It’s one of the basic foundations of being an American.
“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,” wrote Thomas Jefferson when he was crafting the Declaration of Independence.
In my readings, I can find no source that definitively identifies what Jefferson meant when he coined the phrase. But in this day and time of self-interest, it would benefit us all to examine how we might interpret this fundamental right.
Happiness is not a guarantee, regardless of where you live. We all live out an illusion of happiness until some catastrophic event bursts through, destroying that illusion and forcing us to face what truly defines happiness — what truly defines us.
Each of us will suffer in countless ways through times of grief, tragedy, uncertainty and fear. The foundations of our core values, if we are fortunate, will be challenged deeply enough to compel us to examine who we are and what we believe.
When we determine the answer, then we free ourselves to pursue that ideal. I find too many people are satisfied with superficial answers to the question — answers that far too often center on self-serving goals rather than self-giving goals.
Superficial happiness revolves around money, power, position, social influence, where you live, what you drive, how many homes you own, how large your primary residence is, what neighborhood you live in, recreation, competition ... the list goes on. None of these will save a single soul when catastrophe hits. Many of them will become like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s albatross, hung around the neck as a reminder of poor choices.
There is nothing wrong with having money, power and position, but when those values become the driving force of your life, you miss out on what truly and deeply contributes to genuine happiness. Confronting your mortality through illness will wipe away any sense of security, especially if you take your life for granted. Death will threaten the sanctuary of self-service. Any of us who experienced the losses of the 2008 stock market crash know that money is never entirely secure. What we counted on, for many of us, is simply no longer there.
What, then, do we pursue to be truly happy? I learned a valuable lesson that has guided my attitude toward possessions and rights. My great-aunt, Bessie Lee, had two diamond rings. Bessie Lee never married. She promised one ring to my father (to be given to me) and one to his sister (to be given to her daughter). The details are unimportant, but another family member challenged the gifting and took the ring intended for me.
When my father told me what had happened and that he did not intend to pursue his “happiness” by getting what he had been promised, I assured him, “The ring really doesn’t matter. I got the very best of what Bessie Lee had — and that was her love and affection. Nothing matters more. Not even that diamond ring.”
I learned early that relationships based on love, trust, support and encouragement contribute more to my own sense of happiness than any material possession that I own. Bessie Lee was one of the most self-giving people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She was a role model for me.
Having moved four times in my young life, I also learned that it’s not where you live or how long you’ve lived there or how far back you can trace your ancestry that provides happiness. Home is wherever I am surrounded by people who love me. I have been at home in five communities, in a college town, at a summer job in the North Carolina mountains, and anywhere on the planet when I gather with my six college sisters.
Life tragedies have caused me to examine my core values again and again. Am I happy every day? No. Am I genuinely a happy person? Absolutely. I think it’s because I left the superficiality of world happiness in my dust long, long ago.
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