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The title of our second session is What Will Make Me Truly Happy? I wanted to ask your permission to work this talk off my laptop. It will be a little different to my first talk.
So lets begin,
I think that we can hopefully agree from our first session that there are a lot of things about our current culture and its ‘culture of silence’ that are not making us happy. It takes a lot of courage and humility to look into our lives and be honest enough to see that we are believing things or choosing things or doing things that are making us miserable. It’s much easier to just continue on as if everything is fine. We get rewarded for doing that by various forms of social acceptance.
Over many years now, working with so many people I have learned that the majority of people would rather live in a fantasy world than the real world. If you get hurt often enough when you’re young, you learn to shut down. Once you make that step into the half light of a half -life then you have to kill off a part of yourself. A big part. And most people try to drug it into oblivion with one type of drug or another. Whether they use alcohol or sex, or work, or status, people will often use something to deny that they are unhappy. They have to shut that voice out in any way they can.
So we have some questions here. I think the questions I want to shape in this second session are utterly crucial for your life. I think if you listen carefully now and then download the audio or read this speech a few times then I really think I can give you something here that will make a difference.
If we are honest we can agree that our current cultural project makes some very clear and direct statements about what will make us happy. The assumptions are that to be happy we need to be wealthy, popular, powerful and sexually attractive. Women must be hot, sexy, independent and brilliant at everything. Never needy, never vulnerable. Men must be rich, powerful, fearless, sexually dominant and also never needy, emotional or vulnerable.
I guess I have a simple first question about this. What happens to everyone who cannot meet these ideals – which is pretty much all of us. What happens to the young woman who doesn’t look perfect, say the right things, outperform the boys or struggles with her weight? What happens to the boy who has never had a girlfriend, is no good at sport, is shy or quiet and who lies awake at night wrestling with loneliness and a sadness he just cannot shake.
There’s something I want you to know. The girl who struggles. She is in the room…right now. The guy who woke up this morning with that same sadness and loneliness clinging to him, he’s sitting somewhere near you. Three rows in front, maybe three rows behind. He’s here. So exactly how long do we want to keep playing these games about what will make us happy when just about all of us cannot compete. I guess one answer is that we could find another game or we change the rules of the current one.
You are young. You are supposed to always be the ones who see a different future, who want to create a better tomorrow. It’s part of the magic and mystery of being young. If that’s true then can I gently ask you a very confronting question, “ Why are you propping this system up? Why are you playing by it’s rules? The game of one-night stands, hookups, pressured oral sex, friends with benefits, pornograpy being allowed to provide the script for your sexuality. How much longer do we need to do this? Why are you so afraid to listen to your hearts. And maybe if you find the courage to listen you may also find the courage to step out and do what they are already telling you.
Men, you feel. I know you feel. I know that the beauty of young women touches your hearts and speaks to all that’s best in you. You come alive when she walks by. You were made for a great love. For heroic self-sacrifice in the service of love. To pursue, to chase, to write poetry and sing for her, to cross mountains, fight dragons and swim through the blood tinged tide of anything that would keep you from her… but we’ve sold out for Internet porn, binge drinking and sexual conquest. A shadow of what, as men, we could have been.
Friends, if meaningless sex, money, power and status were going to make us happy well first, it really should have done it by now.
In the first session I hope we all got some insight into just how that’s been going.
Second if sex, money, power and status were going to make us happy then where should we find all the happiest people in the world. Think about that carefully. If having the perfect body, vast wealth and global status made you happy where could we expect to find you living. Well, one suggestion is Hollywood. It’s the global epicentre of the social forces that condition us to believe that whatever we are…it’s just not what we should be.
Well here’s a question? Why do so many people in Hollywood have substance addictions? Why do they seem almost incapable of staying married to someone in a life-long partnership of deep and deepening love? Why do they struggle with chronic eating disorders and frequent visits to rehab.
I think of Amy Winehouse. You know she was just really talented. I watched a documentary about her recently. She was in New York with a very famous older singer called Tony Bennet. Amy just had this beautifully tender side to her. You could hear that vulnerability in the studio with Tony. She was so hard on herself. Always putting herself down. Look at what she had. At least on the surface. Money, power, prestige, fame. She was attractive in her way. She should have been happy. At least she should have been happy if happiness consists in wealth, sex, status and fame. What is this telling you? Deep in your heart right now. What are you feeling?
Look at this little girl. Look in her eyes. Look at all that potential. What would life hold for her? Her name was Norma Jean Baker. When she got older she learned many things. One of them was a deep message that who you are is not ok, you have to change. She believed this so much that she even changed her name and became Marilyn Monroe. Somewhere inside her the little girl ran away and never came home. Look at Marilyn, the perfect embodiment of the great lie. Money, sex, power, looks, fame -. Now you can be happy.
