This time serendipity came in the form of a John Lennon quotation. I like John Lennon and the Beatles, but I was never a huge fan. The quotation from Lennon did not even come from some music. Instead it came rather innocently in some regular mailings that I receive. Often I do not even read those things. For whatever reason, this time I read it and Lennon’s words leaped out at me. I am thankful.
I also am curious, so I did some research. It seems that it is pretty dubious that Lennon ever said the words I am about to quote. But I don’t care. It is not important to me that they be from him…or anyone else famous. I also find some folks online don’t like the sentiment in the quotation. But I don’t care about that either! Let’s see what he reputedly said.
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down, ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” These words may not be profound, but I find them interesting and worth giving some reflection.
When I was five, I am not sure what my mother told me. If she told me anything like this, it did not register. I don’t remember. My guess is she did not get into philosophy when I was five. I also don’t remember my dad telling me anything like this. I do remember him telling me always to thank people when they gave me something, helped me or were nice. That may not be the key to life, but it has been an important lesson I learned very well.
I would like to pick out two features of the quotation for reflection. The first aspect is whether happiness is, indeed, the key to life. I am sure there is a majority---perhaps a huge majority---who would say that happiness is the key to life. I could imagine John Lennon’s mother saying that. But personally, I am less sure happiness is the key to life.
I am not against happiness. In fact, I like very much to be happy. Somehow I don’t think happiness has staying power. It is more momentary---more episodic. Happiness comes and goes. It is like a good laugh. I love a good laugh. But it does not last. So I am not really sure happiness can be the key to life. If not happiness, then what is the key to life?
I doubt there is one agreed-upon answer to this. But for me, the key to happiness has to be love. Love is a powerful emotion. However, it is more than an emotion. It is a state of being. It is an attitude. It is a commitment and, finally, a way of life. Love has depth and breadth in a way that happiness does not have. Love is both practical and luxurious. The greatest of all is love.
The second aspect of the quotation for reflection has to do with understanding life. I don’t know about John Lennon, but I surely did not understand life at age five. I am not sure I yet understand life! But I’m working on it. The one thing I do understand about life is that love is the key. And if happiness happens, that is very good.
One way I try to approach the issue of understanding life is to differentiate “life” from “existence.” If you have a heart beating in your chest, if you take food, etc., you exist. Existence is basic. It is good, but not valuable. Existence is possibility without realization. It is potential without any profundity. Understanding life surely means more than existence.
To begin to understand life means we realize that we exist, but we set forth to come to terms with the fact that we are valuable. This happens many ways. I may realize that I am a child of God and that God loves me. That makes me valuable. I may begin to love others. I make them valuable. To do these kinds of things actualizes the possibilities I bring to life.
To understand life is to engage life in such a way that I develop my potentiality. Every one of us has the potential to be profoundly human and profoundly spiritual. We have the profundity of existing in the image of God. And we can develop the potential to become God-like. We can love and grow that love into compassion for all those in the world with less than we have.
The key to life: love, compassion and becoming like God. That’s what I understand.