Chapel Talk: Simply, appreciation.

English teacher Matt Roach reflects in a chapel talk on Moses, Gatsby and how to be truly happy.

Before I begin, I should probably point out that part of my talk to today is going to sound a little anti-God—God, not in a general sense but specifically the God presented in the Books of the Torah or, if you prefer, the Old Testament.

And the reason I say this and tell you that I don’t really mean this talk to come off like that, up front, is that when I was in high school, one of my classmates gave a chapel talk. And her talk was supposed to be about how God didn’t exist. And so she totally goes for it, and really lays the whole case out, and she gets to the end, and she’s like, “And that’s why God. Does not. Exi—“ and right there, on the pulpit, she fainted. Truly. She did. Just—boom. Right down.

And somehow, the chaplain was suddenly #blessed with superhuman speed, and he somehow ran and caught her before she crashed to the ground. And ever since then, even though I’m not particularly religious, I’ve been mindful to not be too sure of myself. Because that was like, something.
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ANYWAY. Here’s my slightly anti-God thought. Be ready to catch me if I fall.

This spring break, my mom and I flew a long way to visit Hadley, my 23 year old sister, who is a teacher in Jordan. Jordan is a desert country in the Middle East, and it is breathtakingly beautiful.

A day after we arrived, we went on a trip to Mount Nebo, the place where Moses is said to have died.

It was rocky, sandy terrain. It felt like Holy Land. Below us, the Dead Sea. Creepily still, fully empty; no vegetation in sight. The Lumineers are right: You can’t sink in the Dead Sea; its minerals and magic hold you above the surface. Below us, it looked like a murky puddle. All around us, there were sheer cliffs and holy emptiness. Just down the mountain, across the way, was Israel: I could see Bethlehem, and the faint outline of Jerusalem through the haze.

We wandered around and found a rocky outcropping that was perfect for sitting—and for taking pictures of us sitting and looking out over the valley. Which, Mr. Ebbott would point out, is probably one of the top three white person things to post on Facebook. I would say it’s: pictures of people looking out over a view, shots of organic food, and close-ups of ugly babies.

So anyway, I was sitting there, gazing down at the Promised Land, and thinking about how amazing it was that Moses had died just about right here thousands of years ago, and how unfair that was to Moses.

Basically, after Moses followed God’s orders for about 40 years, breaking his people out of slavery in Egypt, getting through the Red Sea, getting handed the 10 Commandments, and leading his tribe around the wilderness in search of Israel, God killed him just before he reached the Promised Land. And the reason God killed him was that Moses had not followed his orders 1 time.

Years earlier, God had ordered Moses to bring water out of a rock by speaking to it. Moses, who was maybe a little tired or something, instead hit the rock with his staff; and when the water came out, he basically took credit for it instead of citing God. As a result, God said, Moses would never set foot in the holy land he had been working towards.

Now, as I sat on Mount Nebo and thought of this story, I was thinking, “Seriously, God? The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime here. Seems way too harsh. God was kind of being unreasonable.

But then a thought hit me: maybe God was actually doing Moses a favor, in a way.

Think about it: Moses had been craving this Holy Land for 80 years. He had gone through some horrible times, had wandered through barren desert and been completely stressed out for most of his life—all in the singular pursuit of this Promised Land. And so I think that when he got there, it would have, inevitably, have been a HUGE disappointment. Sure, I suppose that initially getting there would have been great, but within a day or two, my guess is that he would have looked around and been like,

“So...more land. A little bit better than other land I’ve seen. Awesome.”

And so in having him die right there, within sight of the very thing he had sought, was perhaps a way of preserving Moses’ greatest moment of the happiness: the sensation of a job nearly complete, and the hope that this land would be as great as he always thought it was.  

Because while we may think that the fulfillment of goals is the key to happiness, I’m going to suggest you in this talk that that’s not actually true.

As Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “The realization of desire gives you only a grain of the mountain of happiness you expect it to. People make an eternal error in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires.”

