53 years ago (November 22, 1963), John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX shortly after noon. Less than an hour earlier, C. S. Lewis had collapsed and died at his home in Oxford. The news of his death was quite overshadowed by the American tragedy.
On the day he died, the December 21st issue of The Saturday Evening Post was heading to press. In it were the last words written by Lewis for publication, a short opinion piece titled “We Have No Right to Happiness.” It could have been written today, and certainly should be read today. There are a few unsettling moments, typical of Lewis, that may cause some women to bristle (whether he was insensitive, obtuse, unaware, or misunderstood by readers is a discussion for another time). Regardless, his message is critical to this moment in human history, just as it was in 1963, just as it was in 1982 when SEP reran it, just as it will be next year, and just as it will be for the remainder of human history.
Saturday Evening Post, Dec. 21, 1963
Table of Contents, SEP, 12/21/1963
We Have No Right to Happiness (C.S. Lewis)
We Have No Right to Happiness (C.S. Lewis)
The article lays out a scenario in which person A divorces person B in order to marry person C, who has recently divorced person D. A and B were unhappy together (in A’s opinion, at least), as were C and D (per C, anyway), whereas A and C are head-over-heels-happy as a couple and obviously meant to be together.
They, in fact, have a right – perhaps even a duty – to use whatever means and follow whatever path that will help them fully realize their happiness. It isn’t just for their own good: it is for the good of humanity at large.
That’s a paraphrase, but you get the idea.
In typical Lewis fashion, he’ll have none of this weak and faulty logic.
“At first, [‘a right to happiness’] sounds to me as odd as a right to good luck. For I believe – whatever one school of moralists may say – that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.”
And yet, we do expect that many things out of our control should and ought to be in our control. And we are not afraid to say so or to manipulate the system (or the doctrine) accordingly.
Recently, several highly visible and influential people have thrown off the fetters that have thoroughly strained and prevented their happiness. Convinced of their own insight and rightness, they are encouraging others to do the same. They firmly believe (or at least firmly feel) that any moral or orthodox restraints that tamper with one’s own inclinations and one’s own sense of well-being and happiness are optional.
Morality is malleable. Orthodoxy is not obligatory.
It does not much matter at this point who is most recently blaring this message. It was someone else last week. It will be someone else next week. There will always be someone saying 1) you deserve what you desire and 2) you alone are in charge of setting your own moral compass.
We all want to define our own morality and grasp for whatever makes us happy. We truly feel we deserve this, regardless of the cost or fallout to other people. That persons B and D may not have felt the same way about the dissolution of their respective covenantal marriages as did A and C does not figure into the blissful narrative. B and D’s happiness is not of concern.
Simply put, persons A and C (in this particular Lewis scenario) are quite certain that they deserve happiness – but that B and D likely do not.
This is basically how all of humanity functions. We would like God to step in and stop all the madness, lying, greed, destruction, and other bad behavior by forcing the human race to behave as they ought (which is the only way such uniform and long-lasting good behavior would ever happen). But there is a caveat: we expect Him to leave us alone. No forced good behavior for yours truly, thank you very much.
And therein is perhaps the most obvious reason why none of us has a right to happiness, or in fact to anything at all. We are hopelessly and helplessly fallen creatures who put on a good show of righteous indignation about desiring universal peace and bliss – but we insist that our own decisions and choices be off-limits from God’s powerful control.
In classic Lewis fashion, this final article of his ends with a reminder that one misstep will logically lead to another. Demanding personal happiness in the realm of relationship, specifically sexual and romantic relationship, is merely one step towards a greater evil.
“The fatal principle [that one deserves happiness], once allowed in that department [i.e. the sexual impulse], must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skills may help us survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will – one dare not even add ‘unfortunately’ – be swept away.”
One of the most engaging and alluring voices of today is currently saying some alarming things in regards to recent life events:
“Feels like the world could use all the love it can get right now. So today, I’m going to share with you my new love … I want you to grow so comfortable in your own being, your own skin, your own knowing – that you become more interested in your own joy and freedom and integrity than in what others think about you. That you remember that you only live once, that this is not a dress rehearsal and so you must BE who you are. I want you to refuse to betray yourself. Not just for you. For ALL OF US. Because what the world needs — in order to grow, in order to relax, in order to find peace, in order to become brave — is to watch one woman at a time live her truth without asking for permission or offering explanation. The most revolutionary thing a woman can do is not explain herself.”
I would respond with this:
- The world does absolutely need all the love it can get right now. Thus has it been since the first humans said “no” to God and “yes” to their desires. That is why Jesus came as a babe, died as Savior, and was resurrected as Lord – to show us the only Love that can change life.
- My own joy, freedom, and integrity are real and significant only insofar as they flow out of Christ’s presence and strength in my life.
- We only live once on this earth; in some ways, this absolutely is a dress rehearsal for the life to come – which doesn’t mean we are allowed to carelessly muddle things or intentionally toss it all off as inconsequential or meaningless.
- If “betraying myself” means giving up my rights to me, dying to myself each day, carrying my cross, and following Jesus into the difficult places where he will lead, then I will not refuse that (as much as I may wish to). It is the only hope for transformation, growth, and discovering the depth of God’s love and grace.
- In order to grow, relax, find peace, and become brave, the world does not need to watch one woman at a time live her truth without asking for permission or offering explanation. Indeed not. Rather, the world needs to embrace the Incarnate Lord who not only lived his truth but was Truth, and who voluntarily offered himself as the only sacrifice that could bring us forgiveness, hope, and life.
- The most revolutionary thing a woman (or man) can do is to surrender herself – fully, deeply, humbly, painfully, and helplessly. Only then can she (or he) truly live.
We musn’t fret that this most recent round of false gospel is something that will finally tumble humanity beyond redemption. Every false gospel is equally dangerous.
At the same time, we mustn’t brush off this most recent round of false gospel as just another weightless and non-substantial folly. All folly is dangerous, and the closer it sounds to the True Gospel, the more dangerous it is.
Read carefully. Listen thoughtfully. Do not be seduced by sweet words that promise life and happiness but in the end deliver emptiness and despair.
We have no right to happiness – or anything else, for that matter – and yet God offers us his love and hope anyway. Grab them – and only them – and then settle in for a life that only He can provide.