Saturday, October 09, 2004

Love is the Key to Happiness

cue music "Love makes the world go round..."

But seriously, a post and its subsequent comments on Larry's blog has me thinking about the importance of love. Larry mentions it as an antidote to mood swings; my friend, Barely Attentive Mother queries this. While I entirely agree with Larry, I was trying to figure out why -- that is what I hope to do in this post.

The Barely Attentive Mother and I are friends in real life and when she was over once for a playdate for our daughters, I showed her a children's picture book, The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth. The book is based on a story by Leo Tolstoy and in it, a little boy poses three questions to his friends: when is the best time to do things, who is the most important one, and what is the right thing to do? I wanted to share this book with Barely because of her interest in Buddhism and the note in the book that the story follows Zen principles (she's not particularly interested in Zen Buddhism, but what difference does that make to a narrow-minded Protestant who doesn't really understand any of it? he he) Well, the answers to the questions are (don't read this if it will ruin the book for you): now, the person you're with, and to do good for the one you're with. To me, doing good for the one you're with is showing love for them.

I recently grabbed a book at the library, Stone Soup. Its a familiar tale of clever visitors who induce reluctant townspeople to share by piqueing their curiosity about how stones can make a delicious soup; I thought it would be a nice story for my 4 year-old. Interestingly, this version of the story was written by Jon J. Muth and is set in China and the visitors are Zen monks. In the story, the townspeople are alienated from each other as a result of the hard times they have endured. The book follows the traditional story, one by one, the villagers add items to the pot, making the soup by sharing with one another. Muth ends the book with the villagers thanking the monks, "with the gifts you have given, we will always have plenty. You have shown us that sharing makes us all richer." "And to think," said the monks, "to be happy is as simple as making stone soup."

Does this prove my point? Maybe, maybe not. It does lead me to note that Muth states in an Author's Note that he uses a trick from the Buddha story tradition, where tricksters spread enlightenment rather than seeking gain for themselves. I find myself asking, how is this tradition any different from the parables told by Jesus. (Larry has noted -- on two blogs -- that Jesus and the Buddha are brothers).

I can't help adding that my conclusion is that the meaning of life is the search for God (its a lifelong search). To seek happiness is a basic human drive, love is the key to happiness and God is love (as shown to us through Jesus). QED. Okay, maybe its not a solid proof, but perhaps I'm persuasive...or not.


Anne Zelenka said...

I agree that love is an important element in achieving happiness. But I don't think it is always sufficient by itself. Love may be incapable by itself of dealing with manic and depressive episodes, which is what we were discussing.

For example: if I stay awake all night in the grips of a near-manic episode planning my latest scheme, how does love help me? Can it put me to sleep? Can it turn my overheated mind off? Can it give me mental equanimity?

If I am unable to meet my mothering responsibilities because of a deep depression, what will love do for me? Can it give back the motivation that's been sapped away? Can it turn off the negative thought patterns that dominate my decision-making? Can it give me the equanimity to respond to the demands on my time?

I fear these psychological challenges will be dismissed as imaginary or at least as being easier to deal with than what I found. While I don't want to overstate my own psychological issues, this goes beyond what love alone can deal with.

Marjorie said...

I'm sorry if this post was frustrating to you. The post was really just about the importance of love and WHY I think its the antidote to mood swings, but not HOW this is actually accomplished -- I'll leave that to Larry.

That said, I do think that an acceptance of God's love can bring peace that would help combat the challenges you mention. Of course, there is no proof of this, its an act of faith that one must choose to make. I'm not dismissing the challenges you face -- they are very real and they are not easy, which is why I'm always annoying you with misguided, meddlesome suggestions. How do I balance wanting to genuinely help you without making you feel that I'm belittling you or dismissing your problems? This is my challenge -- the only thing I can come up with is unconditional love -- you are not a bad mother to feel this way, you are not a bad person to have negative thoughts, you are not a crazy person to have an active mind. God loves you just the way you are and so do I. And I imagine that my saying all this might well be infuriating because I've given you nothing you can use and nothing you wanted. Its all I've got, though.

I don't have all the answers to my questions before I start a journey, but I try not to let that prevent me from beginning.

Anne Zelenka said...

Sorry, didn't mean to be so cranky about it. My excuse is that my teeth hurt. Plus, as you know, I'm naturally argumentative.

My point is just that love is necessary but not sufficient for happiness, at least for me, and especially if we are talking about bipolar-like mood swings. I do have answers to these questions; I've found them in Buddhism, which helps me recognize suffering and its causes and see how it can cease. I've even put many things into practice. It's gradually getting me to the point where I can put more emphasis on love and compassion.

I think I mentioned to you that I have read a book by the Dalai Lama but was uncomfortable that he began with compassion (which seems roughly synonymous with love to me). I can't get to compassion and love first; I'm much too self-absorbed and self-doubting to start with it. I need mental concentration and a wise perspective first, then I can get out of myself and love others and feel love back.

I was sorting this out for a post on my own blog and I came to the conclusion that I need love plus wisdom. They are related but neither one is reducible to the other.

The phrase "wisdom literature" sticks in my mind from some church happening or another... I know one conception of God is as "Sophia" a feminine wisdom. But I don't know enough about it to know whether it represents what I'm talking about. I'm pretty ignorant about Christianity except for my barely remembered sunday school lessons. Is there something in Christianity that tells me how to get to a place where I can "love my neighbor as myself"? The Buddhist literature offers specific practices for cultivating compassion and love for all sentient beings. But I'm not familiar with anything in Christianity that parallels that.

Larry said...

"love, joy, peace, patience, etc. These are the gifts of the spirit." (Galatians 5:22). Barely, I have to go back to my own experience: I remained a pretty loveless young man until I came to recognize that I was loved (beloved) -- by God. That opened a spring of love in me from that day to this. Without that I could only hate the world.

Another name for it is the Holy Spirit; We all have that of God in us, but it becomes effectual when we experience God's love; and that happens when we ask.

Marjorie said...

I'm glad that Buddhism is helping you through your challenges and I won't argue with that.

You asked about whether Christianity can tell you how to get to loving your neighbor as yourself. I imagine there are countless books by saints and other authors on this topic. Getting to the root, I'd say that the Bible has a lot to say about it -- but not in a 'how-to' sort of way. The Bible itself (whether read literally or not) is a parable about living and loving. I think the best examples of selfless love can be found in the Old Testment (of course, the entire story of Jesus is about selfless love). The book of Hosea is a beautiful book about a husband who is cheated on by his wife, utterly humiliated and abandoned. He is commanded by God to take her back. Its very moving -- the pain is palpable. The book of Jonah tells the story of a man who doesn't have compassion for his enemies (understandably so) and God's response to this (its so much more than the story of a guy being swallowed by a fish). Ecclessiastes is a great book to read when you're feeling down -- it basically says, life sucks, love God. Such an odd thing for me to say that its good for feeling down, maybe I just think it bottoms you out so you can build up love for God.

For me, the more I read the Bible, the more I understand. The rudimentary teachings of Sunday school are misleading, I think. Hearing the Bible stories over and over, I concluded I knew all there was to know. I knew nothing and don't know much more now, but reading the Bible builds your knowledge and causes me to experience these feelings. Its a supernatural work.

Anne Zelenka said...

I'm sure my Sunday School version of Christianity is incomplete and misleading. Some day I'd like to study the Bible in depth. Just not right now.

It makes a lot of sense that the "how" of loving your neighbor could be communicated via examples and stories rather than in some step-by-step how-to fashion.