Sunshine, lots of sunshine, the most beautiful landscapes, love, perhaps, but most importantly, myself: it was my ambitious checklist of things to find in a few days off in Italy. Apulia, alone with my camping bag and my rented Fiat, but also with my wounds still too fresh from a difficult break. I was expecting a nice holiday, but this express stay in the South had much more in store for me.
To get some reading, I took a book with me — well two since I never travel without my Bible. It was Happiness: a philosopher’s guide, by Frédéric Lenoir. Despite all the good I could hear from this writer; I had a hard time opening this book after my ex offered it to me with great kindness. And I had even more trouble taking it with me during this vacation where I was definitely trying to be alone in front of myself, and not one-on-one with a philosopher, who according to the fourth cover, wanted to help me find well-being through a watered-down remix of concepts about happiness and spirituality.
Okay, I am a little hard on him. As I am with so many others, who, according to critics, are the Avengers of the pursuit of happiness, or the Justice League of the fight against depression. In fact, it’s even unfair on my part since I find his book — and many others of this much popular genre — well written and above all rich in references, ideas, examples, which can surely inspire us, guide and enlighten us at any stage of our lives. But what actually bothers me is the promise, of the author, sometimes, or the publisher, too often. The promise that « this time he solved the equation of happiness, » or « that’s it, she solved the mystery of the human spirit, » or even better « they really discovered what you always wanted to know about yourself. » For me, it feels like being served with unisex and ready-to-wear answers to millennia of complex and profound questions.
In short, let us go back to this Italian holiday! I finally took my ex’s book, and above all, I read it, despite a journey of more than 1000km punctuated by dazzling images: the green reliefs of Gargano National Park, along a winding coastal road linking towns and villages, such as the picturesque Vieste; Lecce’s baroque decorations, whose harmoniously arranged monuments around Piazza Sant’Oronzo are designed with the warm and blonde stone, typical of the city; the idyllic panorama of Polignano a Mare, with its turquoise water that timidly offers coolness via a narrow cliff-side pebble beach; the bowels of the Canyon in which legends such as those of the beautiful Massafra and its green ravine still resonate, dotted with medicinal herbs and « magical » caves. All these roads, these landscapes, gave me the illusion that my painful and guilty memories were gradually moving away, I felt that they gave way to peace and well-being, although they were circumstantial: gastronomy, music and Italian beauty helping.
But on a stormy evening, stuck in my tent, a sentence from the famous book had shaken up this bliss of a time. A definition, in a few words, clearly stated. The author, I admit with courage and pedagogy, proposed nothing more or less than a definition of happiness, « happiness is the consciousness of a state of global and lasting satisfaction in a meaningful existence based on truth. » Taken out of context, this sentence even as I write it seems to sound hollow. Yet Frédéric Lenoir, through references and illustrations, proposes a definition of happiness that is both tangible and accessible. It even proposes different ways of practical application arising from it, in the light of ancient concepts such as stoicism, Taoism or skepticism. Oddly enough, even if I remained admiring of the rich and ambitious approach of this book, crystallized in this definition, what destabilized me that night was not my admiration but rather my disappointment. A fascinating disappointment not to find myself in this definition, not to find myself in his definition. Indeed, the more I read and reread this sentence as a magic formula, the more I realized that it had no effect on me. I understood it, it was well-crafted, it held up and probably had to speak to a lot of people, but I could turn it around, upside-down, it did not work for me. I wanted to be alone for my vacation, I was served! Certainly, the book, this definition, led me to an interesting question about an item that was not on my checklist: what is happiness? But it also left me in front of a great void that I had never been careful of before: am I happy? It was hard, even brutal. Struck by the pleasures for the senses of my journey, such an existential question that arose without warning had the effect of a cold shower. The rain pouring outside was probably a factor. Precisely downcast but not resigned, that evening I prayed a little longer than usual, a little louder than usual. I needed help, answers, happiness, if possible.
The next morning, my tent had survived, the storm had passed, but it had left behind a greyness and a damp cold that did not come to settle my concerns. As I used to do frequently at that time, I read the daily mail of the Christian newsletter A Miracle Every Day, to which I had recently subscribed. This daily message of hope often did me good, and mostly brought me a salutary perspective on the hassles of everyday life. And it started well, the first sentence of the mail reminded me strangely of my last evening: « Have you ever read these magazine titles… « Finally become yourself! », « Find harmony »… ». However, that day it was not really the message itself that was supposed to light up my day, there was a link to the music video of a song that the author was recommending. Out of curiosity I clicked, and suddenly found myself drawn into an unlikely chain reaction of emotions and inspirations. The beauty and originality of the clip made of a succession of speedpainting sequences, the singer’s suave and hypnotizing voice accompanied by an effective piano melody, the lyrics that seemed to just come straight from heaven: this combination was enough to make me go back and forth between laughter and tears, and to make me aware of a certainty, I was happy. Not only was I happy, I was convinced of it, but above all I knew why I was happy: because I had just chosen to be happy.
It was as simple as that and I had just realized it. I had found my happiness without looking for it, deciding to live it. This song, in addition to having moved me, had brought back to my mind many passages of the Bible about happiness. From the Beatitudes in the new testament to the Ten Commandments in the old one, a multitude of phrases that until then had remained rather mysterious to me, finally seemed evident to me with this new perspective that was open to me. Happiness is not achieved, it is not reached, it is decided and lived. The only notion of pursuit of happiness is a heavy lie that we have created ourselves, or at least a misunderstanding— if fortuitous. In the Bible, God says that he gives us the choice between life and death, happiness and unhappiness, but he also says that he has plans for us of happiness and not of unhappiness. Therefore we merely have to want to be happy, to make the choice of happiness in all good conscience and all that it implies, in particular, to follow God on his path, to be guided by him with blind confidence. What is powerful about this approach is that instead of pursuing happiness we finally find ourselves looking for God, who leads him to find ourselves, to find our true aspirations, our deep hopes. And God is committed to fulfilling them, to letting us fulfilling ourselves, because that’s what he wants, and by putting everything in action at our level for that, we accept a very simple but super profitable deal: « you want happiness, I give it to you, just do what I tell you to make it work ».
As I write this article, it has been more than 2 years since I had this memorable experience, that I found my definition of happiness. Ironically, I am in Italy but in the North, in winter and moreover for business. Looking behind me, during these 2 years, I had time to heal from my wounds but to experience new ones, to see radiant summers and dark storms. And what I can testify to today is that whatever events I have been through in this short period of my life, my happiness, this chosen state of trust and hope in a good God who actually brings me closer to him every day, closer to myself, and to my well-being, that very happiness, it works for me and it has never failed me.
This article refers to the newsletter A Miracle Every Day, available freely on this website https://unmiraclechaquejour.topchretien.com/ and the music video of Peggy Polito’s song « Viens dans ma vie », available on YouTube here.