Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 2, February 2011
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
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A conversation on happiness: We're all in this together

Derek G. Ross
Professor of Technical and Professional Communication
Auburn University

Final Draft Received 10 January 2011

On October 17, 2010, I had the pleasure of attending the Interfaith Summit on Happiness in Today's Society, hosted by Emory University. The summit consisted of a public discussion between leaders in four major faiths moderated by Krista Tippet, host of the Peabody Award-winning public-radio series Krista Tippet on Being. The leaders were His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition; Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church; Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth; and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. The summit lasted for only a short while, but I ended up taking over five pages of notes on what was being said and my impressions. I feel these thoughts worth exploring further, and so I share them with you here in the hopes that your own happiness might be increased by my ramblings.

Arriving at Emory

To start, Emory campus is beautiful. My wife and I arrived on campus approximately half an hour before the summit was due to start, thinking we would have time for a leisurely walk to the Woodruff Physical Education Center from our parking spot near the library. We did. We did not account, however, for the droves of people lined up to get into the summit. The line stretched around the building, and, as all visitors had to go through a metal detector and security rivaling many airports, we knew we were in for a wait. Barely five minutes in, business-like security guards poured onto the street near us, clearing it and pushing us all back. A series of black towncars pulled up, and His Holiness was rapidly escorted out of a nearby building into the vehicle nearest the door. As the car moved slowly towards the back entrance of the auditorium we were waiting to enter, His Holiness waved happily to all of us in line, bald head bobbing and reflecting the afternoon sunlight. "Well," I grumbled, looking at the length of the line yet to be traversed, "I hope they don't start on time!"

The line moved rapidly, and we soon approached security. This is about the time we noticed several signs posted in the area advising that no cameras, bags, backpacks, etc. would be allowed inside. "They can't be serious," we thought. They were. Security allowed my wife's purse, but disallowed the camera I had in my pocket. In an effort to avoid the hike back to the car and the long wait in line, I pleaded with the security guard to hide my camera in a bush near the building. There was already a pile of discarded cameras in a pile on the unsafe side of the barrier, but I figured that buried under a bush insured at least a bit more security. Surprisingly, the guard agreed. Mattie, or Maddie, said she'd hide the camera for us so we wouldn't have to get out of line. So in we went, surprised and grateful, and just a wee bit suspicious that we would never see our camera again.

Getting Hooked

We were late. As we rushed to the upper reaches of the bench seats His Holiness the Dalai Lama was concluding his opening remarks. The audience was still shifting and adjusting, not at all the silence I expected, but his closing remarks came through clearly as we squeezed into position on the bleachers and did our best to get comfortable. His Holiness gestured to the three leaders sitting on his left, smiled, and, in his broken English, informed us that if we could just get past each other's associations and learn mutual admiration, we would be able to find happiness. "So." He said. "That is all." I was hooked. We were attending Yoda Live.

Lord Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, followed His Holiness's opening remarks. "Each culture," he told us, "conceives of happiness in its own way." He described that in his culture there were two essential kinds of happiness: the happiness we feel, and the happiness we share. This happiness we share—simha—is literally social happiness. Sometimes happiness just comes from being around others and sharing our lives. I was struck by this. In times of need, perhaps the best thing we can do is seek out our friends—share our stories. Perhaps all we really need to do to achieve happiness, he continued, is remember to give thanks for what we have and those we have to share it with. As Lord Sachs illustrated, after escaping Egypt and leading his people across the desert, Moses warned that the hardest times were yet to come: It's when you settle down and reality sets in that the everyday humdrum of life begins to wear you away as wealth and comfort increases. "Affluence," the good Rabbi warned, "makes you forget to give thanks."

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori followed by mentioning the importance of community and collaboration. Happiness, she explained, is a shared responsibility. Bishop Schori provided an interesting counterpoint to the three men she was seated with—while His Holiness would sit with his head down and trademark red visor pulled over his eyes, nodding and smiling, interjecting with brief exclamations, and Professor Nasr sat with one leg up, looking professorly, and the Rabbi sat regally, eyes twinkling in the bright stage lights, Bishop Schori sat rigidly strait-backed, almost pushed away from the rest. While the men engaged in lengthy explanations (or fortune-cookie-ready pithicisms), Bishop Schori was direct, to the point, cold. Her language was abrupt and cautionary. In this case, her opening remarks on happiness indicated that perhaps happiness isn't about comfort, but abstinence. That we are all responsible for happiness, but should be cautious about how it is obtained. Her cautionary words made sense, but they were not words of comfort—the audience seemed a bit skeptical: uncomfortable.

Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr followed Bishop Schori's cautionary explanation by arguing that each human organizes their life based on perceptions of levels of happiness. I had to laugh when he explained that if you die with a smile on your face, you've gotten your priorities right somewhere along the way. His argument was that happiness is to know oneself, and life's goal is simply to discover who we are.


Krista, the moderator, asked how each panelist's understanding of happiness encompasses, or otherwise spoke to, suffering. This makes sense—we can't have a panel on happiness without considering that the world is full of suffering, right? So how did each panelist deal with this question?

