Thursday, March 10, 2005

On being happy and finding love

One of the very first lessons on our journey towards wisdom is the concept of delayed gratification. The idea that to be happier later, we must sacrifice some happiness now. This is a universal rule that has application in every sphere of life. You see it in movies, books, and games. You practice it in a multitude of forms as you grow up in school. (Hopefully!) Most religions resound with it.

I want to explore these different manifestations, and see if I can discover why our society has apparently decided that this rule is no good for our love life.

I'll start with an area I'm familiar with: game design. I've been in the game industry for around 9 years, and I've been playing them since I was tiny. So I know a thing or two about games. First of all, a game is only fun if it taps into some primordial impulses. If the core mechanic fails to do that, any amount of bells and whistles you pile on top of it won't make the game fun. Different genres appeal to different basic instincts we all have. That is why some people prefer role playing games, and some only like fighting games. But every game, from Pac-Man to Final Fantasy has one thing in common. They all build on progression. Whether you are eating dots or leveling up your character to god-like stature, you start with little, and end up with more. And since it's a game, you have to do stuff in order for that to happen. If you start the game with everything you can have, there is no game. No gratification. It has to be delayed, vis-à-vis the gameplay, or there is no gratification. I believe this is because we are built with this framework. It's instinctive. We all know that it takes effort to get anything truly good in this life. That is why we send out kids to school. Most kids hate it, but we recognize it's for their good. Then we pay for collage so they can get a 'good' job.

Almost every good story has conflict in it. Because without conflict, resolution is meaningless. Again: you have to go through something difficult to get something worthwhile. Very few people will argue with this. But here is the funny thing… Many, many people will argue with applying this to their feelings and emotions. All we hear in modern America is "follow your heart!" When we don't follow our romantic or sexual urges we are "repressing" ourselves. And Hollywood has done a great job of showing us what 'repressed' people are like. (Sarcasm) That is one of the great ironies of modern story-telling. They rely on a basic truth (delayed gratification) to make their message entertaining; but the message belies that truth. So why is our culture programming us to ignore such a basic concept in one of the most important and far-reaching areas of life? Why has repression become anathema to the story tellers? Why will they admit that following our belly is bad for us, but insist that following our heart is good?

Maybe it has something to do with their myopic view of life. Most people see life on earth as all there is. Sure, they will say they believe in an afterlife. But they don't live their lives accordingly. They are conceptually agnostic, but functionally atheist. And if you start with the assumption that this life is all we got, your gonna run into trouble in a number of areas. One of them being justice and fairness. "I've been a good person. I deserve some good things in my life." Sounds fair, right? But how does one ensure that those good things come to them? Most people don't have a beneficiary whose job it is to make sure they get their good things. So it falls directly on your own shoulders. Congratulations! You are now a humanist. You see, something the theists figured out thousands of years ago is that there is no justice on this earth. Utopia doesn't exist, and never will as long as fallen people exist. We can set up our governments and courts, calibrate and tweak them till the cows come home. We just can't achieve justice. The only way it can possibly exist is if there is an afterlife. The fact that the desire for justice is such a powerful, universal trait points to the fact that there has to be more. A part of the equation that we are missing.

How does this apply to our love lives and the rule of delayed gratification? Without a God, we are our own masters. And beyond any sort of political and social constrictions, we call all the shots. We try to figure out what it is that's going to make us happy. Overdoing food makes us fat. Overdoing alcohol makes us losers. Overdoing play makes us dropouts and poor. Overdoing work makes us stressed out. But overdoing love? How can that be wrong?!? I guess it's all in the phrasing. What kind of love are we talking about? Unlike the Greek language, we use one word to cover many aspects of love. (See C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves for more on this.) So conversations about love tend to be pretty sloppy. Additionally, we have lost the concept of some of these forms of love that used to be universal. Just look at Frodo and Sams' relationship in Lord of the Rings. They had a deep, loyal friendship that followed the Biblical list of Love is… to a T. But when I saw the movies in theaters, there were always snickers and joking going on about how they seemed gay. Somehow our society has lost the concept of that type of relationship. Perhaps it fell victim to the rise of the legitimization of homosexuality. I don't know. But one thing I'm sure of, from my experience talking to lots of people about it, is that everyone is confused about what love is. So as we scramble across our lives, desperately trying to make ourselves happy, it's quite natural that we are going to look to 'love'. And our society has defined it as finding a member of the opposite sex to validate us and make us feel better about ourselves. It usually involves sex, living together, maybe getting married, etc. The problem of unhappiness can't be solved this way. But the movies don't show that. Sure, there are break-ups; but they are always followed by finding 'the right one'. You may be able to find temporary happiness with another person. But true Joy can only come from God. Without this knowledge, it's quite natural to try to find it elsewhere.

I was asked why I would turn down love, since God represents faith happiness and love. First I would add a few revisions to the statement about God. I don't think He 'represents' anything. He just IS. Second, happiness is not what He's about. Happiness depends on happenstance. And what is happening always changes. Therefore it is temporary and not worth striving for. Joy however, Peace and Love. God certainly does want these things for us. But if we believe in God, and a life after this one, we have to accept the fact that perhaps fullness of these things will not come until after death. He knows we can't find them through another human. So turning down 'love' is not necessarily something that He is against. But that is just because we have so warped the definition of love to fit our own whims. An example would be a married man who feels like he has fallen in love with another woman. God is all for saying NO to that 'love'.

I do believe that God wants us to be fully, blissfully joyous. But sometimes the path to joy leads through difficulties. And possibly leads beyond the gates of death. How's that for delayed gratification? Can't handle it? Yeah. You kind of have to be convinced that you're going to heaven or it doesn’t work.

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