How Do We Survive So Much Change?

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

Do you feel weary? Tired of all the many, many bumps in the road? Maybe your weariness displays as anger. You snap at your children, friends, random people because “too much!” Maybe I am just talking about myself.

I am sure you have your litany of what has been too much, as do I. Some of us let the weight of it all burden our shoulders, our backs with a heaviness that just won’t go away. We have our methods of self-soothing, of coping. Yoga, or exercise programs, or adjusting our diet. Or maybe hidden bottles, our pills and potions, that hopefully bring on deep, yet restless sleep. Our wishing it wasn’t this way, or in our real lives, falling deep into the fantasy world offered by entertainment systems for relief.

It is all happening so fast: inflation, climate disasters, political rancor, wars of aggression, population displacements, the earth shifting and moving beneath our homes, pandemics, and illnesses of every kind.  How will we survive so much change? 

Perhaps we can turn to the social sciences for an answer. 

The 2022 World Happiness Report tells us that the people living in Finland, Denmark, and Iceland report the highest levels of happiness in the world. This report, in its tenth edition, is produced by the UN Sustainable Development Network, and keeps putting Finland at the top.

Again for 2022, it is the Nordic countries that report being happiest. It doesn’t necessarily mean one could go there and see them smiling or laughing way more frequently than anywhere else. Has anyone been to the Nordic countries recently? I haven’t, but I hear they have a very somber expression and they are cold and huddled up and generally stay to themselves. The study responsibile for these rankings does not pay any attention to outward expressions of joy. Instead, the report relies on polls. They ask respondents to imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero to 10. The top rung (10) represents the best possible life for you, while the bottom rung (zero) represents the worst. The survey participants are instructed to report the number on the ladder rung that corresponds to the step where they currently stand. In other words, you are understood as “happy” if your actual life circumstances approximate your highest expectations.

It is by this measure that Nordic countries rank as the highest in happiness, year after year. It is true that they have, compared with most other countries, very good living circumstances. The rates of poverty, homelessness, and other forms of material deprivation are as low as they get. They have universal and free access to world-class education and health care; parental leave is generous and paid vacations are long.

There is also a prevalent social norm that governs their expectations. It comes partially from their Lutheran heritage. Some say this norm unites the Nordic countries in their embrace of curbed aspirations. The Law of Jante, which is from a 1930s fictionalized account of Nordic social norms, puts it this way: “You’re not to think you are anything special; you’re not to imagine yourself better than we are; you’re not to think you are good at anything,” and so on; there are 11 statements like these! The Nordic ethos stands in particularly stark contrast to the one found in American culture. As characterized by the sociologist Robert K. Merton also in the 1930s, American culture is defined by an “extreme emphasis upon the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of success,” and a sign of happiness. In the Nordic countries, it is comfortable sameness that translates as “happiness.”

Another way to think of it is that for Americans, the ladder of success is very tall. In the Nordic countries, the ladder is fairly short.     

The UN report writers credited the strong feelings of the citizens of Finland regarding communal support and mutual trust as helping Finland secure the #1 ranking for four years in a row as the top place to be happy. 

I am not sure I would define having the basic necessities always accessible as my “happy place.” But maybe if I were in Finland, I would! 

There is a Scandinavian word that captures the (not so secret) ingredient in Nordic cultural that might be called “happiness.” That is the word lagom, which can be translated as “just the right amount,” neither too much nor too little. Lagom captures the essence of the Nordic embracement of modesty and a rejection of excess. Lagom encourages contentment with life’s bare necessities. It is as if you already have those, then you have nothing to complain about. Therefore, you are happy.

I am not sure I would define having that as my happy place. Would you?

It seems to me that satisfaction with one’s life needs to include joy, love, and meaningful engagement with the people around you; and that evidence of happiness is found in smiling, laughing and being joyful with each other is important!

You can be in terrible circumstance with an uneven combo platter of too much and not enough and still be joyful, still be “happy.”

For me, and perhaps for all of us, it seems to me that the key to living happy is to focus on the present moment, not on a ladder of success, but on the circle of life, with love at the center. We all don’t have to be the same. Yes, of course it is important for one’s basic needs to be met.

Being happy involves more than that. How do you get happy? 

I read an article about a woman from Finland who has chosen to live in America. There is an expression in Finland that means “pants-drunk.” She says that people in Finland take their pants off and get drunk in the evening (alone) and that’s why they are so happy, and she is not sure she wants to go back to that. Pants-drunk is not the way to happiness for her!

For me, I know that being happy is about letting go of control. For me that isn’t easy at all. I get so frustrated when I cannot control my environment. I can’t find a quiet space  (seven total folks in my home), an orderly space (five are children), a clean space (clean it up, they mess it up, repeat, repeat). I am trying to maintain control all the time.

I have to quiet my inner demand for things that give me have a sense of control, and instead just go with the flow. Laugh, smile, hug, and feel joy. I can let myself do that occasionally. I’d like to do that more.

I haven’t until recently learned to identify doing that, staying in the present, allowing feelings to flow, as a form of resistance. 

It is resistance. And that ability to feel joy, even in grinding/exhausting circumstances, is at the core of what spiritual resilience is all about.

My theological teachers (there have been many) have taught me the meaning and purpose of life; have always said in one way or another that the way to be is to be as fully human as possible. What does that mean? It means to not cut yourself off from pleasure, from joy, from expressing yourself, from living in the center of your own life; making the circle of your life as big as you want it to be.

Like the boy that found himself at the crowded refugee center, missing the sights and sounds of the place that had been his home. When told that he was very resilient, he heard that he was strong, able to recover quickly from difficult experiences. 

He did those five backward flips, surprising himself (at the Circus School there).  I am sure he felt joy.

That is what this community is for: a place where together, with love at the center, we recover and continue, with hope and with joy.

It is not about achieving a certain rung on the ladder of success. It is not about sameness, or wanting security. It is about being fully human, everything that we can be in the present, focused on the present.

Of course, we listen to the past. Of course, we set high expectations for the future. But what we need to do best, what we need to learn most, is to be present in the present—with ourselves, with each other, always bringing love to the center.

I may be old, but I am learning from the laughter in my house. Thank goodness for four-year-olds!

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