In one of the biographies of her life the author mentioned that when Marilyn was travelling in the great cities of the world she would wait till 2am and then sneak out of her hotel disguised in a black wig so that no one could recognise her. She would get in a taxi and find a nightclub and then go in alone. She would then see if a man would talk to her without knowing who she was.
She wanted to know if anyone could love her, the real her, not the projection that made the studio owners rich. All that money, all that beauty and success and fame and it drove her to her death. What do you think was the deepest cry of her heart? Do you think she would have traded everything in moment if she could have found a way to get it.
So what can we say at this point? I just humbly pray that you can at least be open to the idea that much of what you have learned about happiness is at best flawed and worst genuinely hurting you.
So, if I have identified in some way what won’t make us happy then I should probably offer some ideas about what might. To do this it’s better that I lean on the wisdom of others who wrestled with these questions at a level I will never attain.
In the 15th century in Spain a short and quietly spoken Carmelite priest named Juan de la Cruz who we know today as St. John of The Cross had some of the most extraordinary encounters with God that any person in history has ever known. He wrote vast amounts on these deep spiritual experiences but one thing he said has stayed with me for years. He said, “In the twilight of our lives we will be judged on how we have loved.”
My dear young friends all I can tell you at this special time in your life when you hold in your hands the ability to wound yourselves deeply or come alive to the truth is that I did not write the laws of the universe but what I can tell you is that genuine and real love lies at the heart of being human and it is the fundamental path of happiness. By this I don’t just mean the love of ‘feelings’ but something much deeper. A fundamental decision, taken after much reflection, at the right moment in life to commit yourself to another human person.
I want to take a moment here to speak to the men. The current masculine culture of pornography, sexual domination and violence hides something else from you. The decision to love, as a man, is utterly heroic and terrifying. If you choose to really love, to become a committed and faithful husband or a deeply loving father then you are going to risk pain because love makes you vulnerable.
I remember when my son Aidan was rushed to hospital in an intensive care ambulance. I have never known a terror like that. No amount of money, influence or physical strength could do anything to change what was happening. I was utterly undone. I would have literally died for him if needed but all I could do was watch helplessly. I knew then that the degree to which you love is the degree to which your vulnerable. If you don’t love, really love then you don’t get hurt or exposed. That’s one of the powers of pornography or hookups for men. We don’t have to deal with real women who might just need us to become men for them.
Sex is a big deal. This culture is just so messed up on this topic. One minute we find popular music singing endless songs of undying love and then songs of instant sex and a juvenile focus on body parts. Man…I’m confused and some of you here probably are as well.
So on this path to happiness, I want to be bold enough to tell you the truth in regard to sex because sex is linked to our experience of happiness in this life in powerful ways. Talking about truth is not particularly popular these days.
I honestly don’t think that what I am about to share with you is just an opinion. I have lived long enough to witness the truth of what I am about to tell you. I’ve seen it play out in every field from sociology to epidemiology to demography and I have seen it play out in every conversation with hurt people after talks like this and I have seen it play out in the laboratory of my own life. I’ll introduce it like this:
The French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
I can only offer you this. Sex is a fundamentally spiritual experience because you are fundamentally a spiritual being having a human experience. So what I mean by this is that what happens in your body echoes into the deep places of your heart and spirit.
One of the greatest spiritual writers of the modern era is a Catholic husband and father called Peter Kreeft, he puts it better than I ever could. When asked the question, “Why is sex such a thrill?, he said,
“Because it’s one of the few things that is…literally an ecstasy – the word means ‘standing outside yourself, self-forgetfulness, self-transcendence, the overcoming of that hidden inner loneliness that every one of us brings into the world. Our “I” is restless until it becomes a ‘we’. And ultimately that is because God is a ‘WE’.
I want to be very respectful of the fact you are all in a different place in terms of your faith journey and your understanding of God. But as your life unfolds never forget that sex, relationships and human happiness are tied into a reality that you did not create. That reality is given to us all in our human journey. It is simply the truth that because God is a communion of persons and we are created in that image then our relational and sexual decisions can bring us such deep joy or great emptiness.
This my dear young friends is why many of you have already felt hurt in the area of relationships and sex. It’s why pornography leaves you empty and why no matter how hard you might try you just can’t kill off the desire to be, at some future point, in deep and stable and permanent relationship with another.
There is so much more I would like to say to you. I hope you listen to this talk again. You can download it off my website and keep in touch via social media or my podcasts.
As your life moves in from here into the many decisions you will make about life, sex, relationships and how to find happiness I want to leave with you some interesting words from the new Pope, Pope Francis. I think he understands a lot about you. He knows that it can be hard to find happiness in a hypersexualised and media saturated society. I think he knows that choices you will need to make to find happiness will probably be counter-cultural and may cost you some popularity. As you hear his words I pray you will be given the grace of courage. He simply said this, “My dear young people, swim against the tide. It is good for your heart.”