Fulfillment: Way better than mere happiness

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Lately I’m seeing lots of studies — or, more accurately, articles about studies — claiming that non-parents are happier than parents. The accompanying commentary essentially concludes that everybody since the beginning of time has had it wrong, that procreation and parenting are really just long roads to misery, and that young people should think twice about their plans for love, marriage and a baby carriage.

Alarmingly, I’m seeing interviews with young adults who are taking this nonsense seriously and deciding to forego having children at all in the interest of “pursuing happiness.”

And worse still are the increasingly regular reports I hear of actual parents who are deciding that this parenting thing is a drag on their social lives and are exiting family life in order to get their “happy” on. I’m not talking about people in bad or abusive or dangerous marriages who make the difficult decision to leave for truly substantive reasons. I’m talking about mothers and/or fathers who simply decide that the garden variety problems and commitments inherent in marriage and parenting are making them less “happy,” so they are exiting stage right on the assumption that a life of freedom “out there” will be more fulfilling.

This, my people, is messed up.

I get where, in the short run, the life of the childless might be easier at times. If you are up all night with a sick kid, and I am able to sleep, I am probably “happier” the next day. You, as a parent have a lot more to worry about. And worry, of course, eats into “happiness” in whatever moments are stolen by the worrying.

But there is a fundamental mistake here. These people are confusing happiness with fulfillment.

Happiness is pleasure. It is an emotion. The dictionary defines it as a “mental or emotional state.” It is fleeting, transitory, elusive. It happens in the moment. Sure, I’m happy when I get a good night’s sleep. But a couple of days later, it doesn’t really matter. Neither does the fun I had, or the money I spent, or anything else that might buy me short-term happiness. “Happiness” as a state is impossible to sustain. As soon as things get difficult, my happiness is gone. And there is nothing wrong with that. We are meant to have happy moments, and unhappy moments.

Fulfillment is different. It is deeper, more constant. It can exist underneath a full range of emotional experiences. It is possible to be unhappy in a moment and yet fulfilled on a deeper level.

I have quoted it before, and I’ll quote it a million times again. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes says that “Man, being the only creature created for his own sake, finds himself only in a sincere gift of himself.”

We find real meaning, real fulfillment, in self-gift. In love. And that often comes in the form of sacrificing our own current “happiness” for the sake of someone else. Like losing sleep with a sick kid.  Like spending money on tuition instead of a new car.

The problem with the “pursuit of happiness” as our sole goal in life is that it detracts us from our real purpose — and hence, ironically, from real long-term happiness or fulfillment.

It is my belief that parenting — aside from bringing many, many happy moments — brings fulfillment. And, that like many other fulfilling things, it is not easy. It is not always “happy.” And that those who forego it out of a misguided desire for “happiness” are making a lifelong mistake.

I say all of this as a non-parent. I’m getting all of the “fun” that you all think you’re missing out on. And, let me tell you, “fun” doesn’t offer the love, the satisfaction, the deep-down fulfillment that is found in the joys and sacrifices of parenting.

That is not to say that the life of a non-parent isn’t or can’t be fulfilling. But our fulfillment isn’t necessarily built-in. Sometimes obligations to serve come to us. But other times we have to go looking for them — for opportunities to make a difference, to give ourselves, to matter.  When that happens, we become “spiritual” fathers or mothers — using our masculine or feminine gifts to make a difference in the lives those who are not our actual children.

Twenty years ago, I gave the graduation address at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The theme of that talk was “Living Life from the Deathbed Backwards.” When you are on your deathbed, what will you want your life to have looked like? Will you be glad you had a lot of fun at a lot of nightclubs? Will you be satisfied that you are leaving behind a bunch of nice possessions for your relatives to fight over? Or do you want to look back on the ways the you made a difference — the lives that are here or are better because you existed?

That is the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

And, trust me, fulfillment is way better.

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash