tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Greetings at Christmastime

A Charlie Brown Christmas was on the other night and I watched it with the kids. Internet lore has it that network executives initially balked at airing the Charles Shultz program because they were afraid it was too religious. Since it was first shown in 1965, however, A Charlie Brown Christmas has become the most successful Christmas special ever made.

I like the show because of its timelessness. Charlie Brown complains that he doesn’t feel happy. He knows he’s supposed to be happy but he doesn’t feel that way.

I know how he feels. I have been looking for happiness since the day I was born. First it came in the form of milk, then in an ability to walk, then as a bicycle, then a car, then a good job. All the things that brought me happiness seem so short-lived; I always found myself searching for more.

And I am not alone, at least according to Fareed Zakaria, the editor of the International edition of Newsweek magazine. In his book, “The Future of Freedom,” Zakaria says this about Americans and happiness:

They say that money can’t buy happiness, but you would think $5 trillion would make a dent. In the last quarter century the United States has added just that amount to its real gross domestic product and yet every survey and measure that psychologists use suggests that Americans are no happier than they were twenty-five years ago.

Wow, people are spending a lot of money in search of happiness. For the past 18 months, Susan and I have been involved in scripture study, led by nationally-known instructor Jeff Cavins. He exposed us to the teaching of St. Augustine, a Church father who wrote that there are four levels of happiness: 1) instant gratification; 2) achievement; 3) giving to others; and 4) communion with God.

I guess all those things I mentioned earlier – bike, car, job – fall into the first category. Regarding the second category, I did achieve a significant personal milestone this year when my first book, “Emerging Son,” was published. It’s an autobiographical memoir. That achievement brought me a certain amount of happiness.

And I understand the third level. During one of her shows this year, Oprah Winfrey gave everyone in her studio audience a car. I am sure that made her as happy as the audience members. I don’t have any cars to give away, but I understand the joy that comes with giving, especially at this time of year. One of the big joys of Christmas is watching the reaction of those to whom you give gifts.

That fourth level – communion with God. That’s what I really want. That’s what Charlie Brown was looking for in that Christmas special. And that’s probably what Americans are trying to buy with $5 trillion. I guess it is all a matter of where we look for God. I’ve been looking for some time and one of the few things I know for sure is that I see God in the faces of those closest to me. When I look at Michael, our two-year-old, or Catherine (5) or John (8) or Paula (9), there’s more than just a little kid staring back at me. When I look into Susan’s eyes I see more than the woman who said ‘yes’ to my marriage proposal some 15 years ago. I see Him in my friends, relatives, neighbors and in the people with whom I work. God is alive and He’s all around us. All you have to do is look for Him, and I am sure a good place to start looking is in the faces of those around you.

Merry Christmas and may you find new levels of happiness in the new year.

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