Rabbi Sachs suggested that suffering is unavoidable. He told the story of Jacob, who wrestled with an angel and, in the wrestling, had his hip wrenched out of its socket. Despite the pain inflicted by the wrestling, Jacob would not let the angel free until the angel had blessed him (Genesis 32:22-32). The take away, as Rabbi Sachs explained, was that sometimes suffering is unavoidable: you should wrestle with your own suffering, and don't let it go until you've learned what it can teach, until you've found the seed of happiness within. This was not an "every cloud has a silver lining" speech—this was an answer that showed he understood pain, but also realized we can learn from pain, we can learn from suffering. Conversely, Bishop Schori argued that rather than turning inward to deal with suffering and wrestling with our problems we look to a higher power outside of ourselves and deal with suffering by praying to God for succor, and Professor Nasr argued that while the world may be full of suffering, we can find happiness in nature—in that which is not of us. He told us to look around our world, to take joy in the beauty surrounding us. In this discussion of nature he made an interesting point—in the United States, he told us, atheists are the strongest defenders of the natural world. The Christian religion teaches us to look to a higher power for help, not to our world, and not to each other. Interesting. He then went on to tell us that "a moral act should come from a virtuous soul, and the virtuous soul is one which knows beauty." Beauty, he told us, makes us happy. To add to that, however, Rabbi Sachs abjured us to find beauty in that which was not outwardly beautiful, and this I greatly appreciated.

But what of suffering? I have to revisit wrestling with an angel. The ultimate cage match. Don't let go, Rabbi Sachs told us, until you have gotten what you need. But how do you know when that is? I think we have all had moments of intense suffering—a loss, a defeat, a humiliation—where "letting go" seems so, so right…yet so, so impossible. We can't ever forget those cheek-reddening defeats, or those soul-crushing losses. Be we can stop wrestling with them once we have learned. Learned how to take the pain and help others (or ourselves); learned how to share the pain, and lessen grief; learned how to stand taller, think in new ways, walk a new line. We can leave the cage match when we're sweat-soaked and dirty, and in that fight find a new path towards happiness. Life cannot be a grudge match. Forgive the wrestling metaphors—the last time I watched professional wrestling, Junkyard Dog was alive and well. But I have to think that the good Rabbi has a point. We can't always see the path laid at our feet, but if we don't discount, belittle, or ignore our hurts we can learn, grow, and grow new eyes, grow new ways to see.

Right to Happiness

Krista asked what seemed to be a fairly simple question—Is happiness a right? What a silly question! After all, our Declaration of Independence clearly states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Pursuing, however, is not the same as having. His Holiness the Dalai Lama replied "Happiness does not come from the sky." Happiness, he explained, is our responsibility, and is based on hope. Hopelessness equals suicide, hope leads to happiness. Thus, he shared, we make our own happiness through our hope for the future. He then tied the conversation back to an earlier point about respect for others and other religions in a side note on Faith versus Respect. Have faith to your own religion, he admonished. Don't try to mix and match. Follow the precepts of your faith, your community, and through repetition and following find serenity. Mixing different faiths can lead to confusion. So the upshot of this segment was to have faith in (and to) your own religion, but show respect to all.

Bishop Schori, as had become her habit in this dialogue, kept her comments brief. Happiness, she told us, is our duty. I do have to admit here that a "duty" to "happiness" seems a bit forced. I picture myself standing in the cold pouring rain "being happy" in God's Bounty with a smile frozen on my face, when all I'd need to do to really be happy is step indoors. It may be that I'm the wrong person to comment here, however. Pessimism aside, the more I think about the idea of duty to happiness, the more I think that there is a powerful value here. Duty implies a debt owed—a moral obligation to perform or act in a certain way. "Duty to Happiness," then, means that we owe ourselves a debt of happiness. We must strive towards finding whatever elements we need in our life to create the circumstances which will allow us to die with a smile. Perhaps if I focused on my duty to happiness while standing in that cold pouring rain I'd begin to notice how it sparkled in muted light and find an inner peace I'd been previously lacking. Rabbi Sachs' thoughts helped me solidify my own. He noted that we tend to always chase happiness. We are constantly running toward the next big thing, the next gratification, the next soul-balming-solace. Perhaps, he suggested, we should simply stop running and let happiness catch up. This, he pointed out, is what the Sabbath is for—to stop for a moment and let life settle in and catch up, to reflect, and to start anew. "Sometimes," he told us, "we don't need to pursue happiness. Sometimes we just need to pause and let it catch up."


Perhaps if we need to stop pursuing happiness and just stop for a moment and let life catch up, the thought continues, we should learn how to quiet the mind. Krista asked what traditions each speaker knew of to generate this internal calmness.

Professor Nasr brought up the five daily prayers of Islam. He pointed out that these moments pull you out of the flow of time and facilitate reflection. There are also Holy Times, such as Ramadan, where everything changes, everything slows down, and the whole tempo of life changes. Rabbi Sachs agreed, pointing to the basic act of prayer. A reflection (personal, he noted) such as "Thank You for giving me back my life," reminds us each time we say it of what we have to be thankful of in the world. He told a story of almost drowning—on his honeymoon—where when he went under for the fifth time he thought about what a horrible way to start a marriage this was. Each day he prays and thanks God for his literal salvation, which reminds him of all he has to be grateful for. Prayer, he noted, lets us not only seek absolution, but reflect on the good we have in our lives. At this point, Bishop Schori broke in, and her thoughts here were powerful.

