A question which came up in Kiskilili’s latest thread on feminism (and has also arisen in a number of other conversations) is that of the relationship between happiness and belief. Should we believe the things which make us the happiest? Does it make any sense for a person to believe something which leaves her feeling unhappy and frustrated? I think these are interesting questions, and I’d like explore them a little more.
Much of my current academic work is with the role of narrative in human life, the stories we use to make sense of the world and of who we are. A difficult question which often arises in connection with this subject is that of how to judge between competing narratives which could possibly account for the same situation. For example, say I’ve just suffered a serious personal setback. Depending on the narrative framework I use to understand it, I might see it as divine punishment for past sin, a trial engineered by God to help me grow, a random happening of life, etc. On what basis do I opt for one of these narratives over the others?
Some argue that this decision is best made using pragmatic criteria. They ask, what will be the effects of accepting narrative x versus narrative y, and advocate adopting the one which “works best.” I think there’s something to be said for this approach; I certainly can see the value of adopting narratives which enable me to see my life in a positive way. However, I think problems arise if this is your only criterion. A woman in an abusive marriage might feel happier if she holds on to the story that her husband is behaving in hurtful ways out of love for her– yet I doubt that many would argue that she should resist challenging that narrative because doing so would cause her a fair amount of personal anguish. To give another example, it would make me much happier to believe that the U.S. government knows what it’s doing in Iraq, but that alone isn’t enough to persuade me to accept that story.
My view is that the best narrative is not necessarily the one which makes you the happiest (though I’m not opposed to giving some thought to that question), but rather the one which most plausibly accounts for the data you have. These aren’t necessarily the tidiest ones– it’s often a temptation, I think, to overlook difficult or contradictory data in the desire for a simple, clear story. But I find that narratives are most persuasive when they’re able to integrate a wide variety of experience, rather than focusing selectively on either positive or negative events.
I do recognize the inevitable subjectivity involved in making these kinds of judgments. In thinking about some aspect of the Church, I might find one particular narrative to be the most compelling, while another person finds a quite different narrative to be far more plausible. But when disagreements arise as to which is the preferable story, I’m wary of appeals to happiness as a way of judging between the two. I admit that I have a bit of a gloomy streak, but I’m not a feminist because I have some twisted desire to believe narratives which make me miserable. Rather, I believe what I do because I think it best makes sense of my experience.
I will say that my belief in Christianity and in the goodness of God causes me to hope that eschatologically, happiness and truth will have some connection. However, in the context of our finite, fallen world, I think we need to be careful about too closely conflating the two.
- 26 November 2006