So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
In this week’s post for the Personalist Project, I wrote about the problem of “nice guys” who feel cheated because their “niceness” hasn’t brought them the promised romantic and sexual success.
It’s been pithily observed before that if you’re being a “nice guy” because you want women to sleep with you, it might be true that you’re not really all that “nice.” A friend observed to me that he winces whenever he sees someone comment that men who treat women as equals get more sex, because “that shouldn’t be the point.”
It’s true, I think, that men who treat women as equals are likely to have more fulfilling relationships with women. But if you treat women well as a means to an end rather than as an end to itself, are you really treating them well? It might take dissatisfaction with his love life to motivate a particular man to put more effort and thought into how he interacts with women, but if he never moves past utilitarian motives, both the primary good of acting justly towards woman and the secondary good of forming more fulfilling relationships will remain outside his reach. He can’t reach his goal unless he sets it aside.
He can’t have the good he seeks without giving it up. Otherwise all the passion, need, and longing that motivated him can too easily turn into something different, something poisonous and destructive.
This reminded me of other examples of goods that elude us as long as we pursue them directly. The foremost of these, I think, is happiness.
If happiness is a byproduct of a well-lived life, then you can’t pursue it except by ceasing to pursue it; you can’t gain it except by placing other goods ahead of it.
I’m not happy because I am prospering, or because I am living the life I want, or the life I think I ought to. That is clear enough. Nor am I happy because I never suffer, or because I suffer nobly and beautifully. When I hurt, I am just as ugly and snotty as Simcha describes. There is, within me, a well of loss, doubt, fear, and loneliness that I could draw from daily without ever reaching bottom.
Somehow, I am happy—not overjoyed, not ebullient, not blissful, but reasonably, peacefully happy—most of the time, most days.
Is this why we call it “the bluebird of happiness”? Because you can’t chase happiness down, you can’t come at it directly, you can only scatter seeds and try not to frighten it off?
Years ago, in the midst of a heartbreak of epic proportions, a friend gave me some instructions to help me get through it. It was a list of aphorisms and pithy bits of advice containing items like “don’t chase others for affirmation,” “make plans to do things you enjoy,” “listen more than you talk,” and “find ways to give back to the people around you.”
She told me, “You’re asking the wrong question. You should be asking, will this help me grow to be more who I am meant to be? You have to change because you want to change, not to try to get something from someone else. Becoming more whole and self-realized might make others look twice at you and want to be around you, but only if it is real–and if that’s the reason you’re doing it, it won’t be real.”
A hard lesson, that.
In Matthew’s gospel, Christ tells us that all the goods of the world are like this. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything else–our daily bread, drink, shelter–will be thrown in alongside. Man does not live by bread alone.
I don’t think Christ is saying we should be irresponsible and spendthrift and assume God will catch us. Among other things, that wouldn’t be very righteous behaviour. We do need to live in this world, work, pay our bills (the labourer is worthy of his wage), make plans to meet our worldly responsibilities.
This passage about seeking the kingdom of God and not worrying about tomorrow comes at the end of the same chapter in which Christ cautions us to give and pray in secret, not in public “to be honoured by others.” In the same chapter, we are told that if we forgive, we will be forgiven.
And perhaps this is the verse that puts the rest into context: Matthew 6 tells us to “store up treasures in heaven” for “where your treasure is, so will your heart be also.”
If all of my choices and actions are self-seeking, my heart can never travel further than the smallness of my own concerns. All of my pursuit of affirmation, love, happiness end back where I began, in me. Yes, these are good things. But do I want them because they are good? Or do I want them because I want to feel good. Do I want to spread affirmation, love, happiness to those around me because it is good and true and just? Or do I want more affirmation for me, more love for me, more happiness for me? Where is my gaze directed? Am I looking outward towards the great, infinite span of God’s kingdom? Or am I looking inwards, to the small little principality of my own self-satisfaction?
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
And so I come back, again and again, to the truth I was taught years ago, the personalist insight repeated over and over again by the great JPII that has become a touchstone for me.
Gaudium et Spes 24:
[M]an, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.
It is only when we open our eyes that the Light can shine in through our eyes and fill our minds and hearts. It is only when we open ourselves to give to others that we are able to receive all that God wants to give us.
Food. Drink. Shelter. Friendship. Love. Joy.
Loosen your grip. Seek Christ.
Everything else will follow.