Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


March 9, 1998

In Iris Murdoch's novel, A Severed Head, the hero becomes obsessed with a woman he hardly knows, but who has a paralyzing emotional grip on him. At one point, he has to choose whether he will have an affair with her.

He asks her, rather innocently, "Could we be happy?" Her answer would make an apt title for a book on human choices or for a commentary on the human condition: "This has nothing to do with happiness, nothing whatever."

This says something fundamental about human unhappiness. Many times the choices we make in life are not best for our own happiness. Yet, strange, we keep making them. Why?

We do so because we are human and, as John Updike once said, we should not wonder why we are so beset with unhappiness since we have always voted for it. We choose unhappiness because most often we are not as clear-headed as Iris Murdoch's characters and we do not see very clearly what the choice will bring.

So we choose a certain thing – an affair, a lottery ticket, a titillation, a drug, a chance to make a lot of money – precisely because we think that it will bring us happiness. That is one reason for bad choices, an innocent, forgiving one.

But there is a less innocent reason. When all is said and done, our choices often betray the fact that we value other things above happiness – money, power, fame, sex, comfort, stimulation, sophistication, knowledge – and we choose these, clear-headed, even when we know that they will not bring us happiness.

Thus, for example, in the United States there was a study done on persons who had won large amounts of money in lotteries. In every case, the individuals admitted that, eventually, the money had brought them unhappiness, that it had ruined their lives.

Yet not one of them, not a single one, would have reversed things. Each was still glad that he or she had won the money and, despite the unhappiness it brought, would not have had the clock rolled back.

That attitude – "I admit that I'm unhappy, but I still would never roll back the clock!" – was the attitude that Adam and Eve had after eating the apple. Notice that Scripture speaks of a certain shame and a certain bashfulness about their newly-noticed nakedness, but it never mentions regret. It says that "their eyes were opened."

Adam and Eve now knew some things that had been hidden from them in their previous innocence and I have no doubt that they, for all the innocent happiness in the world, would not have wanted things reversed.

To my mind, this is one of the major spiritual diseases that has plagued us since the beginning of time. Simply put, we are too often willing to trade happiness for hell because hell, to our minds, brings with it a sophistication and an excitement that we think absent in heaven. Heaven is seen as a bore – something for the timid, the naive, the domestic and those missing out on life.

I was once counselling a college student who was suicidally unhappy. Extremely bright and very experienced, she had the sophistication of somebody three times her age. Yet she had come from a happy home, the daughter of a very happily married, and happy, man and woman.

The irony was that she actually felt sorry for her happy parents and saw them as missing out on life. Her attitude towards them and their happiness was more or less: "If that is happiness, keep it! I'd rather be experienced and sophisticated, irrespective of what it brings, than have the type of happiness that their naivete gives."

Nothing could have convinced her that she might want to reverse some of her choices, change some of her attitudes, seek some kind of post-sophistication or revirginization, or look for the kinds of stability and domesticity that might help her glue her soul together.

Like the people who won the lotteries that had ruined their lives, she would be the last one to want to reverse the clock. That, sadly, is a quality of hell.

Hell will not be populated by people who are living in deep regret and who, if given five minutes or seconds of earthly life to relive, would make new choices. People in hell will not be envying those in heaven nor longing for one last chance to reverse it all. No, they will be feeling sorry for those in heaven, for the naivete of their simple happiness. Hell, as John Shea once put it, is never a surprise waiting for a happy person. It is the full-flowering of choices made long ago.

After the innocence of our childhood, we are all like Adam and Eve, hiding our nakedness in the bush, but considerably smarter for the apples we have tasted. We may not be very happy, but the loss of our innocence has brought a certain sophistication.

Our eyes are open, as Adam and Eve's were, and in that, seemingly irreversible condition it is hard to admit that our pursuit of power, sophistication, fame, sex and excitement have, in fact, "nothing to do with happiness, nothing whatever."