How to unlearn conditional happiness

I recently told a friend struggling with feeling appreciated that:

No one can appreciate you more than you appreciate yourself.

But I think there’s probably a better way to explain it, albeit a less pithy one.

What I was trying to say to my friend was that it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to get others to appreciate him. His sense of appreciation is limited by how much he appreciates himself.

If you are unwilling to appreciate yourself, respect yourself, love yourself, value yourself, then no amount of seeking those affirmations from others will succeed.

I know this is a bit of a cliche, but it’s no platitude.

We have the capacity at any time to regard ourselves more positively, but instead we defer this positive self-regard, setting conditions for ourselves to attain it.

Most theories suggest that we have a natural approval for ourselves as children, but are conditioned to lose it as we grow up.

As we attach to our parents or carers, we learn how to relate to ourselves from how they relate to us.

A self-absorbed, unavailable parent who can’t put aside their own frustrations to show love and comfort to their child teaches the child to apply the same conditions within themselves.

“I can’t show you love and affection because you spilled your milk, or because you won’t listen to me, or because I have more important things on my mind”

So the child learns that love and affection are conditional…they are only forthcoming when the conditions are just right.

The parent has the capacity to let go of their concerns and give the child the love and affection he or she needs. But they choose not to, albeit under the influence of their own weighty internal conditions.

Likewise, we ourselves have the capacity to let go of our concerns and conditions and give ourselves the love, affection, respect, appreciation, and other qualities we desire.

Have you ever looked at a happy, well-adjusted person and wondered “How dare they?” How do they let themselves off so easily? How do they treat themselves so well when they haven’t done anything to merit it…at least not by our harsh standards.

Or perhaps you assume they must have done something to earn it. They must be special or different, or perhaps you are the one who is different in some deficient way?

But the truth is that the capacity is there in all of us, to love ourselves, treat ourselves well, with respect and kindness and…whatever is required to feel happiness and joy in our lives.

That’s what we most desire from others. But it’s a paradox: the only way to get what we want from others is to accept it first in ourselves.

Otherwise we will sabotage our own efforts – either by trying too hard and too desperately, or by picking the wrong people, or the wrong timing, or going about things in completely the wrong way.

You may not walk around thinking it consciously, but implicit in your desire for others’ love and approval is the recognition that then you will be able to feel good in yourself.

And that’s what creates the paradox. You refuse to feel good now because you believe you’re not good enough or deserving enough. You haven’t met the conditions you internalised while growing up.

Then you meet someone and you think “if this person loves me, or appreciates me, or approves of me, that will mean I’m good enough now!”

So the other person becomes the condition of your own self-approval. It doesn’t really work though, because self-approval is intrinsically unconditional. External factors are irrelevant.

When your parents or carers mistreated you, their excuses were irrelevant too. It’s because they were irrelevant that they cannot be resolved, and if you’re lucky, you will have observed these never-ending patterns of behaviour in people’s lives.

You can start to witness that people who find excuses for mistreating you go on to find more and more excuses. People who love to complain have a knack for finding things to complain about. People who live in misery carefully avoid things that might draw them out into happiness.

And if you can see it in others you can probably see it in yourself too, the artful way you flirt with calamity or keep yourself in a state of anxiety. It’s immersive and it feels “real”, but every now and then you can see the genuine multiplicity of options that surround you, the unfathomable range of directions your life could go, and how suspicious it is that you nonetheless keep it firmly on a single track.

That doesn’t mean you’re doing it “wrong”, it just means you can change when you’re ready, when you want to.

The best part of that change is to realise you can give yourself, enjoy for yourself, the wonderful positive feelings that you thought had to wait until conditions were met.


Faith and works and self-delusion

Dtcwee asked a great question about scriptural references to how we work toward salvation.

How can we work towards salvation if “we” are not responsible for our faults and flaws, for redeeming and righting ourselves?

The same problem emerges in Buddhism where the main symptom of delusion is the impression of a self, yet it seems to be the ‘self’ who decides to become a Buddhist, meditates, studies the sutras and seeks enlightenment.

In a Christian context ‘works’ comes from the Greek ergon and can also mean actions, deeds, or accomplishments. Faith, on the other hand, comes from pistis which means ‘persuasion’ as in “God’s divine persuasion“.

It might seem that we are therefore responsible for our works and deeds and actions, but God is responsible for our faith, for persuading us to believe and trust in Him.

The orthodox answer to the problem of faith and works is therefore simple: faith is the cause of salvation, but we should see that reflected also in the person’s works or deeds, i.e. faith without works is dead.

In reality I think the controversy only exists if we accept our separation from God as real.

