Happiness – beyond Government

16 November 2010

So the new government is going to conduct a survey to discover the levels of happiness in the country.   At last politicians have realised that there is more to life than the economy – a reality which many of us have promoted for a long time.  I just hope that given politicians habit of wanting to measure and control everything, we don’t end up with ‘targets’ for being happy – with pictures of smiling citizens lining the roads whenever a ‘beloved leader’ passes by!

Yet the pursuit of happiness and wellbeing is fundamental to being human.  I can’t recall meeting anyone who has set out either to be miserable, or to be unhealthy.  It is the changes, chances and realities of life which erode our sense of wellbeing and undermine our happiness – and this is something which politicians need to understand.

If the government is really committed to happiness then they have to accommodate the simple truth that it is very difficult to be happy if you have lost your job; it is hard to be happy if your benefits have been cut or removed; it is impossible to be happy if the chaos of poverty becomes your everyday experience.  But most importantly they need to understand that for many of us, we cannot be really happy ourselves when we know that others are suffering and have become victims of the need to balance the budget.

But ultimately happiness is an inner and spiritual quality beyond the reach of legislation and politics. Happiness is something about how we shape our lives and order our priorities.  Indeed we can do much to promote our own happiness and well being.  Learning how to love, to be loved and forgive are sure foundations to a happy life.  Discovering how to value others and preserve one’s own dignity are each ways of securing our sense of wellbeing.  Controlling our anger, greed and sexuality each contribute to stability in life from which we can live at peace with ourselves and our neighbours.

Governments have a responsibility for providing a context and an economy which promote happiness, but in the end it is how we live our lives, relate to each other and share out the good things of life which secures our future.  It is all summed up in a verse from the Bible written many centuries ago, it just says – do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

Beware the simplicty of extremists

26 October 2009

Article in the Cleethorpes Chronicle  – 29.10.2009

There was a stark contrast between some of the views being aired on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time and the gathering of the Normandy Veterans Association in Westminster Abbey last weekend.  During Question Time we glimpsed the sort of extremism which feeds on demonising a particular group of people and, in contrast, on Sunday the veterans remembered the enormous human cost of combating extremism once it takes hold of power.  Extremism, whether it is political, economic or social, brings in its wake human suffering and misery – how little we learn from history.

The essential feature of the extremist is simplicity.  Simplistic answers to the problems of the age.  In a democracy it is seductive stuff because the simplicity of the extremist offers quick and easy remedies.  In Germany in the 1930’s it was the Jews who were blamed for all the problems and finding a final solution to the Jews would ensure that all would be well.  Tragically there is a long list in modern history where the simplistic answers of the extremists have led to appalling violence, genocide and ethnic cleansing.  In fact I cannot think of any situation where extremism has led to human happiness and flourishing.

The problem with extremist views is that they are cloaked in sounding plausible. Yet they have to distort the truth because they actually have no ability to answer the deep problems of society.    So for the extremist, all asylum seekers are ‘bogus’, people living on benefits are ‘scroungers’,  unemployment  is cause by immigrants and if only we could get back to the purity of the indigenous English people, then all would be well.

D-day vetsWhat utter nonsense it is, yet it is seductive because at elections we want to give power to those who are going to sort things out.  If only life was like that.  Yet as those D-day veterans know only too well – give power to an extremist and it has to be wrestled from them at great cost.

The Normandy Veterans gathering begins this season of remembrance leading up to 11th November.  Once again I will be thanking God for the sacrifice of so many in wresting power from the extremists, whilst praying that we will never again be seduced by their simplicity – for it masks the dark side of human nature which is crucifyingly costly to defeat.

Trust and Power

24 May 2009

I have been trying to put my finger on why I feel so outraged at what we’ve learnt about those MP’s who appear to have abused their expenses. Set against so much wickedness in the world, their behaviour is certainly wrong and needs to be addressed, but it needs to kept in proportion when we live in a world where daily there are stories of abuse, violence and criminality which destroys people. Why is it that so many of us feel outraged as this story about the MPs unfolds?

Is it because this isn’t just another story of expenses being fiddled, but is far more about the trust which lies at the heart of the British democratic system being abused? When we go and vote, we trust an individual to represent our best interests. We give power through the ballot box and we trust those who represent us (even if we didn’t vote for them) to be worthy of the power which they have been given. I think that I am outraged because, in a healthy society, power and trust go hand-in-hand. When the trust is abused, then what about the power?

How people use power is a moral question. The Christian faith is founded on an individual whose power was to be found in vulnerability and service. Because of our history, the Christian story has shaped the British approach to politics – vulnerability to not being re-elected and election being to the service of all  people and not just your supporters. It is an approach to politics which is so different to those worst expressions of politics, where power is taken for self-interest and is used against one section or group.

I think this why I feel so outraged at the expenses fiasco – because floating duck nests, moat clearing and non-existent mortgages do not reflect vulnerability and service. They undermine the trust which is so central to British democracy. We have to be able to trust those we vote for to use their position for the good of each and every section of our society no matter who they are, who they voted for, where the come from, their colour or their creed. Essentially, we have to be able to trust those we vote for to be moral in what they do once elected, trust them to use their power in a moral way and to be worthy of our trust – then they can be described as ‘honourable’.

First published in the Cleethorpes Chronicle May 2009