Goodness, I could feel totally inadequate if I tried to follow all the New Year’s advice on looking younger, stronger, slimmer and happier (as well as better paid).
Fitness and fashion liftouts and online lifestyle advice tell me to combat the stress and guilt of overindulgence at Christmas and new year by cultivating mindfulness and doing a bit of meditation as well.
Belief in our own powers to change our lives for the better is where we need to be.
Belief in God is seen as old fashioned and frankly superstitious in our very secular age. We have outgrown the need for religion but belief in ME is considered sophisticated and intelligent. We don’t pray but we find truth within ourselves, which is sort of like saying that we are gods.
Except….. belief in our own powers to live a good life did not achieve much in 2017 or 16. I still lose my temper and eat too much. And really, is life all about me? When did self sacrifice and patient contentment get thrown away!
Our desire for happiness versus uncertainty about how to get it, are not new to the 21st century. In biblical times, Paul visited Athens, the centre of philosophical thought and wisdom at the time. He saw all sorts of gods being worshipped and he spoke with agnostic philosophers too (see Acts Chapter 18). Some of them were Epicureans, named after Epicurus, who taught that happiness should be the main goal in life. Others were Stoics, who followed a teacher called Zeno, who taught that self-control was the answer and that we should follow our conscience. But more than anything, the people of Athens loved to hear and talk about anything new.
Sounds a little bit like our times – seeking happiness and wellness over here with a trip to the spa while others worship the self control needed for killer abs or a 3 hour time in the marathon. Interestingly, the response to Paul telling the people about the new God, Jesus, was also very modern: some laughed, some believed, some wanted to keep discussing.
An obvious problem with following after my own happiness is what do I do if your ‘happiness’ collides with mine or if my conscience conveniently recommends what is best for me over and above what is best for you?
These are serious and weighty questions for the new year and somehow relying on wellness or secular wisdom does not fill me with hope.
Russell Brand is not someone I would normally go to for life advice, but he is no longer a wild drug addict since he went into recovery fifteen years ago. He says in his new book, Addictions, that we need to look to God, or a higher power (as the AA’s 12 step program names it). In the past, Brand has been a poster boy for secular humanism, but interviewed recently, Brand said, “I think we’ve been tricked into not believing in God. Life is now measured out, to paraphrase TS Eliot, in coffee spoons. This is it. Are you waiting for a damascene conversion? Not to a faith but to become yourself?”
We have rushed to dismiss religion because we see its excesses and mistakes. But I still admire the discoveries of science despite the errors and fraudulent experiments of some scientists; and I still admire democracy despite the election results that have given us Donald Trump or Jacob Zuma. God is still God, even when some people do awful things in his name. So Brand may be right when he says we have been tricked into converting away from God to a much smaller and defective god – ourselves.
I want to be the best-self I can be in 2018, but by my-self I cannot have all the answers. The Greeks in Athens who asked Paul about ‘God’ could also see that man-made guidelines to self-fulfilment through happiness or self-denial were not quite the real deal. I think God is and he has promised total transformation in mind, spirit and body!
Amanda Jackson is WEA's Associate Secretary General for Church in Community and also serves as Executive Director of WEA's Women's Commission. You can read her latest blog at amandaadvocates.blog