“The Pursuit of Happiness” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
On this Independence Day, we remember the foundational guarantee of our right to “the pursuit of happiness.” Digging a little deeper, where are we looking? What are we finding? Maybe it’s time to change our focus, and look in places we haven’t considered.
When available, a revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings, and songs from this week’s service are also provided below.
Community Circles – Are you left with questions after a talk, or did an idea so resonate with you that you want to explore it further? In our Community Circles, we build relationships with others, share ideas and insights, and support each other as we apply these principles in our daily lives.
Wednesday July 7, 7:00 – 8:30 pm EDT. Community Circle Zoom Meeting/Discussion: This week we’re going to talk about freedom, happiness, and the shape of our new and emerging national life. It’s going to be a great discussion, and we’d love to have your ideas! Please join us on the Zoom link below. I look forward to seeing you!
See you at 7!
Peace be to this gathering and this moment. Here, beyond the confusion and rush of this world, may we glimpse new visions and renew weary faith. Here through quiet meditation, joyful communion and wisdom shared may we know the source of all being, that which is being itself, which we have named God, Elohim, Brahman, Allah, Ahura Mazda, Wakan Tanka, Olorun, and more. May we come to know the One, in which we live and move and have our being.
And so, in all the many names of God, we say Amen.
An Independence Day Prayer
God of all nations and ours,
As we ask the long-posed question, “does that star spangled banner yet wave/ o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” help us make this land free:
free from hatred of religious minorities,
free from exploitation of laborers,
free from damage to the land and water so long cared for by our indigenous brothers and sisters,
free from contempt for immigrants who invest in this nation’s thriving,
free from the new slavery of a prison system that tears apart so many Black and Brown families.
And help us be brave:
brave in the face of religious and racial violence,
brave in contrast to the cowardice that would pit us against each other based on race or class,
brave in order to care for refugees of all sorts as our scriptures call us to do,
brave in order to do your will even when doing so is unpopular, or difficult.
After all, our founding fathers were not very popular with the British.
God, even as we celebrate the blessings of this nation, help us be humble enough to know that you really are the God of all nations, and that you do not honor human-made boundaries but honor the divinity and dignity of each person whom you made in your own image. May we remember that as we go forward on this day.
~ Reverend Sandhya Rani Jha of the Oakland Peace Center, Oakland, CA (with modification)
The Pursuit of Happiness
Welcome! Happy Fourth of July – Independence Day. I hope you have a wonderful and safe one.
I’d like to spend some time talking about one of the rights guaranteed to us in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness. Note that we’re not guaranteed happiness – that’s a lift even our founders couldn’t manage. No, we have the right to the pursuit of happiness. So, as we pursue it, where do we find it?
. . . the Declaration of Independence articulates the individual rights our founders saw as our natural, God given rights . . .
In its second paragraph, the Declaration of Independence articulates the individual rights our founders saw as our natural, God given rights – the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We bind all these rights up, we envision all these rights together, in the notion of freedom, of independence. Every July 4, we celebrate the idea that we are an independent people, individually and collectively.
Since July of 1776, we have identified other rights arising from these – the right to privacy, to marry, the right to travel – an entire host of specific individual rights which we’ve identified as our society evolves. Our understanding of happiness, and liberty, is not the same as it was 240 years ago. However, the entire sweep of the rights we later identified, and continue to identify, arise from these fundamental truths about who we are, individually and as a national community.
. . . these individual rights, endowed by our Creator, are “unalienable Rights.”
The Declaration also stated outright – an amazing contention for the time – that these individual rights, endowed by our Creator, are “unalienable Rights.” This is a term that thrills the hearts of lawyers, but may be meaningless to some of the rest of us. Remember that Thomas Jefferson was a lawyer.
But it is important, from a civic and even a spiritual perspective. It means that these are rights which no one can take away from you. They cannot be alienated from you.
Not only can they not be taken, but you cannot give them away even if you wanted to. That is what “unalienable” means – they are bound to you, for always.
Our lives together, in principle if not always in practice, are not based on power . . . but on the inherent dignity and freedom of each one of us.
What a powerful statement in a political document – what a recognition of these fundamental principles about the nature of our humanity, and the basis for our living together in civic community. Our lives together, in principle if not always in practice, are not based on power, on title or heritage, or on economic means, but on the inherent dignity and freedom of each one of us. We don’t always get it right, for sure, but we keep trying, with those principles as our true north.
