I’m currently in a weird place in my life. If you were to ask me what makes me happy, I would be unable to tell you. Sure, I could tell you how I spend my time. I could tell you that I prefer some things over other things. But I would be hard pressed to tell you what makes me happy. Let me try to provide some examples.
For all intents and purposes, I seem to enjoy games, both video games and board games. I think this is because I have always been a smart kid and really enjoy problem solving. So being able to sit in front of a computer and build a virtual empire, or challenge my friends to an intellectual strategy showdown, has always attracted me. But when I am done, I never feel substantially different than I did before. So can I say they make me happy? They divert my attention, they entertain me, they occupy my time in an enjoyable way. But I’m not sure they make me happy.
Or take learning, something I do a lot of as a theology student. I really like knowing things; I like being able to provide an answer when someone asks me a question, or to be able to make connections between diverse subject. I like language learning, because it feels kind of like a game or a puzzle. But, even though I appreciate the results, the process itself bores me: it seems too slow, too ponderous. Reading the information just doesn’t seem as much fun as I want it to be. So learning doesn’t really seem to make me happy either.
How about preaching and teaching? These are significant parts of my future life as a priest, and I would like to think that I am reasonably good at them. I certainly find them thrilling, and am all smiles when a homily or a class goes off well. But, even if that act seems to bring me joy, I would choose anything over the preparation, which seems to be a low point in my week. So maybe, maybe I can say that preaching and teaching make me happy, but they also bring me down first. I could say the same thing about prayer, the sacraments, and other priestly things: sometimes they bring me up, but often they are difficult and dry and unfulfilling.
Do you see my predicament? Given a chunk of leisure time, say, my day off, I look over the vast array of possible things I could do, work, play, projects, prayer, and I end up not wanting to do any of them. They all seem equally gray and bland and unfulfilling. Nothing captures me heart; nothing inspires me.
This has been true, off and on, for a few years for me, and when I realized it, I suddenly had a deep love and appreciation for the book of Ecclesiastes (sometimes known as Qoheleth). Vanity of vanities, he says. For the length of the book, the author talks about every possible experience under the sun: pleasures, pains, labors. Efforts we would call good and efforts we would call bad. Qoheleth asks an incredibly hard question. In fact, the renowned philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft said that Qoheleth asks the question that the entire rest of the Bible struggles to answer: What is the point? What is the point of pleasures, if we cannot avoid pain? What is the point of enjoyment, if it all goes away at death? What is the point of working hard and doing the right thing if even a just man cannot be assured that his children will not squander everything away? What is the point? Why do we do anything? Why should we do anything?
The bad news is that Qoheleth never answers this question, and I cannot do much better. What I can say is this: In my restlessness, in my lack of motivation and inspiration, I have learned to rely heavily on my faith. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, in the very depth of my soul, that God made me, that God loves me, and that God wants me to be happy. I know that if there is any possible source of happiness in this universe, that it can only be God, and that. If anything is going to being me peace and joy, it will be following God’s will and living his law.
If video games don’t make me happy now, they truly will. My hobbies and my interests will come and go, but they are a fleeting vanity that will not matter in the end. But so too with our aspirations, our careers, our good works. Everything will end, and in the end there will only be God, and it is God that will finally provide, in the end, our ultimate happiness and fulfillment.
Mind you, God gave us many joys to sustain us in this life, and we are meant to enjoy them. But if we want to ensure that these joys do not turn into vanities, we have to remember that the ultimate joy, the joy that all other joys point to, is God our Creator, who has called us into relationship with himself.