It’s amazing really. From Bach to Eminem, every bit of music is a variation on eight simple notes. The same goes for literature – the Greeks identified roughly a half-dozen different plots, and that’s all anyone has ever used. Unhappiness is the same way. There are only a handful of ways to become unhappy.
Seven Means to Seven Sorrows
My house isn’t as nice as I would like, for instance. It certainly isn’t as nice as Fred’s. If I had Fred’s money, it would probably be as nice, but I don’t. Every day I see Fred get in his nice car, drive away from his nice house and go to his salaried job. Just the thought of it makes my chest ache. I’m not happy.
In fact, I am angry. I am just as good as Fred. Why should Fred get all the breaks? In fact, if the truth be told, Fred couldn’t match up to the same standards I have to meet every day! Certainly the piddling little possessions he has wouldn’t be enough to properly compensate me! They would have to pay me a lot more than he gets if they wanted someone of my caliber. A lot more.
Just thinking about it makes me unhappy. I’ll buy that chocolate in the checkout lane, and get the extra half gallon of ice cream. After all, I deserve it. And tonight, maybe a night out on the town, down at that little strip bar below the hill, while my wife is curled up on the couch, ignoring me and reading another one of her romance novels. The new dancer is supposed to be really cute. A night out, that’s what I need. I’ll be happy if I get a night out down there.
But, no. I wake up the next morning and I am still unhappy. Ah, what’s the use, anyway? I’ll just clock in at work, and sleep through the morning, like I did last week, and the week before that, and… well, you know how it is. No point in helping out at home, either. She grumbles when I help, and she grumbles when I don’t, so I ain’t.
There you have it: the seven ways of being unhappy. Every sin is a variation on one of those themes. If you have ever wondered why sin is so banal, if you have ever wondered why priests say they can’t remember the sins they hear in the confessional, this explains it. Would you be able to remember who told a story like this, especially when you’ve heard it hour after hour, day after day, from every person who walks in your door? The grace isn’t in the priest’s forgetting, it’s in the fact that the priest doesn’t throw us bodily out the door when we begin our agonizingly sad, insipid list of sins.
Envy, anger, pride, greed, gluttony, lust and sloth: these are the seven ways we make ourselves unhappy. There really aren’t any others. But we are so lost in our sins, so fixed upon the unhappy illusion that our sins are somehow special, unique, that we wouldn’t know there are only seven ways to sin, if not for the spiritual equivalent of the Special Forces.
The Special Forces
The Desert Fathers trained hard in demanding environments: deserts, windswept crags, open spaces bare to the fury of the elements. They specialized in spiritual warfare, in identifying the Enemy’s attacks and wiping out his advances. As they fought the Evil One, they discovered a secret that even now he tries to keep secret. They discovered the utter banality of his methods of attack.
He only has seven forms of attack. So the Fathers, like every expert martial artist, not only identified the attack methods, they also identified the seven simple counters that neutralize the attacks. Master these seven counters, and the devil can’t touch you. Instead, he whiffs air every time, while you pummel him and dance away. But, like any martial art, mastering these counters takes training, practice, and the willingness to endure pain. You have to have the grit, the guts, to grin through the pain and win anyway. So, take off your coat and get ready to work.
In the battle for sanctity, sin is a broken bone, a serious, painful setback. We need a hospital. Fortunately, that’s exactly what the Church is. We need treatment. That’s what the liturgy and the sacraments are. A doctor does not treat a broken bone by placing a cast on it for 45 minutes once a week. If we want to be healed, we need to get serious about taking the medicine. Set a broken arm in a cast for six weeks, and no one, not even the patient, can tell that the cast is doing any real good. But it is. Regularly attending to reconciliation, Mass and Eucharist may not feel like it is doing any good. But it is. This is how you can tell.
Are you envious of Fred’s stuff? Recognize that God allowed him to have all that stuff for a reason. He is the steward of that stuff. If he doesn’t handle it well, he’ll have to answer to God. The Scriptures are filled with stewards who lost their place because they mishandled their master’s wealth. Rejoice that your neighbor is wealthy, help him recognize his awesome responsibility before God. As you help him prosper in grace, he will his wealth wisely, assisting those in need. This joy in another’s good fortune is true love, and love counters envy.
Angry because of misfortune or the shortcomings of those around you? Be kind to them. They aren’t any happier about their shortcomings than you are, and they know your shortcomings better than you do. As you are kind to them and assist them, you fulfill the Scriptures – where one part of the body is weak, another makes it strong. Be kind to them, let them be kind to you. Kindness and compassion counters anger.
Proud of how much better you are than other people? Recognize that every gift you have is on loan from God. He gave it to you, and He expects a return. Fred is steward over a lot of money, you are steward over a different kind of wealth, and you too have to answer to God for how it is spent. Recognize the reality. In fact, that is the definition of humility: to recognize reality and respond appropriately. Humility does not mean being a doormat. It means that you recognize who gave you your gifts, and you recognize that you must use them to help others or be damned. That’s a humbling thought. Humility counters pride.
Do you want more than you need? Whether we seek money, power or respect, we have to be good stewards of what we are given. A good steward makes sure everyone around him lives comfortably. He gives generously, even denying himself if it is necessary. Give the praise to another, the money, the power. Let others shower in it. The generosity of the widow’s mite counters greed.
Do you have consume more food, entertainment or other goods than is necessary? Consider your state in life. Everyone needs material things to get by, but if we have more than we need, we are stealing from those who do not have what they need. For instance, given my state in life I don’t need more than three pairs of shoes. If I have more than three pairs of shoes in my closet, I owe someone shoes. A person in a different state in life might require four pairs, yet another only one. Temperance is accurately assessing your needs and not exceeding them. It requires faith that God will provide: we do not want to build a new barn to hold our stuff, only to find that God demands our life of us this very night. Faith and temperance counter gluttony.
Having difficulty controlling your eyes or your thoughts? Train your eyes as you would train your legs for a race. Practice looking away. Practice identifying idle thoughts and banishing them. Do you always insist on the best? Take less than the best and endure it. Scripture says obedience can only be learned through suffering. If you aren’t suffering, you aren’t learning self-control. Self-control counters lust.
Too worn out to change your life? This is not uncommon, because sloth is, in many ways, the most difficult sin to overcome. Make a conscious effort to attend Eucharistic adoration, do Bible study, say the rosary, meditate on the stations of the Cross. Or, take baby steps: learn about indulgences and do them. A partial indulgence can be obtained simply by making the sign of the Cross, or praying a one-sentence prayer as you work, such as, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” As you perform these little partial indulgences for yourself and for the dead, the grace you win for the world will begin to heal your sloth and energize you. You will have more energy, more zeal, for your prayer life and the sacraments. You will find yourself attracted to sin less and less. Zeal for performing God’s commandments counters sloth.
That’s it. That’s all it takes. Cultivate seven virtues, nurture them through the sacraments, and you will be happy.
God will send the grace. You can do it. So, don’t worry. Be happy.