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Lethally Positive

March 17, 2024

Everyone wants to be happy. However much elusive the concept of happiness might be, we at the very least all know that we want it. But what is happiness? Most of us don’t think much about this question seriously; we just settle with an image of what a happy life looks like and pursue that—without questioning the image, who painted it, or whether or not it’s an illusion. Should you ask people around you to describe happiness, these words will come up more often than others: love, passion, fulfilment, bliss, joy, rich, meaningful, freedom, etc.

To most people, the words ‘faith’ or ‘God’ won’t make the above list as they don’t seem to end in happiness—or even seem to be related. Religion doesn’t project freedom or fun or happiness, rather it seems restrictive, prohibitive and ascetic. So, why should we bother? Today, I really want to question the need to talk about faith and God—and by extension, the need to write about it

In hindsight and after 6+ years hiatus from this blog, this should should have been the right place to (jump)start. But I digress.

So why bother? Happiness is not about being able to engage in fun activities every day and all the time; most people know that—or more precisely they know that’s not realistic. Having fun is not to be neglected obviously, but we know there’s a kind of seriousness in work; a laboring on something important, meaningful and fulfilling that is a crucial ingredient to happiness. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t we want to wake up every morning, highly motivated and committed to accomplish great things? Isn’t pushing beyond the status quo and ‘changing the world’ such a worthy aspiration? This, without a doubt, makes us feel empowered to take matters into our hands and puts us again behind the wheel to shape our own lives and make it interesting for ourselves. It avoids the passive ‘let-me-wait-for-destiny’ kind of approach to life by giving us an active, ready-for-action attitude, broadening our minds and enabling us to dream big and reach for the stars…

There’s surely a sort of energy and thrill that springs from such a vision of life which is powerful and attractive. It certainly looks better than what’s commonly thought a devoted religious life is about: a life characterised by the seemingly grim and narrow mindedness of rule keeping, obeying commands and self denial. But is it really better?

Byung-Chul Han, a South-Korean philosopher and cultural theorist, writes in his book “The Burnout society” that this “positivity”; this feeling that all things are possible, the feeling that I can make it happen for myself has a certain “violence” to it. According to him, the feeling comes with demands—and hard ones at that. The positivity will eventually grow and become excessive; and before anyone realises, the situation will have escalated to the point of self-exploitation—and here lies its violence. He spoke of course in general terms, but he specifically shows how this violence is at the root (or at the very least points to the cause) of depression, ADHD, and burnout. To him, there’s a “pressure to achieve that causes an exhaustive depression”.

Professor Han went on to talk about how our immune system is essentially biologically programmed to kill anything “negative” coming to attack its well being. But we already know that, biologically speaking, we’re not equipped to fight positivity; because why would we? And that’s the insidious thing about this “violence”:

The violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts. That’s why it proves inaccessible to unmediated perception.

This is why this should concern us all, whether you’re at this point or not. The process is gradual and subtle. It creeps up on you before you notice. Besides, he adds, the danger is present even before the positivity becomes excessive:

In reality, it is not the excess of responsibility and initiative that makes one sick, but the imperative to achieve: the new commandment of late-modern labor society.

Ah. There it is! I feel as though he really hit the nail on the head on this one. This is truly insightful. He affirms the fact that even though we don’t appear to be under anyone’s rule, it doesn’t necessarily imply that we’re free. In fact, we have another imperative; another commandment (Ironic how we refuse commandments and inflict worse ones on ourselves). We’re facing a new form of slavery, if you will. Although having the appearance of freedom, we’re definitely still subjects. But who’s the master?

This labor camp is defined by the fact that one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetrator. One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination.

This really is puzzling. How can we be masters and slaves at the same time? You’d think that we’d be gentle to ourselves, and you’d be wrong. In fact, we’re harsher, more abusive and exploitative towards ourselves? Isn’t that concerning?

Unfortunately, Professor Han’s prescription wasn’t as insightful as his brilliant diagnosis. But it’s okay; because this right here, is exactly where I find christian teaching to be even more profound.

“There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way of death”
Proverbs 16:25

When it comes to our ability to know what’s best for ourselves, the Bible doesn’t utter flattering words; on the contrary, it only shows us, as Professor Han did (and better), how, jarringly enough, we only end up harming ourselves and wasting the little energy we have. And for this, I’d point to the peculiarity of christian scriptures: its comprehensive understanding of the heart of man and its unparalleled level of sharpness, depth and precision.

Scripture doesn’t swing the pendulum to the other extreme of apathy. Beyond providing a healthy, balanced and truly human view of work and happiness, it tells us who we should work for, the reason why we should work, what makes true fulfilment and the definition of achievement altogether—among other things. Although we won’t dive into how this all works out, my hope in this short piece, is to help point to the despair waiting those who wish to ‘take control’ of their lives and inject a healthy curiosity into the concept of living to ‘serve’ God.

Perhaps serving God has a better outcome. Perhaps it’s out of love that He “commands” us to serve Him. Perhaps surrendering to God is, as counterintuitive as it may feel, unto the path of real self-fulfilment. Perhaps humbling ourselves under Him would be a lighter burden (than the heavier one we unwittingly carry). And perhaps, becoming, as it were, His “slave” is paradoxically the only path to freedom. If only we heed the Lord’s invitation!

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30(NLT)


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