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I have some questions for the "average person" this morning. (1) First, which is more important, making money or being devoted to your family? Ask the average person that question and virtually everyone will answer, "Family", without hesitation. But watch how the average person actually lives out his life. See where he really invests his time and energy, and he will give away the fact that he does not live by what he says he believes. He has let himself be persuaded that if he leaves for work earlier in the morning and comes home tired at night, he is proving how devoted he is to his family by expending himself to provide them with all the things that they have seen advertised.
A story is told of a king who was suffering from a malady and was advised by his astrologer that he would be cured if the shirt of a contented man were brought to him to wear. People went out to all parts of the kingdom after such a person, and after a long search they found a man who was really happy...but he did not possess a shirt. (2)
I have had occasion to spend many hours with folks who are about to die. Not one of them has ever told me, "I wish I had spent more time on my business."
Another question. Which means more, the approval of strangers or the affection of people closest to you? Ask the average person which means more, and she will not be able to understand why you would ask such a stupid question. Obviously, nothing means more to her than her family and her closest friends. Yet, how many of us have embarrassed our children or squelched their spontaneity, for fear of what neighbors or strangers might think? How often have we poured out our anger on those closest to us because we had a hard day at work or someone else did something to upset us? And how many of us have let ourselves become irritable with our families because we were dieting to make ourselves look more attractive to people who do not know us well enough to see beyond appearances?
One more question. What does the average person want out of life? The average person will probably reply, "All I want is to be happy." And I believe him. I believe that most people want to be happy. I believe that they work hard at making themselves happy. They buy books, attend classes, change their lifestyles, in an on-going effort to find that elusive quality, happiness. In spite of all that, I suspect that most people most of the time do not feel happy. As Thoreau said, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
Oscar Wilde once wrote, "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." He was trying to warn us no matter how hard we work at being successful, success will not satisfy us. By the time we get there, having sacrificed so much on the altar of being successful, we will realize that success was not what we wanted.
An anonymous friar in a monastery once wrote these words: "If I had my life to live over again, I'd try to make more mistakes next time. I would relax, I would limber up, I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I know of very few things I would take seriously. I would take more trips. I would be crazier. I would climb more mountains, swim more rivers and watch more sunsets. I would do more walking and looking. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary ones. You see, I'm one of the people who lives life prophylactically and sensibly hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I've had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I'd have more of them. In fact, I'd try to have nothing else, just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead each day. I've been one of those people who never go anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bottle, a gargle, a raincoat, aspirin, and a parachute. If I had it to do over again, I would go places, do things, and travel lighter than I have. If I had my life to live over again I would start barefooted earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would play hockey more. I wouldn't make such good grades, except by accident. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I'd pick more daisies." (3)
Frank Lloyd Wright, the world-famous architect, tells how a lecture he received at the age of nine helped set his philosophy of life. An uncle, a stolid, no-nonsense type, had taken him for a long walk across a snow-covered field. At the far side, his uncle told him to look back at their two sets of tracks. "See, my boy," he said, "how your footprints go aimlessly back and forth from those trees, to the cattle, back to the fence then over there where you were throwing sticks? But notice how my path comes straight across, directly to my goal. You should never forget this lesson!" "And I never did," Wright said. "I determined right then not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had." (4)
There is an old Peanuts cartoon - Snoopy sitting on top of his dog house when Charlie Brown comes with a note. Charlie says, "It's a letter from your brother Spike. Dear Snoopy, something wonderful happened...a man came by here and offered to sell me a magic cape. He told me that if I wore this magic cape I would be transported to a land of paradise. He said the cape was on sale...not wanting to miss such a bargain I gave him my only dollar. The next panel shows Spike spending his time in the desert contemplating the meaning of life. Then we switch back to Charlie reading to Snoopy: "So by the time you get this letter I'll be living in paradise." Then Spike is pictured again on the desert floor among the cactus, cape draped over his shoulders, saying, "Then again, maybe I've been had."
Too many people have been had. There are no magic capes. There is no one key that will guarantee happiness. In fact, that old aphorism about death and taxes being the only things we can count on would seem to insure UNhappiness. Ask the average person and you will hear that we live in a messed up world, a world where oil prices are too high and income is too low, a world where mothers use their infants as weapons to beat their boyfriends, a world where a war goes on with no end in sight for no other reason than politicians want it to. There will always be low times. In fact, there will be times you get so far down that you cannot remember up. But when those times come, remember this: you are not alone. You've got a friend, one whom scripture says sticks closer than a brother - Jesus Christ - the same Jesus who issues an invitation that reaches down to us no matter how deep we are and says,
"Come to me, all you that are weary...
all who are carrying heavy burdens...
guilt, pain, despair...
all that keeps us from being happy...
Come, and I will give you rest."
Thank you, Jesus.
1. The thoughts on the "average person" are sparked by Harold Kushner, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, (New York: Summit Books, 1986), pp.15-16
2. Pastor's Professional Research Service, "Happiness"
4. Gary Swanson, "Living in a Powder Keg," Focus on the Family, Sept. 1992, p. 14