Happiness isn’t about getting what you want. Somehow. Even though everything in our American lives tells us that it is.

If you get a new phone, you think, you’ll be happy. If you get a hotter girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ll be happy. If you get a cooler car or a better house or get a better body or use this App or get into this college or get this grade or win this game or get asked to prom this way or get this many likes or retweets or get that dress or those shoes or that SAT score or that athletic scholarship or that end of year award. You think you’ll be happy.

Of course, all of those things are great. I don’t want to dismiss them. But they are ultimately temporary, in terms of their effect on your happiness.

 My point is that, counter intuitively, the result is not as important as the striving, and the hope, and the gratitude for the opportunity. These are the actually keys to happiness.

If you don’t believe me, that’s fine. I certainly would not have believed me at 18, and most days, I have to remind myself of this truth because of our culture’s fixation on its opposite.

But let me tell you three more stories to show you what I mean.

 There was once a singer and guitar player named Rodriguez—to students who’ve heard me tell this story in class, I apologize. But actually, I don’t, because this story is worth repeating.

 Anyway, Rodriguez played small bars and clubs in Detroit in the 1960s. He was an awesome musician—according to one talent scout who saw him, he was maybe the best songwriter in the country, right alongside Bob Dylan. He put out two records, but for whatever reason, they didn’t sell at all, and he disappeared from public view.  

 A couple decades later, some of his records found their way to South Africa. And people in South Africa LOVED this music. Rodriguez’s music became HUGE there. People figured he was a Rock Star on par with the Beatles or Rolling Stones or Michael Jackson, and thousands of them knew his songs by heart.

But because the rights to his songs had been sold away, Rodriguez himself was completely unaware of his own popularity.

Meanwhile, there were was a story, in South Africa, that, fed up with stardom and injustice, Rodriguez had doused himself in gasoline at a concert, lit himself on fire, and died.

But there was one problem with this story: it wasn’t true. Instead, Rodriguez was living in a ghetto near Detroit.  But he didn’t know of his popularity in South Africa. He had a wood stove. He had worked for thirty years as a day laborer—outside, in the blueblack cold. He was, by any American standard, incredibly poor.

When a few obsessive South Africans discovered these facts, they, along with Rodriguez’s daughter, convinced him to come to South Africa to play a concert. He agreed. And when he got there, expecting to see about 30 people who knew him, he was instead confronted by thousands and thousands of screaming fans. They gave him a 10 minute standing ovation when he appeared on stage; it was like he’d risen from the dead. They knew all the words to his songs, and were in tears and ecstasy at the sight of him. His career has been revived, and there was a recent film about him called “Searching For Sugarman” which won tons of awards. His recent tours have made millions of dollars.

Unreal story, right?

But as Americans—or, maybe just as normal human beings—we tend to focus on the ending. We focus on the success, and the money and we think: man, happy ending. So great he finally broke through.

But Rodriguez doesn’t think that way at all. He finally retired from his laboring to focus on music, but the fundamentals of his life have not changed. He still lives in the same house. He doesn’t have a computer. He has no car. He’s donating all of his money to charity. When the documentary about him won an Oscar, he didn’t go to the ceremony—and he was asleep when he won: "We just came back from South Africa and I was tired," he said. “Besides, I don’t have a tv.”

While he’s grateful for his, his happiness does not seem to have changed much. He was happy before, and he’s happy now.

Think about that: He was a genius of a musician, and he was anonymous. You might even say he was totally screwed over by the record industry. He lived in poverty, and had a physically brutal job, all while his music was giving joy and inspiration to millions of people. And yet, he wasn’t bitter or wanting. He worked hard, got a degree in philosophy, raised a family, and lived a happy life.

And so when he finally got the “success” we all think he must have craved, yeah he took advantage of the opportunity, but did not let the recognition and money define his self-worth.  

He didn’t need to; he was already the person he wanted to be.

Story #3 is from literature, and has to do with love.

You may remember the Great Gatsby: you may, like me, be psyched to see the movie version in a couple weeks.

