Happiness in service


16 Jan 2019

Many Madonna readers, I am sure, would have heard the story of the old Cherokee warrior one evening at the camp fire telling his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people.

He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all. One is Evil. It promotes anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf nurtures Good. It fosters joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’ His grandson thought about this story for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins the battle?’ The old Cherokee warrior simply replied: ‘The one you feed.’


As a little boy I would often ride my bike down to the nearby shops in Sandringham, a bayside suburb in Melbourne, to run messages for my mother. The cake shop owner, the butcher, the greengrocer and the grocer all knew me and my brothers by name and delighted in carrying on conversations with us about all manner of things. They seemed to have plenty of time for us, even giving us broken biscuits or lollies when it so moved them. It was a far cry from today’s check-out people at the supermarkets who have been trained to roll out the impersonal ‘how’s your day been?’ Having a tetchy queue hovering at one’s shoulder does not lend itself to an expansive response.

In contrast, some time ago, I met a young woman behind the counter at the local BP garage who really was interested in what sort of a day I’d had. We shared a few sentences about my somewhat mundane and drab experiences that day, until her parting words echoed in my ears: ‘I think it is very important to keep happy.’ That young woman at the service station could well have been reading the words of Pope Francis. Now there is a joyful person if ever there was one. 

In his first year as Pope he published a beautiful piece of writing with the title – Evangelii Gaudium/ The Joy of the Gospel – that radiated the author’s joy: 

‘There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realise of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress: “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is… But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:17, 21-23, 26).’


Joy has as its first cousin a sense of humour and, in the words of Pope Francis again, is one of the clear signs of holiness in a person. Joy and pleasure are not the same thing, however. In the more recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultatethe Pope writes: 

‘This is not the joy held out by today’s individualistic and consumerist culture. Consumerism only bloats the heart. It can offer occasional and passing pleasures, but not joy. Here I am speaking of a joy lived in communion, which shares and is shared, since “there is more happiness in giving than in receiving” (Acts 20:35) and “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).’

‘Keep happy.’ Happiness and joy are so much about attitude, about gratitude. That remarkable deaf and blind woman, Helen Keller, a role model for all of us in persistence against extraordinary odds, once wrote: ‘Most of us take life for granted. Only the deaf appreciate hearing; only the blind realise the manifold blessings that lie on sight. It is the same old story of not being grateful for what we have until we lose it; of not being conscious of health until we are ill. But I, who am blind, can give one hint to those who see; use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken. And the same method can be applied to the other senses; hear the music of voices, the song of the bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow.’


Keeping happy has nothing to do with self-promotion, but everything to do with serving others. The blueprint for Christian behaviour in Matthew’s Gospel account of the Beatitudes reminds us of this very forcefully: 

‘Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right; happy the merciful; happy the pure in heart: happy the peacemakers.’

This is like a litany of congratulations from God and is a far cry from the recipe for happiness proclaimed in the market place today:

‘Happy are the glossy people, their bodies will be admired; Happy are those with spare cash – they will be satisfied. Happy are the tough ones they shall achieve success.’ 

The old Irish proverb captures this well: ‘We live in the shelter of each other.’


Keeping happy is about looking out for others. Caring for one another is what strong communities do. Indeed, John Paul II once pointed out wisely that the quality of any community can be measured by the care it provides for its weakest members. ‘None of us is as strong as all of us’ was at one time the clever catch cry of fast food giant McDonald’s. What a difference it would make to our world if we could all adopt the African philosophy of happiness expressed in the adage: ‘I am because we are’! Keeping happy focuses on learning to value and respect others, even if we don’t always get our own way or have our needs met. Keeping happy understands that life is about us, and not just about me. 

As a new year begins, let us take seriously to heart the wonderful words of St Paul in his letter to the Philippians: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.’ (4:4). Keep happy.

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