From the point of view of separation from God, I am the one in control of my beliefs and actions, the one responsible for my merits and my faults. (See “Better to reign in hell?” for more).

From this point of view, whatever I may do to save myself is fruitless. It is only through God’s intervention, through the gift of faith that I am saved.

Yet even then some Christians appear to hold that faith must be accepted as an act of will in the strong, voluntarist sense. In other words, even though faith is a gift from God, I still have to accept the gift in order to be saved. The illusion of responsibility will keep creating a role for “me” to play, because we are terrified of the idea that God is the author of it all.

Yet that is the conclusion we must draw from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

“continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good pleasure”

Your willing and your acting are dependent on God. Your sense of responsibility and control over your willing and acting are due to pride, and an inflated, delusional sense of self.

Christians who cling to their sense of separation from God interpret these themes in terms of opprobrium for their will and acts and the state of their soul. They emphasise how flawed and degraded and sinful they are, how much in need of God’s grace and help.

They’re not wrong, but the flaws and degradation and sin rest on the very sense of separation, the pride that is opposed to God’s grace. The end is not to receive enough help to patch us up and send us on our way, but to realise our total dependence on God and the falsity of our pride and responsibility in the first place.

Consider the words that Jesus spoke to Catherine of Siena, the great saint and mystic:

Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fullness of grace, and truth, and light.

Human beings exist, but our minds contain a strong sense of responsibility, agency, and self-control that we identify as “me”. This is the meaning of “you are she who is not”.

In paradise, Adam and Eve did not know that they were naked. That is, they lacked the self-consciousness and accompanying delusion of self-control that we inhabit.

In Christian terms, this is the root of all sin – pride, the delusion of responsibility and control.

But to overcome this sin, we need to embrace the paradox that we are not responsible for it. It might seem that dwelling on this sin and error and seeking to overcome it is the right path, but this only reinforces the sense of separation, the pride and false self that are the root of the problem.

It is much better to recognise that none of it has ever been within our control. But even to recognise this is not within our control either. We were never responsible in the first instance for the fault or flaw from which we now run and hide and from which we constantly seek to redeem ourselves, in our own eyes if nowhere else.

This is likewise the meaning of Christ dying for our sins, of him taking onto himself the punishment for all our faults. This dynamic of sin, punishment, and vicarious redemption never made sense to me as it does and has done to many others.

But it has the same effect of unburdening us of responsibility for our fault, our flaw, our fall.

It is, after all, the sense of responsibility for our grievous fault that underpins the subsequent grasping for control, the pride and the misery that accompany us through life.

Are you perfect?

People think they desire to possess things (objects, status, accomplishments, the affection of others) because of some intrinsic quality of those things.  We think this object is unique or significant, this woman or man is special or wonderful, these accomplishments or status are important.

But mostly it is we who make them desirable. That is, we are already looking for things to which we can pin our special labels, to make them “worthy” objects of desire.

Once we have established these objects of desire, we live and die by them. We order our lives by their attainment. If I can just afford it… If she just smiles at me… If I can just win their vote…

We believe that once we have gained possession of these things, we will at last experience a deep, lasting, and secure happiness. We will transpose to ourselves the glory of the office, the grandeur of the home, or the grace and beauty of the beloved.

And then we will be truly happy.

But even if we obtain these things, the happiness doesn’t last. And if, as usually happens, we fail to obtain them, then we remain mired in our usual unhappy state.

Why do we do this?

Well, if those things were truly desirable then the answer would be obvious: we pursue love, property, and power because they will make our lives wonderful.

But if these things are not truly desirable – if instead we bestow desirability upon those things in the first place, then the answer is more complex, more mysterious than we realise.

I believe the latter is the case, because I have read and confirmed through my own experience that the apparent desirability of these supposedly wonderful things is not real. The possessions we once craved lose their allure. The people we once deeply admired eventually lose their glow. Status and accomplishments are soon forgotten. We move from one “wonder” on to a fresh one.

So why subject ourselves to this strange ritual?

The answer is itself a little strange.

We do it because we cannot justify being content with what we are.

What do dreaming about the perfect home, wishing for the affection of a beautiful woman or man, and imagining oneself in a position of power and respect have in common?

They all consist of mental projections of ourselves in a state that justifies feeling wonderful.

Their content is less significant than the emotional narrative they share: if I have that, I will be happy, overjoyed, resplendent.

And by implication: I can’t be happy, overjoyed, or resplendent because I don’t have that.

Whatever that is, the feelings associated with it are a kind of negative image of how you see yourself.

