Happiness ain't fun
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 4, 1998
A few years back, an old friend asked me what I do for fun these days. I had to admit that his question gave me pause. I could hardly think of one regular activity that qualified as fun: Pickup basketball games, after all, are harder to come by as one approaches the half-century mark. (When I reflected, however, that my friend, a partner in one of America's leading law firms, spent his lunch breaks playing computer games in video arcades, I worried a bit less about the fun, or lack of it, in my life.)
I tried to explain to my friend why fun had become a low priority in my life. Fun is by definition something out of the ordinary, a break from the humdrum of daily existence, a jolt to the nervous system dulled by routine.
When 'the pursuit of happiness' becomes the pursuit of fun, life will of necessity always show a negative balance sheet. The 'highs,' the moments when the nerve-endings are in a state of excitation, will always be far shorter than the 'downs' in between. Such a life is experienced as a series of 40-minute waits for a 30-second roller-coaster ride.
Contrasted to fun is the Jewish concept of simha, joy. Joy is a constant state, for it derives from a sense of connection to something outside of ourselves, something eternal, which gives purpose and meaning to life. Of course, there are moments in which we are more acutely aware of this joy - walking to davening early in the morning as the sun is rising and the birds chirping, being greeted as you come home by children throwing their arms around your legs and yelling, 'Abba, Abba' - but it is always there underlying everything we do.
Simha cannot be pursued. Chase it and it flees from you. Unlike fun, simha is not a goal in and of itself. Rather, it is the outgrowth of doing something else right. Just as hunger signals the need for food, a lack of simha hints to us that something is amiss with our souls.
Yet even when we sense that something is awry, we fail to identify its source. Each of us is born incomplete. That lack of completion creates a gnawing within. Our natural tendency is to identify that which is missing with something outside of ourselves - material possessions or some physical pleasure - and to make its attainment our goal. Yet attaining the sought-after object rarely does more than stifle the gnawing for a period of time.
If a person has $100, say our Sages, he wants $200. If he has $200, he wants $400. For that reason, no man dies with even half his material desires realized. Every time we satisfy the hunger, it only returns in greater force than before.
A MOMENT'S reflection would show us why our efforts to quell our inner turmoil are doomed to failure. Our problem is an internal vacuum, but we seek to cure it with things that must of necessity remain external. No physical object can be amalgamated into our being or fill our internal void. But instead of recognizing this, we convince ourselves that we erred only in our choice of objects: We needed a Rolls, not a Cadillac, or two Cadillacs, not just one.
By focusing on that which is outside of us rather than what is wrong with us, we lose all sense of who we are, what makes us unique, what special tasks we have been created for. Like a teenager whose life revolves around the telephone and the mirror, we lose all sense of ourselves, except as we exist in the eyes of others.
Three things render life not worth living, say our Sages: jealousy, the pursuit of honor, and the pursuit of physical pleasure. And each of them reflects in one way or another an impoverished sense of self.
One who craves honor requires the admiration of others for his self-esteem. A jealous person defines himself in comparison to others, rather than in terms of his own potential. Everyone else becomes in his eyes a competitor. If someone else amasses more material goodies or gains more recognition, he wins. Finally, the person who is in thrall to his physical desires is dependent on other people or physical objects for his satisfaction.
But the soul, which is not of this world, cannot be satisfied with the goods of this world. Only curing our own imperfections can ultimately quiet the ache in our souls, for only such changes as we make in ourselves can be more than momentary sedatives.
No person, the Alter of Kelm taught, is ever satisfied with a borrowed object. Every material object is, in a sense, borrowed. It cannot become intrinsic to us, part of our essence, and sooner or later it will no longer belong to us. But what we make of ourselves when we conquer our anger or resist the impulse to speak ill of someone else or train ourselves to reach into our pockets for every passing beggar cannot be taken away from us.
'Who is a rich man?' ask our Sages. And they answer, 'He who is satisfied with his portion.' They do not say that such a person is also a rich man, but that he is the only rich man. No matter how much a person possesses, he is a poor man as long as he is driven by a hunger for more.
Upon meeting his brother Jacob for the first time in decades, Esau tells him, 'I have a great deal,' implying a desire for yet more. Keep it for yourself, Jacob replied, 'I have everything.'
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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