In Search Of The Good Life: Why Is It So Hard To Find?

I titled this, “In Search of the Good Life: Why is it so difficult to find?” You know, what most people don’t realize is that this question, how to find the good life, is the question that birthed philosophy, as we know it today. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to go too deep into this, but I do want to make this comment. The Greeks responded to this question with two schools of thought. You had Plato who believed that the answer came from unchanging ideals, universal truths, such as justice, truth, goodness, and beauty. And then, you had another school headed by Aristotle, who believed that the good life consisted of ascertaining knowledge through experience. What we can perceive of this world through our senses. Though they disagreed on how to find the good life, they both saw the good life as that which impacts and benefits a community, and that’s why it was so important. And I share that because, if today, if you go into your office when you leave here, and you go to Google or any search engine on the Internet and type in, “what is the good life”, you’ll be overwhelmed by the response. Some of them, for instance, is shopping, consumption, places to live. You’ll find a host of books that offer formulas on how to find the good life. There are many retail stores that sell goods that promote the good life. Buy this, and it will contribute to your life. But what you won’t find is that the good life is a life of wisdom and knowledge that leads to a virtuous life. Instead, most of the entries involve material pursuits and games, which sadly, I think, reflects our modern definition of what’s good. There’s a popular show, I don’t know how many of you listen to public radio, but there’s a popular show called This American Life. I think it originates in Chicago, at Chicago Public Radio, and the host is a guy by the name of Ira Glass and, on one of the shows, he shares his thoughts on an informal poll that he had conducted, and he believed that the results of this poll reflected a universal reality in life. He had a room of 100 people and he asked them to think back to the beginning of adulthood, when you’re first formulating a plan for your life, the good life, which he called plan A, and then he asked them this question. How many of you sitting here today are still pursuing plan A? How many of you achieved the good life that you’ve dreamed of, and out of 100 people, one hand went up. The hand that went up was a 23-year-old woman. You know, there was a fascinating study that was done back in 2003, and their findings were reported in The New York Times magazine, and, the study was conducted by four men who had great credentials. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, psychologist Tim Wilson, University of Virginia, the economist George Lowenstein of Carnegie Mellon, and psychologist and economist Nobel Laureate David Kahneman of Princeton. This is really interesting. Listen carefully. They studied the ways in which people make decisions that actually shape their well-being. In other words, they sought to determine how well do our decisions about life give us the emotional consequences we expect. Let me say that again. How well do our decisions about life give us the emotional consequences we expect? And their conclusions were astounding. They said most people really don’t know where to find happiness. They don’t know where to find the good life they’re looking for, and the problem, they said, is not that you can’t always get what you want, but that getting what you want often doesn’t give you the thrill you anticipated. Furthermore, they said you can’t always know what you really want because your desires bear little relation to that which leads to true happiness. From the work that I’ve been doing over the last 10 years, I can say this with great confidence, there seems to be a huge gap for so many men between the life that we dream of and believe we deserve, and the life that we actually end up with. And this is why I believe Pulitzer prize-winning author John Cheever made this observation. He said, “The main emotion of the adult American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.” And for this reason, though we may never share this with anybody, I think we always seem to find ourselves looking for a better life. A better life than we’re currently experiencing, which is logical, which is okay. But the question is, where are we looking and what are we putting our hope in? You know, now that I’ve laid out this conundrum, I’ll respond to it by reading you what many consider the most important parable in the New Testament. In fact, the famous Russian author Dostoyevsky said this is the parable that turned his life around, and as he lay on his deathbed, the one request he had was to read this parable. It’s the parable of two brothers, two sons really, you’re familiar with it. We’re just going to look at the young son today, even though the other brother, we can learn a great deal from him as well, but most people just refer to this as the parable of the prodigal son. I think there are some interesting insights that are pertinent to what I want to talk to you about this morning. A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father,Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me, so he divided his wealth between them, and not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now whenhe had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country and he began to be impoverished so he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country and he sent him into the fields to feed swine. He would’ve gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving him anything to eat, but when he came to his senses, he said, how many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread but I’m dying here with hunger? I’ll get up and go to my father and will say to him, Father I’ve sinned against Heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired men. So he got up and came to his father, but while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son, but the father said to his slaves, quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet, and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life. He was lost and has been found and they began to celebrate. You know, as you read this parable, one of the things you realize is that it’s highly unusual for a young