The Heart of Contentment

Graham Shearer seeks the heart of contentment, asking how the philosophy of individualism links in with the search for contentment and happiness. How do individualism and the desire for freedom link in with the human need for relationship?

The freedom to live as an individual is one of our highest values as a society. We hate the idea that we might be constrained by the rules or conventions of others. But does this lead to contentment, let alone happiness? Does individualism leave us isolated and alienated, deprived of community and relationships? Could the radical claims of Jesus hold the key to combining freedom and happiness?


The following notes are taken from Graham's talk and give some of the quotations he uses, along with relevant links. The talk last for about 25 minutes and is followed by a short Question and Answer session.

Adam Johnson received the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. His novel The Orphan Master's Son is set in North Korea.

There are four shoe styles for men in North Korea; there's one shade of lipstick for women; it's so surreal to see the sameness of everyone. I would walk through these crowds of people and they wouldn't dare to look at me. It was a risk. So it was really clear that not a single spontaneous thing could happen there. It was just too dangerous to look at the strangest human you'd ever seen. [Taken from:]

I think it's the cruelest psychological experiment ever cooked up. But by looking at people living out at the edge, you can think about things anew. And the question North Korea asks in my mind is, What does it mean to live versus to survive? Am I just going to survive, or am I going to live? Meaning, to be human, to realize one's self. [Taken from:]

There is a dark side to the idea of human beings only being individuals.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham in the film Up in the Air. He gives his philosophy of life and envisages life as a rucksack:

Make no mistake. Your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments and secrets and compromises. You don't need to carry all that weight. Why don't you set that bag down. Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime. Star crossed lovers. Monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move the faster we die. We are not swans. We are sharks.

How attractive is that philosophy of life? It cannot lead to happiness. The desire for freedom is set alongside the yearning for relationship. Freedom is not the whole story.

Lyrics from title track of Fleet Foxes' album 'Helplessness Blues'. [Fleet Foxes - 'Helplessness Blues']

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes,
Unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.

Jonathan Franzen's novel, Freedom, is an exploration of what it means to be free in the modern world.

Graham says: "… the question isn't really 'Does the philosophy of individualism lead to happiness?' … but what kind of individualism? What kind of individual do I need to be to be happy? What kind of freedom should I have in order to bring happiness?"

Jesus' analysis of freedom is given in the account of one of the eye-witnesses to the life of Jesus. John writes, in the Gospel of John 8:31-34:

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'
They answered him, 'We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?'
Jesus replied, 'Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.'

The idea of sin is unfashionable and often misunderstood. Graham explains:

What Jesus means by sin is not illicit acts, but our choice to pursue something at the centre of our lives other than the God who made us. Our lack of freedom is not a product of our inability to make choices. Our slavery is a result of our choices.

Our freedom to choose can become slavery, depending on what choices we make.

Lynyrd Skynyrd song 'Free Bird' []

But if I stay here with you, girl
Things just couldn't be the same
'Cos I'm as free as a bird now
And this bird you'll never change.
Lord knows, I can't change.
Lord help me, I can't change.

The writer David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon College provides an analysis of life in the modern world:

… here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.… If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you…. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

We enslave ourselves by what we put at the centre of our life – by what we worship.

Graham argues that: "In the end, where we feel most ourselves, where we feel most truly ourselves, truly an individual, is when we're surrounded by the people we love."

Jesus is the only person to offer true freedom: "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)

The question everyone needs to answer is this: "Is this relationship that Jesus offers, one that we want? Is it one that we will accept? Is Jesus someone we can trust, to put at the centre of our life.... What kind of freedom is most likely to lead to happiness?"

© 2015 Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) and Graham Shearer