remould his own thoughts into those that would please Big Brother. And he does so willingly. His once resistant spirit has been crushed. Eventually he succeeds and he becomes fully part of the party he once hated, submitting his mind and will to the collective ‘good.’ And so, we see an extreme of what an ideologically driven state tries to do. If this is one end of the spectrum then following Christ is at the other end. Christ leaves it up to us whether we would like to follow his call. And, as we have just seen, it is love that conforms us to Christ, not hate.
Today, in our friendship groups and in wider society, it is conformity that is praised. So, to be called a rebel is to conform to what is cool or popular and, thus, conform to the standards of the group! To be truly different or act in anyway outside the box is, then, looked upon as something strange. Thus, in this worldly age of backwards thinking, vices are praised and virtues are treated with contempt or simply ignored. And so, those heroic daily acts that tend us towards the good and towards happiness with Christ become a stumbling block for the person obsessed with those four horsemen that were mentioned above. It is good to make a daily examine as to where we ourselves fall in our actions. One can ask oneself, have I sought what I know to be truly the best for others today and so improved myself? If we want to see shining examples of people who lived happy lives one only has to look to the Saints. Contemporary figures like St. John Paul II, Mother Theresa and St. Carlo Acutis give us examples of how to live a truly human and joyful life. These blessed individuals, who were not afraid to stand away from the crowd and state the truth, are models of sanctity because they lived their lives for others, all the while, keeping God as the centre of their lives. Through the example of their lives we see the true road to happiness, a road that leads straight to Christ.
So, it is up to us to decide. Will we satisfy the desires of the present moment, live a life of comfort and follow what is popular in society or will we aim our desires towards a higher goal, towards a state of being where we have both reason and faith on our side and the love of God in our life. It is up to us to decide for we have been left that choice. And in the end, it is this choice that really matters. Our happiness depends on it.
** Extra note: This small post has tried to answer the question ‘how to attain happiness.’ However, I haven’t addressed a momentous issue in every person’s life; pain and suffering. It is possible to be in pain (physical, emotional or even spiritual) and still be happy. There are examples of people who have suffered tremendously and still held a peaceful and even joyful demeanour. In these situations, it is important to seek help from God. Prayer and the sacraments may not change one’s physical situation, but they can be a powerful source of comfort and strength in moments of temptation to despair. This, of course, is for our spiritual needs. Our physical and emotional needs must be met if we are to navigate intense suffering and come out the other side relatively okay. However, there is always hope. Even in the darkest moments. It may be that the suffering that you are going through is necessary for you in this moment. And you might find a greater happiness later on. You never know.
Written by: Liam O'Connor (Student)