If that is the affection of a person, then I’m willing to bet that the qualities you think you see in that person are the qualities you most feel you lack in yourself, or the qualities you feel would redeem whatever faults you might think you have.

The same applies a little less directly to homes, possessions, status and accomplishments but in general how you feel about those things mirrors qualities you wish you had right now.

About twenty years ago I read all of this, and I reached the conclusion that if I could short-circuit this delusional dynamic I could enjoy all the wonderful feelings exactly as I am. In other words, the things I sought in external reality were just proxies for self-acceptance.

I had thought that I could only accept myself if I obtained these proxies. But if I could accept myself directly, then I could feel joy and happiness directly too?

The problem is that I took for granted that the joy and happiness were real, that I should be feeling those feelings, and if I didn’t feel those feelings then I clearly hadn’t accepted myself fully.

In other words, I turned “self-acceptance” into another proxie, something I had to obtain in order to feel joy and happiness.

I’ve come to see that as a really bad move, because if you have to chase self-acceptance it isn’t really self-acceptance. But if you call it by the same name you might not recognise the difference.

So forget about finding joy and happiness. Forget about trying to attain a state that is different from the one you currently inhabit. It’s a paradox, but don’t fall for it.

Instead, let’s ask again why we saw it necessary to seek perfection externally in the first place. How did we reach the conclusion that we need to redeem ourselves?

For a long time I didn’t really understand how the Crucifixion and death of Jesus was supposed to have redeemed anyone. People offer various theological explanations, but I’m especially leery of the argument that God required a sacrifice. At least not in a strong sense of ‘required’.

It makes more sense if we didn’t need to be redeemed, but didn’t know that we didn’t need it.

We can argue the theology but that’s the net effect of Christianity: we can’t redeem ourselves, nor ever could, so please stop trying.

If you want to go sacrificial: here’s one eternal sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.

This strange ‘happiness’ dynamic we’re looking at is just another attempt at redeeming ourselves. Maybe not with God, but at least privately. We believe we’re not good enough, not right, not whole, not perfect. We reject our flaws and faults, because at face value they’re unacceptable to us.

But we’re only unacceptable to us. In Matthew’s Gospel, in the “love your enemies” section, Jesus says:

He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And just a bit later he concludes:

Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.

What kind of perfection is this? It’s a perfection that does not discriminate between the evil and the good, or the righteous and the unrighteous.

If this strikes a chord, you might see how it links in to themes I’ve raised in other posts.

In Taking what is offered I look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the suggestion that our refusal to accept our reality is what separates us from God, and how the path back to paradise is demonstrated in Christ’s acceptance of God’s will over his own measure of good and evil.

In Pride and the delusion of self I touch on Pride as both the cause of the devil’s fall from Heaven according to tradition, and synonymous with our own delusion of authority and control in our own lives.

Finally, in Better to reign in hell? I examine how we wrongly seek to take responsibility both for our faults and flaws and for our redemption. This sense of responsibility is linked to agency, authority, and control as described in the earlier post on pride.

Bringing this final post to bear on the current theme, it is clear that the faults and flaws for which we seek to take responsibility are the same faults and flaws that motivate the ‘happiness’ dynamic I’ve described here.

It is because we refuse to accept our own faults and flaws, we refuse to let the sun shine on the good and evil in us, or let the rain fall on the righteous and unrighteous parts of ourselves, that we seek redemption and righteousness in external things.

We promise ourselves overwhelming joy and happiness, but only if we can win this battle between good and evil within us. We imagine ourselves in ‘paradise’ if only we can achieve or obtain something to outweigh our flaws.

At whatever point in our lives we first became conscious of having flaws, our reality was ripped in two. Our knowledge of good and evil came into effect, and we were bewildered and ashamed to find that the line between the two ran through our own selves.

We still refuse to accept ourselves fully, accept our reality completely. We hold out, seeking to manage, mitigate, and mend ourselves where we can. How could we ever accept the unacceptable? How could we ever accept the parts of us our own minds condemn as faults?

This is why Christianity is called the Way of the Cross, why Christ urged us to “take up your cross and follow me”, and why, in love with God, so many of the saints endured tremendous hardship and suffering.

The cross is not only the suffering imposed on us by the external world, but the suffering and fear we hold for our own hated faults. God wants us to accept our faults.

This is not a superficial message, but a radical one. It doesn’t mean persisting with bad habits, because ultimately bad habits are attempts to hide from or compensate for our hated faults anyway. This is where the Christian motif of dying and being reborn comes into its own. Christ didn’t say “pretend to die so that you could keep on living in pretty much the same way as before”.