Bishop Schori noted that, in many traditions, Christianity has a focus on blessing certain moments of the day, from daybreak, and sunset, to the milking of the cows, and even the washing of the dishes. These moments, when we deliberately seek them out and create them, help us realize that there is a blessing and a pleasure in everyday acts. At this point I have to interject. This idea is beautiful to me. My mother once told my wife and me that she liked ironing—sometimes after a long day the time taken to just iron shirts was relaxing. We have laughed about that on a regular basis ever since (sorry, Mom). Ironing shirts just isn't all that fun... and yet I understand. It's the first thing I do when I travel. I set up the ironing board, and as I unpack my suitcase I iron all of my clothes, wind down from my travels, and settle in to my new space. When I wash dishes at my house I don't think about what else I could be doing, I put on good music and relax into the rhythm of warming my hands in hot water, placing dishes in the dishwasher, or scrubbing and drying. I, as my wife has pointed out, am a bit strange in that I actually like to clean the kitchen. So these everyday blessings make sense to me—we would do well to remember that in repetition is meditation, in meditation is calmness, in calmness is hope, and hope, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama pointed out, leads to happiness.


What about compassion toward enemies?

In a rather interesting rhetorical move, His Holiness the Dalai Lama responded by saying that you must always think of other's well being. That is, sometimes you must use force to stop wrong action. I was, at first, a bit taken aback. This is the Dalai Lama, after all, and here he is advocating use of force. But then I thought of Gandhi, the ultimate pacifist, and I recalled a quote that I memorized while a high school student for a few months in Davis, California. I was stuck in a history class in a room with wall-sized windows on each side of the classroom, and in the heat of the day it was impossible to pay attention to the teacher. I would doze off—until we read about Gandhi. I still remember one of his sayings that makes sense to me to this day. "Abstinence [from violence] is forgiveness only if there is the power to punish." Be peaceful...but never let your opposition take that as weakness. So His Holiness the Dalai Lama's words made sense to me here. Always think of the greater good, and do what is necessary.

Bishop Schori admonished us to remember where "turn the other cheek" actually comes from. When disciplined (Greek times? Roman?) we'll just go with "back in the day," a discipliner would hit an offender with the back of his hand. By turning the cheek, the offender looks the discipliner in the eye, and, by doing so, reminds him of the offender's humanity. The entire dynamic of a relationship is altered when one turns the other cheek, because the attacked becomes a human, and we have a hard time attacking that with which we relate.

Postscript on happiness

At this point the stadium was thinning out. People were getting up and leaving, checking His Holiness the Dalai Lama off their social to-do lists, and it became a bit hard to focus. Krista asked a final question about the war in Iraq, however, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama turned part of the serious discussion into a rather interesting aside. "Explain to me, my Muslim Friend," he said, turning to Professor, Nasr, "one meaning of Jihad—to attack oneself?" Yes, Professor Nasr replied. One meaning certainly is to attack inner problems, to attack the inner self to make it better. His Holiness responded, "Well, in that case, all of Buddhism is about Jihad." We all laughed. The conversation turned to war, and out of this discussion emerged one strong salient point, offered by Professor Nassr: compassion is meaningless if there is no ability to fix or destroy. Care all you want, he essentially said, but unless you can fight for change, find something more worthwhile to do. Doesn't this seem to be a rational way of approaching the world? Don't "care" for something, unless you can (and do) actually do something about it. I'm stuck thinking about political critics (guilty), armchair environmentalists (sometimes guilty), or people who want to get healthy and in shape (finally less guilty) who talk a big game…but isn't it all sound and fury if we don't actually do? Care, the good Professor suggested, about what you can DO. Then do it.

The summit on Happiness ended shortly thereafter, with one rather notable event. As we were leaving the arena, we were swept up in the crowd of hundreds moving toward the officially designated doors. Our camera, however, we realized was in the opposite direction—blocked by security guards all herding us away from the side of the building from which we had entered. We broke free of the crowd, crawling along the wall, and tried to exit the doors from which we had entered. A surly female guard turned us back, "no exceptions." But, I argued, a rather nice guard promised to hide our camera for us. She said no, and turned us away. Enter a harried looking guard who called to us—"Hey, did she say she would hide it in the bushes?" When we said yes, he told Miss Surly that it was ok and let us through with one other couple. Sure enough, buried in the bushes by the downspout she had indicated, lay our camera.

Happiness, I contend, is sometimes just finding out that you can trust other people to do the right thing. After all, we're all in this together.

A video of the event can be found at American Public Media: Krista Tippett on Being

About the author: Derek G. Ross is Assistant Professor of Technical and Professional Communication at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, USA. His current research interests include environment-related rhetoric in popular and modern culture, investigation of modern perceptions and use of commonplaces in environment-related rhetoric, and audience analysis techniques related to understanding perceptions of environment-related communication.

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