What’s in a word? If the word is “Eureka!” it could be gold. Eureka comes from an ancient Greek word meaning, “I have found it.” In 1848, carpenter John Marshall found flakes of gold while building a sawmill at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, California. The discovery “made [his] heart thump.” Actually, it made lots of hearts thump as thousands soon rushed to the California territory in search of fortune. The ’49ers mined 750,000 pounds of gold from the hills. By 1850, California had become a state. With a nod to their history, Californians included the word “Eureka” as part of the Golden State’s seal.
But all that glitters is not gold, a saying likely born out of painful experience. Some excited prospectors laid claim to deposits of a shiny mineral that had the look of gold. Looks can be deceiving. Their eureka-moments turned to nothing when local assayers told them that what they found was not gold but iron pyrite. It became known as fool’s gold and is essentially worthless. It only served as a reminder of what could have been.
We don’t always seek what’s best for us, truth that is timeless. In return for kindness shown, a Greek god told King Midas to make a wish and it would be granted. Foolishly, Midas wished that whatever he touched would turn to gold. In short order, his wish became a curse. Midas could not eat his food; gold is inedible. His water turned into gold. Then the worst happened. When his much loved daughter hugged him, she became a solid golden statue. A very rich king realized that his desire for gold could not bring him happiness.
Nearly 400 years ago, small groups of English and Dutch travelers braved weeks of sickness and rough seas in pursuit of something far more valuable than gold. Their quest for freedom led to the birth of a country dedicated to it. Our founding fathers pledged by their “sacred honor” to recognize and guarantee the inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We are all the beneficiaries of their sacrifices.
Happiness. The signers of the Declaration of Independence left the word undefined, probably for good reason. Not all words are easily described. A Supreme Court justice, unable to define pornography, wrote, “I know it when I see it.” But happiness is too important to whiff at its meaning. Happiness is a gift of God flowing from His gift of life. It is a state of being resulting from an almost infinite variety of life experiences. It is freely available to every person. We can be happy in the most joyful or most difficult times of our lives. Happiness is absorbing the natural beauty of the mountains. It is getting married, raising a family, and watching them grow. Happiness is a road not taken, a struggle overcome, a losing effort righteously made. Happiness is just sitting, alone but together with God.
There is a common denominator in our happy experiences. Happiness comes when we extend ourselves outward. It is the result of disciplined right living in which we seek the greater good. In times of happiness, we lose ourselves in the bigger and better. Paradoxically, there is great gain in our loss, for we grow by the experience. And more, happiness begets happiness, even years later. The mere thought of a happy time can bring it back.
In contrast to happiness is pleasure. It, too, is a gift of God, one we should rightly enjoy. Pleasure draws on our senses. We take pleasure in tasting a juicy hamburger, smelling a flower, and feeling the softness of a kiss. Pleasure and happiness are not mutually exclusive. For example, there is both pleasure and happiness in enjoying the wonders of nature or in experiencing marital love. But unlike happiness, pleasure is short-lived. After eating that hamburger, we quickly forget the taste of it. To regain the pleasure, we need to eat another. And there lies the danger. Pleasure leaves emptiness when it has subsided, which can make us desire more. Undisciplined pleasure seeking can be the drink that leads to others, then habitual drunkenness, and then addiction. It can lead to sadness and even to tragedy.
In the 237 years since the Declaration, we have wrongly confused pleasure with happiness. We live to eat rather than eat to live. The result is an overweight population; dieting has become a multi-billion dollar industry. We are constantly on the prowl for material things, whether it is the smartest phone, the fastest computer or car, the newest fashion (male or female), the trendiest eatery, whatever. These things bring us pleasure, but only temporarily. We crave more and want it now. There is always a new toy to acquire.
Worse, we treat people like they are mere objects of personal gratification. For both married and unmarried men, video pornography has become a horrendous addiction. For them, women are not persons; they are sex toys that feed the habitual emptiness. We encourage casual, non-marital sex regardless of whom it hurts. We measure the success of a date by whether someone got lucky. If the woman gets pregnant, our culture responds by offering abortion. The vicious circle continues to spin. Addicted men. Dead babies. Wounded women. Personal dignity surrendered. Where is the happiness?
Our culture’s pursuit of pleasure is a search for fool’s gold. Instead, we must pursue what has true and lasting value. As our forefathers understood, the pursuit of happiness comes in pursuing God as our greatest good. It demands the development of virtue: right judgment, just living, self-control, and the courage to do good. The road to true happiness is not always the easy way. It is often the opposite. But it is the pursuit of the right way, the better way. It is the true liberty about which our Declaration speaks. The liberty we currently misunderstand.
Our founding fathers chose the right word and the right pursuit: happiness, not pleasure. May we come to realize their wisdom and follow their path to true and lasting value.
Paul Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, and have six kids.
© 2013 Paul V. Esposito. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Comments? Visit us at http://www.the-culture-of-life.com/