On the level of free will and our sense of self, this means recognising that you are not responsible for your faults anymore than you are responsible for your merits. You did not create yourself, and if you get right down to it, your sense of self is just something your mind produces from various thoughts and impressions. To treat it as a separate thing, like a little god ruling over its dominion, is at the heart of what we call pride.



Brief thoughts on Lucifer

Dtcwee asked a question about Lucifer in light of the previous post.

Could we then say that Lucifer is imagining his own responsibility for his fall?

I’m hesitant to speculate too much about angels.

In the tradition, Lucifer’s sin is pride. That would imply he went wrong in desiring to be somehow equal to God or independent of God. This pride is believed to have been motivated by Lucifer’s own greatness, since he was the highest of angels.

If I’m right about original sin, then we could argue that human pride is different because it is motivated by suffering and separateness, a condition we inherit from our parents.

This difference in the motive of pride is what makes me hesitate in case I’m missing something important.

That aside, the devil is just another creature, and the conditions of his existence are essentially the same as ours. I very tentatively suggest that his “responsibility” began through contemplating his own greatness in the created order. As I mentioned in a previous post where I quoted John Cassian:

he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity

This is the point where tradition tells us the highest creature in existence succumbed to pride. A self-consciousness of his own greatness was the cause of Lucifer’s false sense of “responsibility”, which initiated his subsequent fall.

Cassian concludes:

On account of which being forsaken by God, whom he fancied he no longer needed, he suddenly became unstable and tottering, and discovered the weakness of his own nature, and lost the blessedness which he had enjoyed by God’s gift.

So the only reason I would demur from accepting dtcwee’s suggestion is that Lucifer exhibited a kind of “positive” responsibility. He was so great, he identified with his greatness and in that moment embraced a false self-sufficiency. Responsibility is the corollary of that.

My only other caveat is that the word “imagined” should be taken as an analogy. The sense of responsibility may be false, but in calling it “imaginary” we shouldn’t underestimate the impact this false idea has had on our existence.

Furthermore, our normal use of “imaginary” implies that we are under a misapprehension. The conclusion I am working toward is that we are a part of that misapprehension as well. Responsibility is not just something you are imagining, it is something that underpins our sense of self.

Better to reign in hell?

There’s a famous line in Milton’s Paradise Lost where Lucifer says:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

Taken literally it illustrates the devil’s pride and bitterness at having been cast down from Heaven. He would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.

We’re not so different. Even when it makes us miserable we prefer to be in control, to feel responsible for our own suffering.

At some point in our early lives we encounter circumstances of life that conflict with our desires. For some people it comes in the context of terrible abuse or trauma, while for others it comes in “normal” aspects of life like having to move away from friends and relatives, or everyday battles of will with parents and authority figures.

The key point is that we find ourselves conscious of having desires – a will – that conflicts with external reality.

Our desires and the external world are both equally real. But for some reason at the point of conflict between the two, our perspective changes and we begin to feel responsible for one aspect of reality – our desires or will – and not for the reality of the external world.

On one level it seems obvious that in a conflict between our internal desires and the external world we should be responsible for the part that exists inside our own head.

But we don’t create our desires, nor do we choose them. We are not responsible for them in the sense of being their author. So why do we feel responsible? We may feel we are in control of our own will, but this just begs the question.

Our sense of responsibility flows into other psychological states. We find ourselves trying to reject unsavory aspects of external reality. We seek to compensate for our unfulfilled desires. We sulk. We get angry at the world for failing us, and at ourselves for failing to get on in the world.

Above all, we feel that the conflict is ultimately our fault. Not that we necessarily caused the conditions of the world that so disappoint us, but that it seems we ought to have within ourselves the power to overcome or resolve this conflict.

Again, Milton has Lucifer say:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

So we feel, and so we are often told by others, especially by parents and authority figures who would simply (and understandably) prefer that we not protest or complain.

We believe it is our fault, our failing, to have desired something we cannot control. We believe that our desires are, or should be, within our control. Alternatively, we believe it is our own fault that our desires lack efficacy in the external world.

This belief in our own failing burdens us with a sense of responsibility, faulty responsibility for our own unhappiness and dissatisfaction in life.

Thus we reign in hell.

The paradox is that the worst of the suffering comes from thinking that we are responsible, that it is somehow up to us to correct our faults, to achieve righteousness, to make ourselves right again through our own efforts.

That’s what reigning in hell means, I think. In the moment of conflict between our desires and the external world, we take command, responsibility, and therefore blame for the whole conflict.

At the same time we fear to surrender this responsibility and illusion of control because it keeps alive in us the hope of repairing the situation. We own our fault, in the hope that we may repair it.