Abraham Lincoln saw the Declaration as a moral statement, a call to action, not just a political document. He once pointed out that the Declaration of Independence could have established national independence without the second paragraph. There was no need to mention human rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As he said, “The assertion that all men are created equal was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” As he saw it, the Founders set out a timeless truth “for future use.” It may have been a political statement, yet it was also a declaration of who we are as human beings. He said:
“It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the motherland; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
. . . ideals of liberty, equality, the belief in rational and free inquiry in place of superstitious orthodoxy, came to the fore.
The courageous men and women who risked everything – their fortunes, reputations, and very lives, to travel the road toward independence were students of the Enlightenment, that age in which ideals of liberty, equality, the belief in rational and free inquiry in place of superstitious orthodoxy, came to the fore.
These revolutionaries had a new and different belief in who they were, in who they had a right to be. They gave that ideal to their posterity, otherwise known as us. They wanted us to know that is who we are, as well, and so they envisioned and created a system of government that they hoped would promote these values in our civic life.
Did they fall short in practice? We know they did, often and egregiously. We still struggle with those legacies, of racism, sexism, and oppression of all those seen as “other.” But, that doesn’t dilute the power of the vision they left us.
. . . there is undoubtedly a spiritual aspect to this question, and to this undertaking.
Others stepped in later to articulate the spiritual aspect to this energy of independence. When you consider who you are, what rights you are given by nature, or God, or whatever image you use, there is undoubtedly a spiritual aspect to this question, and to this undertaking.
About sixty years after the Declaration, on July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson stood in front of the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity school. He spoke to six graduates (there were seven, but one didn’t attend), their families and the faculty. His Divinity School address, even though it was given to so few, is one of the foundational documents of American New Thought philosophy.
God . . . cannot be defined by the human institutions we create.
At that point in his life, Emerson was a former Unitarian minister – he had defrocked himself after his study of Eastern religions convinced him that Christianity was not the sole revelation. He was a leader of the Transcendentalist movement, teaching that God was found in nature and in each individual, and cannot be defined by the human institutions we create.
On that day, he spoke of the power of each of us to experience the divine, without external help or guidance. In his Divinity School Address, he urged the graduates to “go alone… to refuse the good models, even those that are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”
He spoke of an “indwelling supreme spirit” and of a vision, as “similar to that of the Eastern sages, where we are neither fallen nor depraved, and where Divinity incarnates at every instant, not just once in the distant past.” He reminded them that “God is, not was.” In them, as them. As Yahweh said to Moses from the burning bush “I AM” – an ever present, ever creating reality.
Emerson understood that, in truth, he was of Spirit. That was a profound statement, and a revolutionary one, for that time. The graduates loved his speech but the powers that be, not so much. He was banned by Harvard for over 20 years.
. . . so are we invited to take a new form, driven only by what Spirit within calls us to be.
So, just as Emerson declared our freedom to find our own spiritual path, just as the colonies threw off the yoke of what it had been – so are we invited to take a new form, driven only by what Spirit within calls us to be.
This is especially true right now, for us individually and collectively, as we emerge from the past year and a half to a new and different world. We have such an opportunity, right now, to imagine how we want our new fabric of relationships to look like, and how we individually can seek and find what fulfills us. This year of Covid has been, among many other things, an invitation to reset and re-evaluate – to ask ourselves what makes us free? What makes us happy?
So this is where I started thinking about independence, liberty, and happiness. It occurred to me that all these ideas are mixed up together, and we conflate our happiness with our current notions of personal liberty. I kept having the feeling we were getting it backwards.
Does my happiness depend on my ability to go it alone?
Does my happiness depend on my ability to go it alone, as long as you stay out of my way? Does it? The older I get, the more I believe that it does not, even though that idea is so embedded in our national psyche.
We hear so much about our personal freedoms nowadays, don’t we? We work so hard to identify and safeguard our rights to take a range of actions, no matter the impact on others. We’ve seen it lately in the issue of masks – a lot of strong feelings on that. I declare my right not to provide you services if I don’t approve of your religion, or your lifestyle. My right not to have my children vaccinated against childhood disease.
