ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By
Joseph Walker

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .”

I don’t know why the moment is frozen in my memory, but it is: my fourth grade teacher, Miss Greene, is introducing us to The Declaration of Independence.  Maybe it’s because she is such a fine reader, or maybe it’s because I have a crush on her, but it feels as if every phrase shoots directly from her lips to my soul.

Especially that last phrase.  At age 10, I’m really into happiness, so learning that my headlong pursuit of it is one of my “unalienable Rights” . . . well, suddenly I like the Founding Fathers even more than the Yankees.

Not counting Mickey Mantle, of course.

Only one problem.  I had no idea what the world “unalienable” means.

“I think it means you can’t have it,” George said when I asked him about it during recess.

My heart sank.  But then I thought about it.  “I don’t think that’s right, George,” I said.  “Why would those guys get excited about rights they can’t have?  It doesn’t make sense.”

So I went to the smartest person I knew: JoAnn.

“Well,” she pondered, “I know `alien’ means someone from another planet, so `unalienable’ must mean something you can’t bring in from outer space.”

She seemed to know what she was talking about even though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it had to do with anything.  Which is why I decided to summon my courage and ask Miss Greene (not that she was scary or anything – it was just . . . you know, that crush thing).

“It’s a very good question, Joe,” she said.  “Let’s go to the dictionary to find out.”

Holy cow!  Why didn’t I think of that?

Soon I learned that an “unalienable Right” cannot be “surrendered or transferred.”  Now, that was more like it.  I had the right to pursue Happiness, and no one could take it from me.

No one, that is, except Mom.

“Good,” she said when I announced my intention to devote the rest of my life to my “unalienable Right” to pursue happiness.  “Now go clean your room.”

Somehow this wasn’t working.  Where were the days of frivolity, where breakfast was pie and root beer and “work” was getting up to change the channel?  Where were the 10-speed bicycles?  These were the things I was sure I needed to be happy.  And Happiness was my Right.

I’ve learned a lot about happiness since then – sometimes by getting what I wanted.  I had a job where I had to watch TV eight hours a day and it became a chore.  I had a 10-speed and the chain kept falling off.  I had pie and root beer for breakfast once.  It made me sick.

Mostly, I’ve learned that happiness isn’t a possession.  You can’t buy it, and no one can give it to you.  It’s a feeling, and it usually involves things like family, peace, security, love and service.  It doesn’t always come easily, but it is always worthwhile.

And I think that’s what the signers of The Declaration of Independence had in mind when they affirmed humanity’s God-given right to “the pursuit of Happiness.”  They weren’t talking about momentary pleasures; they were talking about long-term, whole-souled, capital-H-type Happiness.  It isn’t something you can touch, but something you feel.  It isn’t something you get, but something you are.  It isn’t a lifestyle, it’s a way of life.

But it IS something you have to pursue.  Only the journey won’t take you far and wide – it will take you deep within yourself.   You may not rack up any frequent flier miles, but you will return with a much grander bonus: peace, contentment and Happiness.

After all, it’s your “unalienable Right.”

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— © Joseph Walker

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