Back in the 1990s I saw a bumper sticker that declared, simply, “The Truth Feels Good.” I’ve thought about that bumper sticker a lot since then. I think it’s a fascinating declaration. Lately I’ve begun to wonder how it squares with Christian doctrine. Christianity certainly has an ethic of sufffering, victimization and martyrdom, none of which (in my experience) feel so great. But the point is, of course, to seek a higher good than merely one’s own fleeing feelings. It is painful to devote one’s entire life to caring for someone in great need, to the point that it requires the delaying or denying of other goals. But this pain is swallowed up by a commitment to the higher good of working to create a world where everyone receives the care they need.
British theologian Don Cupitt describes mysticism as a strategy for achieving religious happiness. When I think about this alongside the bumpersticker, I’m left with the unlikely notion that “Mysticism feels good.” Certainly there is a long tradition of bliss and consolation as essential elements of a devout life of prayer. But mysticism also has its share of self-denial for the sake of something higher, greater, nobler than mere self-interest. I suppose that such purposeful self-denial provides its own satisfaction and its own reward, maybe not in terms of immediate feelings of happiness or pleasure, but in terms of a more grounded, from-the-heart sense of doing or participating in what is “right.”
Ayn Rand argued that altruism is never a good thing because it involves a violation of self-interest. But I see things a different way: authentic altruism is always an act of self-interest, maybe not on the surface level of appetite or whim, but on a higher level of integrity and conscience. Note that I say “authentic altruism.” Altruism, like anything else, can have toxic as well as healthy manifestations. Toxic altruism is basically that which is not freely given: an “altruism” borne of guilt, manipulation, coercion, control. Such altruism is not really altruism at all. No wonder it doesn’t feel very good.