Over the course of this week, you likely hear the words of Francis Scott Key sung more than once as we grill steaks to celebrate the founding independence of our country. Our Nation is one of strength and diversity built on the lives of thousands of immigrants both slave and free from all over the world. Their tenacious hard work and sacrifice built one of the strongest nation republics of our time that we’re fortunate to enjoy.
A fundamental keystone in American idealism is prosperity—the right of everyone to pursue their own dream, to forge their own way. We value autonomy, wealth, and position even at the expense of our own health. Go big or go home as the mantra says.
But that idealism can come at a price.
When we map the course of our history from quaint log cabins to bungalows to today with our massive mini-mansions in the suburbs where the homeowner seeks to make a statement and the builder a profit, we find it lasts but a few short years. And then things lose their sparkle and glitter and the homeowner moves on and the builder builds another number to add to the tally.
“They don’t build them like they used to” we hear people say. But why, what have we lost? In pondering this question I had to search out this ideal of prosperity and take a step farther back to look at our Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“The pursuit of happiness” It’s in that statement that I wondered, have we confused prosperity with happiness? And what is happiness in a universal construct? Is it satisfaction, pleasure or contentment? I believe happiness is a composite, a wholeness or completeness of being.
A fat bank account does not equal a happy family. And neither does a fat economy equal a happy country, so it cannot be simply prosperity. To be happy we as humans must be content in our sense of belonging. And to belong we must be understood and valued and that all requires community—something wealth and prestige cannot buy. We have to be intentional to build happiness in the same way a builder must be intentional if he’s to build a timeless home that lasts. That intentionality brings a wholeness and satisfaction that the frantic scrabble to the top will never produce.
This year we have been faced with more common hardship than ever in recent history. Quarantined in our homes we watched as over one hundred thousand Americans died of COVID-19 and thousands lost their jobs. We watch as the pain and bitterness of historic and contemporary racism in our country boils over motivating some to lash out with violence and destruction in communities across the nation.
Times like these call for happiness not prosperity.