Aiming For Joy
November 9th, 2017 marks the 28th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the greatest symbol of the Cold War conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union. To people of my generation, it was a defining moment in American history—the end of an oppressive, despotic political system and a new dawn of freedom in the world.
The Wall went up in the summer of 1961, which is significant, because it means that soon more time will have passed since the fall than during the Wall’s entire existence. To those of us alive for the collapse of communism, that fact is rather stunning. Our perception was that the Wall had always been with us. The realization that the “post-Wall” period is actually longer in time than the Wall’s own life somehow doesn’t seem true.
Our perception of time and significant historical events is often flawed, actually. How many of us would guess (before Googling it!) that the reign of Egyptian queen Cleopatra is closer in time to today than to the construction of the Great Pyramid? Or for those who are more interested in contemporary culture, have you considered that the debut of Grand Master Flash, one of the first successful Rap artists, is closer in time to the career of legendary Jazz founder Al Jolson than it is to that of Kanye West?
Our untutored perceptions let us down in other areas as well. We humans, for example, are notoriously poor evaluators of risk. Many are anxious about flying on a plane, yet driving a car to work every day is actually the most dangerous thing ordinary people ever do. And according to a recent survey, the number one phobia in America is “fear of public speaking.” Number three on the list was “fear of death.” Evidently, most Americans would rather die than speak in public!
Sadly, we are also frequently mistaken about that which brings joy to our lives. Many of us pursue goals and actions believing they will somehow make us happy, only to experience more and more disappointment. We buy ever bigger TVs, ever better cars, and ever more popular clothing, only to discover that very soon our friends and neighbors have something bigger, better, and even more popular.
It is a bit of a truism to say that we cannot hit the target if we do not first aim at it. When it comes to joy, the problem is not that we fail to aim. Rather, it is that we aim at the wrong thing. We live in an age that defines success largely in material terms, that is, having lots of “stuff.”
And how do you acquire sufficient stuff unless you have that perfect major and attend that ideal college? Of course to get into the right college you need to get the right standardized test score, which will require that you attend that excellent magnate school, which will require that you have the best elementary school experience, which will require that you go to the right pre-school.
Rather than aiming for the elusive and deceptive “happiness” of things, we at The Saint Constantine School seek a life well-lived. That aspiration is captured in our school motto: Virtue, Wisdom, Joy. A life of Joy results from the practice of Virtue and the search for Wisdom. Realizing these takes significant effort, and our innate perception of them almost surely is not adequate.
In fact, we believe the very heart of education is the striving after virtue and the seeking of wisdom. There is nothing wrong with earning a high SAT score and gaining admission to an elite university. These are often quite laudable. But we would all would do well to pause and ask ourselves why we seek those things and what truly brings lasting joy.