Monday, November 13, 2006

The best key to happiness

Beauty, unaccompanied by virtue, is as a flower without perfume.
- French proverb

Set aside the facts that we can't agree on the meaning of "beauty," "virtue" is an almost forgotten word about a concept that interests few people and proverbs are derided by many as cutesy sayings that were better suited to biblical times. Do we still have something to work with?

Over the past century we have associated the concepts of goodness and of people being good with religion, with moral righteousness. Over the same period, major organized religions have disgraced themselves on the public stage, be it with encouraging suicide bombing, genocide, supporting cruel dictators or pedophilia. Or just plain lying.

We have done what almost no other animal on earth would do. We made our bed then soiled it with our own feces.

I would make the point that goodness is not associated with religion so much as it has been religion that has associated itself with (even usurped authority for) goodness or morality.

Every society on the planet has similar concepts of goodness, even though we may practise it differently from each other in terms of ritual, costumes and services. In many cases it may be called religion, but in others it's just the way that people have of living together in harmony and good health.

Getting back to the quote, what can we say is beautiful? There are two kinds of beauty, the transient and the perpetual. Human beauty in the physical sense is transient. When it goes, the beautiful person had better have some characteristics and skills as backups or their life will be tragic thereafter.

Nature is not just beautiful, but eternal. A sunset can be beautiful, but short lived. Yet sunsets return every day, as do sunrises. Everything in nature changes, but in doing so it establishes a new form of beauty.

Many people find pictures of the Sahara Desert beautiful. The Sahara (the name comes from the Arabic word for desert) was once a verdant region of lakes, which are always objects of beautiful pictures. (In fact, the Sahara still has its lakes, but they are far below ground level now. It's the world's largest freshwater lake down there.) Once beautiful as lakes, now beautiful as desert.

The most important characteristic of humans that is as eternal as we can get it is our goodness. It lasts a lifetime and is as valuable on the day we die as when we first adopted it. Goodness is our beauty, our virtue, our link with nature and eternity.

"A flower without perfume?" Oh, there are such flowers. They have been bred by humans for their beauty, with no regard for their lack of perfume. Now fewer people than in the past century buy flowers, except for funerals and weddings. The analogy fits too well.

There is abundant evidence that the happiest people on earth hold the lion's share of goodness within them. Dishonest and hurtful people are never happy, no matter how much they parade their possessions before us and laugh in our faces. (Forgive them, hubris is all they have to hold onto.)

I have not pointed you to beauty after all, but to happiness through goodness. And, maybe, to eternal life.

You take it from here.

Bill Allin
'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' striving to give us the keys to eternity.
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