Gatsby, of course, is obsessed with a girl named Daisy. He stalks her, and initiates sketchy conversations with people who know her. He makes millions of dollars and buys a house a lots of nice shirts. And yet, when he finally sees her, Fitzgerald writes: “There must have been moments…when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of Gatsby’s illusion.” She can’t measure up to the fantasy.

Gatsby, like Moses, might have been better off seeing—but never actually getting with Daisy again.
Of course, Fitzgerald kills him just as God killed Moses; the difference is that Gatsby dies knowing that the Promised Land isn’t all that great, and besides, other people will fight you for it.

This idea might seem ridiculous to you guys. Of course you want the girl or the guy; of course you want to reach the Promised Land. Without these goals, why are we even alive?

My guess is that some of you will leave this talk thinking that I’m telling you not to strive for excellence. That I’m advocating a less ambitious approach.

But that’s not what I’m saying.

I’m suggesting, instead, that your ambition should be fueled by your own understanding of your work and life. You can’t let external things determine your happiness, because they won’t change the person you are, day in and day out. Even if you are obsessed by the desire for something, if you get it, you’ll wake up a few days later and be the same person, just with a new thing.

And while clearly, this concept is nothing new to the world, I think we are particularly vulnerable to its trap.

Facebook and twitter and instagram and texting, for example,  encourage you to think ONLY about results, presentation, the filling of wants and desires.

We see other people posting about their lives, and we assume that our envy of them is commensurate with their satisfaction.

But of course, those people are just as distracted and jealous of others as we are. It’s a perpetual cycle of jealousness, of feeling like you’re missing out and not getting enough recognition.

Even as I sat on a beautiful, holy mountain in Jordan, for example, I felt the pull of social media: I should document this, I should show off. I had to like, rigorously work at shutting that out and just enjoying the company of my mom and my sister in a holy place. (still got a sweet picture, though…).

I was at a concert last week, and the band started playing an amazing song. The guy next to me immediately took out his iPhone. As I danced and head banged, looking like an idiot but feeling like Bennett and Mixon at Firefly, this dude stood completely still, filming. When the song was over, he turned to me and said, “Oh man, that was an amazing song. It was SO hard not to move at all during it; I just had to film it. Can’t wait to post it.” As we were leaving the show an hour later, I heard him say, “Already has 200 likes!”

This is desire for satisfaction run amok; it’s a complete neglect of life itself.

We’re already nostalgic for moments that are still happening. We have taken a false notion—the idea that getting can make us happy— and sped it up, and put it in our pockets.

That amazing little bump of satisfaction you get when you see a message or update on your phone—and I can see you guys twitching to check, right now—feels great: it’s the realization of desires. But, of course, it’s just the most temporary fix, and pretty soon, you’ll be checking your phone again to fill that void. It’s fitting and ironic that the name of the cool song that plays on the Facebook Home airplane commercial is: “After you get what you want, you don’t want it.” This lifestyle can’t be good for us.

Compare this to Rodriguez’s understanding of life. His devotion to goodness, philosophy, humility, and gratitude. These are qualities that can keep a man warm through bitter cold days, and can sustain him when he feels that no one else in the world understands him.  

And so recently, I’ve been making a concerted effort to understand the things that are real and substantive. One of the reasons I love live music so much is the feeling of a shared joyous, immersive experience—without the pale filter and jealousy of the internet. Other sustaining, true joys include a rigorous workout; a sharp funny conversation with friends; a hug; a powerful class; and center-campus volleyball.

Spending time with people you care about, and who care about you; these are the real deal, and they can sound too simple or cliché because they aren’t as sexy as fame, or as immediately satisfying as Likes and Retweets and texts.

But they are ultimately the best things in life, and the things that make the difference between being dependant on outcomes or dependent on yourself.

As you listen to another awesome song by Jason Honsel and Abi and Justin, think about how you can move your life from desire to gratitude; from need to, simply, appreciation.


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