Each one of the rights we so fiercely defend is bound up in the concept of our freedom. It was the Continental Marines back in 1775 who first flew the flag that proclaimed “Don’t Tread on Me” and so many still point to that sentiment today as the ultimate expression of what it means to be an American.
. . . we also have the chance to reconsider our idea of collective and individual happiness.
But, just as we, as a people, continue to re-interpret our Constitution and the protections it affords to us in an evolving society, we also have the chance to reconsider our idea of collective and individual happiness. It seems to be time for us – and the last year has surely been an invitation for us – to look for a more (dare I say it) collective view of community well-being, and of our individual happiness. Up to now, we’ve conceived of the American community flourishing, and ourselves flourishing individually, when every individual is out for him or herself.
At least in the realm of personal fulfillment, independence is overrated. We are not independent at all. We treasure being politically independent, but that’s another thing. I can vote for whom I like, believe whatever political philosophy appeals to me. But we turn this political guarantee into a philosophy of personal autonomy on steroids.
So much that we value about ourselves, about our lives, is expressed only in relationship.
Look at it this way. So much that we value about ourselves, about our lives, is expressed only in relationship. If I am a healer there must be someone I can heal. If I am a singer or a musician there must be someone who will listen. If I am a business mogul, there must be somebody who wants to buy whatever it is I’m selling. We are so not independent.
The fact that we need community to flourish is a surprise to no one. Our search for community remains so strong because on a visceral and unconscious level we know we are already connected. It’s who we are – we are trying to complete that connection that makes us whole. Like an electrical circuit – we are alive when we are connected.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about these connections that bind us. He wrote:
“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
He spoke of the Beloved community, community representing the love of God in lived reality. Community reflects the divine found and experienced in relationship.
This web of mutuality supports us, teaches us and awakens us
This web of mutuality supports us, teaches us and awakens us. It is through this web of mutuality in which we build those qualities, those essential human virtues, that make us better people and that will make our world a richer and kinder place.
And don’t we know that now, after this Covid virus has taken us to school for the past year and a half on how connected we all are. The virus is not shy at all about demonstrating how my actions affect you profoundly.
. . . let’s ask ourselves what it is we really seek.
So, instead of assuming it is our personal liberty, our independence, that will bring us happiness, let’s ask ourselves what it is we really seek. Remember Brian Perry’s conversation a couple of weeks ago? He invited us to look beneath what we say we want, and take a look at what it really is that we’re seeking.
What result are we looking for when we talk about our God-given liberty in just about every aspect of our lives, including those that impact others? In thinking about this, I think what we are often looking for is the affirmation of our own unique value, the fact that we have something to say and something to give. I am here. Listen to me, pay attention, even if I’m not famous or rich. I have a right to be heard. Don’t you have the feeling that so many of us today don’t feel heard, or seen, or valued?
However, ironically, it’s not our independence but our connections that give us this assurance. It’s our relationships, our place in our own communities, that show us we have unique value, that we are respected and honored, that we are seen, and heard. We don’t thrive by having unlimited choice and no restraints, but when we have a place and a value and we know it and our community knows it. These are values of relationship and connection.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote that:
“our relations with each other are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.” We are strongest when we mutually support each other.
And Rabbi Terry Bookman tells this story:
“A man in a boat began to bore a hole under his seat. When his fellow passengers asked him what he was doing, he answered: ‘What do you care? Am I not boring under my own seat?’
On this July 4, we have another opportunity to realize and embrace that we are all sitting in one boat. Like President Lincoln, we can choose to see the Declaration of Independence as a continuing call to action, to refashion our American future to become that a place of beloved community where all have an unalienable right to be respected, and heard, seen and valued. Where we know, and find, what truly makes us happy. What a gift to our posterity.
 Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, June 26, 1857.
 Address in Independence Hall, February 22, 1861
About Rev. Melanie
Rev. Melanie Eyre is an ordained Interspiritual Minister and long-time student of the world’s many diverse faith traditions. She has served as One World’s Spiritual Director since 2015 and is the founder of the North Fulton Interfaith Alliance here in Georgia. Outside of One World, Rev. Melanie has a beautiful family and enjoys officiating traditional and non-traditional rituals and other special ceremonies that mark important life transitions – weddings, baby blessings, and celebrations of life.
For more about Rev. Melanie and her practice, visit her website: Memorable Services with Heart.
This service aired on July 4, 2021