man to go to his father and ask for his inheritance before his father is passed on. It is probably just as unusual for the father to consent, but this is the way the parable goes. But what I think is clear, as you look at this young man’s life, when he got his inheritance and he went off to this distant land, he did it because he was seeking a better life. A better life than he was currently experiencing. If you really think about it, he left home, I’m sure, with a real sense of freedom, and the reason is he had two of the most important ingredients that modern people think you have to have if you’re going to find the good life. He had money and he had a life without restraints, particularly moral restraints, because there would be no interference from his father. He was in a distant land, he didn’t just move down the street. He went to a distant land to get away from his father and his family. So think about that. You know, we value money for all different types of reasons, but, if you think about, if you have enough of it, it really does provide all types of freedom. If you have enough money, you can go anywhere you want to go in the world, no restrictions. You can go whenever you want to go, you can buy whatever you want to buy. If you want to work, you can work. If you don’t want to work, you don’t have to. Again, you can see, money does seem to help provide this freedom that modern people are looking for. And furthermore, I think many people believe that money will just solve all your problems. I bet there are a number of us sitting here today that think, “If I had more, my life would be better” and one of the reasons we believe is that money can solve your problems. That somehow it leads to a trouble-free life and I’m sure as that son left his home, that’s kind of what he was thinking. There’s an interesting story, true story that Charles Colson tells, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but he was a special counsel to President Nixon. He spent seven months in prison because of Watergate. When he got out of prison, instead of going back to politics, he started a ministry called Prison Fellowship. It’s a wonderful work and he’s an outstanding speaker if you’ve ever heard him. Well, he was invited to come down to South Florida to the home of a very wealthy couple. They had this beautiful home, you could look out on the water and see the ocean, and they invited all their friends, and had a big tent set up in the backyard looking out over the ocean, and they asked Colson to speak. He shared with them about the work that he did in prisons. He said his message seem to be received with indifference. He said when he was finished they gave him an applause but it was what he called respectful, but unenthusiastic. He said the hostess then said, “What about questions?” He said he had questions about President Nixon, he had questions about Watergate. He said, but then there was a man in the back who put his hand up, leaning against the pole there in the tent. He said, “Mr. Colson, as you can see, all of us here live a very good life. None of us, of course, would have experiences like yours, going from the White House to prison. What would you say to people like us who have no problems in life?” Colson was somewhat stunned as he stared at the man, and he told him, “I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t have problems and that if people at this party were without problems”, he said, “I’d really like to talk to them afterwardto find out how they managed it. I told him that I could see the surroundings were indeed regal, and that the guests obviously had all of the so-called good things in life”, he said, “But I question your premise. For example, sir, what are you going to think on your deathbed when you’re lying there knowing that all this is about to go away?”Colson said it was like if you looked at this man, it was like someone had hit him in the stomach. He said he was pained and crumpled, and this awkward silence fell over the room. Finally, the hostess stepped in and thanked everybody for coming and said, I’ll see you all later. He said, “But this is what’s interesting. For the next hour, I stood there listening to people’s tales of woe: divorce, family squabbles, civil suits, drugs, wayward kids, the works. No one accepted my invitation to explain how life can become problem-free. No one under that tent lived such a life. The attitude was a pure façade.” So this young son in the parable had money, but the second thing he had going for him was truly freedom from the restraints of his father and family. Again, he went to this distant country where nobody knew him, where he could take all of his wealth, spend it on loose living. You know, that’s what so many people in our culture believe real freedom is, that it’s part of the good life that we’re searching for, to be free from restraints, to live however I want to live, to push the envelope. Back in 1983, there was a very interesting article; a special edition celebrating 60 years of Time Magazine. It was titled, Those Amazing 60 Years, so I guess that would go back to 1923 to 1983. It began with these words, “The atom was un-split, and so were most marriages.” And the main essay was titled, “What really mattered during those 60 years?” The author said, “In order to understand the last 60 years, you need to understand the idea that characterized the age. It was the idea of freedom. Freedom in an absolute sense. The fundamental idea that America represented corresponded to the values of the time. America was not merely free, it was free, it was unshackled. The image was of something previously held in check; an explosive force of a country that moved about in random particles of energy yet at the same time gained power and prospered. To be free was to be modern. To be modern was to take chances. The American century was to be the century of unleashing, of breaking away, at first from the 19th century, and eventually from any constraints at all. Behind most of the events of the last 60 years lay the assumption, almost a moral imperative, that what was not free ought to be free that limits were intrinsically evil.” And I believe we have seen a real shift in our country, where more and more Americans have come to believe that freedom means the absence of restraints in your life. To have the freedom to live outwardly based on what I want and desire inwardly.

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