Chapel Talk

February 26, 2008
Ecclesiastes 3:10-15

I have been thinking about happiness.

Interim is a contemplative time at St. Olaf. The austerity of the weather in January in Minnesota, combined with the fact that so many members of our community are studying off-campus, combined with the intensity for those students who remain on campus that comes with taking just one class for the month, creates an environment that promotes deep thinking. My Interim project was to read a set of books that, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, study the processes by which we make decisions—what cognitive processes come into play, how we respond to data, the role our emotions play in what we think are rational decisions—towards a goal of making better decisions for St. Olaf. So, I read How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, a book about how to know what you don’t know; Freakonomics by Steven J. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, a book that argues that “Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so” Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, a book that shows how sometimes you actually can fail to see the forest for the trees and—most recently—Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, a book that, somewhat depressingly, demonstrates that we tend to misremember the past, misperceive the present and, misimagine the future.

We misremember the past because our brains don’t actually store up what Gilbert calls the “elaborate tapestry” of our experience in its entirety (p. 87). Rather, when we want to access our past our brains supply us with certain key elements of that past and then using an operation Gilbert calls “filling in,” pretty much fabricates the rest, drawing upon emotions, ideas and experiences from our present (p. 88). We are not aware that we are doing this, which is why I have a firm and vivid memory of getting lost walking home from my first day of kindergarten in Lindsborg, Kansas and being picked up by James Altenberg’s mother, who saw me in the park staring at a goldfish pond and wondering what to do, and who brought me home at last—a memory that is discredited by about four eyewitnesses—including my older sister whom I have blamed all these years for not waiting to walk home with me—who say that it never happened.

We misunderstand the present because, as Gilbert shows, this same mental operation of “filling in” occurs even as we perceive the world around us. In Gilbert’s words, we “automatically assume that our subjective experience of a thing is a faithful representation of the thing’s properties,” whereas there is a vast body of research to show that our minds fill in sights and sounds that are not present in events we perceive and that “we do not realize that we are seeing an interpretation of reality” rather than the thing itself (pp. 97-98).

And our notion of the future is equally problematic. Our image of the future, because our imaginations “cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present” (p. 138), tends to be colored by the present moment. If you’ve had a terrible day, researchers have found, you have a difficult time imagining having a good time at a specific future event, even when it involves an activity you normally like to do.

This has been a quick summary of a complicated argument, and I encourage you to read the entire book for yourself, but I think you can see the problem this book poses: our belief in our ability to negotiate our daily lives, to understand our pasts, and to predict and to some extent control, our futures, rests on our belief that we can understand our own experience to some degree. Gilbert’s book sharply challenges the extent of that understanding and, thus, the extent to which we are able fashion our own happiness. As he says at the very end of his book, “There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our … brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble” (p. 263). I call that cold comfort.

This is the problem with being human. We are gifted with extraordinary powers of perception and knowledge and feeling, but we are extraordinarily limited in our ability to use those gifts in our daily lives. The eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope got it about right when, In An Essay on Man, he summarized the human situation this way:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall:
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

There’s a reason why certain writings of the Old Testament are called “wisdom literature”:  they contain thoughts that are wise. Today’s reading from chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes is an example of that.

I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (3:11)

I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; (3:12)

Moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. (3:13)

I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. (3:14)

That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by. (3:15)

Here is another take on happiness and on time. This passage from Ecclesiastes overlays a Divine timeline on our limited human timeline.  God has put “a sense of past and future” into our minds, but we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”  “Whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this.” Our notion of time, our distinction between the past, the present, and the future are gifts from God. Nor are they random gifts, for God has made everything “suitable for its time.” God expects and desires for us to be happy in the present, in our eating and our drinking and our toil. Think about that next time you are in line at the caf, or tonight when you sit down to study for an exam tomorrow or to write the first draft of a paper.

God also gifts us with a sense of the continuum of time, and the verses from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes that precede today’s text help us understand the continuum. These are the famous “There is a season” verses: there is a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to harvest, a time to mourn, a time to dance, a time to tear, a time to sew, a time to speak, a time to be silent, and so on. These verses encapsulate the continuum of our lives, from Vicar Nelson’s baby son Simon to students at St. Olaf today, to an Ole, like me, thirty-four years away from my graduation, to the members of our faculty and staff who will be celebrating significant anniversaries of their service at the College at a lunch at the President’s house on Friday, to the most senior member of our community enjoying the richness of a long life well-lived.

God’s time transcends our time line. Indeed, the metaphor of a line is inadequate for it. As our text says, “Whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor can anything be taken from it”;  “that which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is.” Perhaps, if we look narrowly with our own eyes and think narrowly about our human context, we are, as Pope would have it, trapped in a “Chaos of thought and passion, all confused.” Perhaps, seen in this way, as Gilbert argues, we do misremember the past, misperceive the present, and misimagine the future. Perhaps, given these limitations, we are as much the enemies, as the authors, of our own happiness.

But we need not only look narrowly with our own eyes and understand ourselves narrowly with respect to the human context. Our past, present, and future are cradled in God’s limitless time, and God has made everything “suitable for its time.” God seeks our happiness, and as people of faith we have the promise of his love and care for us.

We should not abandon our quest for self-knowledge, nor abandon the attempt to fashion our own happiness, and that of others, through conscious acts, but today’s reading from Ecclesiastes gives us a different timeline for our lives, a broader and more comforting context in which to think about ourselves, our place in the world, and our happiness. God has given us matters to be busy with us, God seeks our happiness, and God endures for ever. That is a blessed assurance.

Amen.

David R. Anderson ’74