That’s why, like Milton’s devil, we prefer to reign in hell. Our reign is hell, you might say, because it is a delusion, it doesn’t exist, we are not in control and we are not responsible. But admitting we are not in control is too frightening. It would feel like dying, the death of the illusory self who rules over our faulty existence.

It would mean accepting our reality totally, both the external world and the desires and will that conflicted with it in the first place.

It sounds a bit like “Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it, shall preserve it.”

The pride of life

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In the Christian tradition pride is accorded special place as the root of all sin. The 5th Century monk John Cassian’s Institutes has an illuminating passage that details the nature and role of pride in the fall of Lucifer, and is worth quoting in full:

How by reason of pride Lucifer was turned from an archangel into a devil.

And that we may understand the power of its awful tyranny we see that that angel who, for the greatness of his splendour and beauty was termed Lucifer, was cast out of heaven for no other sin but this, and, pierced with the dart of pride, was hurled down from his grand and exalted position as an angel into hell. If then pride of heart alone was enough to cast down from heaven to earth a power that was so great and adorned with the attributes of such might, the very greatness of his fall shows us with what care we who are surrounded by the weakness of the flesh ought to be on our guard. But we can learn how to avoid the most deadly poison of this evil if we trace out the origin and causes of his fall…. For as he (viz., Lucifer) was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall. On account of which being forsaken by God, whom he fancied he no longer needed, he suddenly became unstable and tottering, and discovered the weakness of his own nature, and lost the blessedness which he had enjoyed by God’s gift. And because he “loved the words of ruin,” with which he had said, “I will ascend into heaven,” and the “deceitful tongue,” with which he had said of himself, “I will be like the Most High,” and of Adam and Eve, “Ye shall be as gods,” therefore “shall God destroy him forever and pluck him out and remove him from his dwelling place and his root out of the land of the living.” Then “the just,” when they see his ruin, “shall fear, and shall laugh at him and say” (what may also be most justly aimed at those who trust that they can obtain the highest good without the protection and assistance of God): “Behold the man that made not God his helper, but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and prevailed in his vanity.”

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that we all suffer from pride: the worst if we think ourselves free of it. In his view the humble man is the one who recognises that he is proud, that the inclination to pride as a desire to be better than others is a constant temptation in our own hearts.

Yet in our society pride is not typically recognised as a vice unless it becomes a hindrance to oneself or an annoyance to others. We loathe arrogant, overbearing people, but we hate them in part because we ourselves are proud. Pride makes us all competitors for our self-approval, an approval we ourselves make contingent on our position relative to others. We find it harder to approve of ourselves when others become the centre of attention, or when their skills and abilities make us question our own worth. Conversely, the admiration and praise of others gives us the confidence to rest in self-approval.

In this sense, much of what is described as ‘low self-esteem’ is still a symptom of pride. Those who hate themselves or wallow in misery can be motivated by failure according to their own sense of pride. They want to be better than they are; they are not good enough to merit their own approval.

So convoluted is pride that people can even seem humble and modest yet be riven with a sense of self-satisfaction at their apparent virtue. We can take pride in the strangest things; what matters is not so much the object of pride as the fact that we measure ourselves relative to that object, and consider ourselves responsible and praiseworthy for achieving it.

The paradox of pride is that he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. In other words, seeking our own greatness and glory makes life heavy, ponderous, dull, and laborious. Only in humility can we enjoy the lightness and freedom of not seeking to make ourselves the centre of everything. As G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

One way of overcoming pride at least temporarily is to consider how the object of your pride is in fact beyond your own responsibility or credit. Whatever it is you are good at or excel at, consider that you did not give yourself the talents, the gifts, or the natural skill to excel. Not only that, you didn’t give yourself the interest, the passion, or the motivation to pursue it. Even if it is something for which you worked hard, can you really say that you are responsible for having the will to work hard, the determination to persevere, the lack of interest in other goals or distractions?

All of these things may exist in you: talents, passion, determination; but you did not put them there. You cannot take credit because you did not create yourself.

The good news is that we can take pleasure and joy and satisfaction in all these things; we just can’t take credit for them. When someone praises you for doing well, you can share in the pleasure of the thing well done, but to turn that pleasure into self-satisfaction is the beginning of delusion.

To be deluded about one’s origins, the source of one’s power, and the true subject of glory and praise is not only a terrible error, it is a denial of our own true nature and the path of our greatest happiness. This is why the proud are ultimately consigned through their own self-glorification to the misery of being like gods when they truly are not; a thin and demeaning substitute for real happiness and true glory; a pretence and hollow promise that can only end in disappointment.