The January/February issue of Tikkun magazine, one of the most important journals of the spiritual left, features a series of "Memos to Obama" from a host of innovators, philosophers and holy rascals including yours truly. I urge you to subscribe to Tikkun (and to Spirituality & Health magazine for which I write a spiritual advice column each issue). Subscriptions are what keep magazines afloat, and we need these two magazines to help us navigate the tough times ahead. To help motivate you to get Tikkun, I am publishing my "Memo to Obama" here.
Dear President-elect Obama,
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.
Of the many sacred texts that define us as a people and a nation these words by Thomas Jefferson are among the most precious. I wish to speak with you for a moment about happiness and its pursuit.
Aristotle understood happiness, what he called eudemonia, as a flourishing of life, a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. The key to eudemonia as I understand it is cultivating love, purpose and meaning.
Happiness is a national concern calling us to establish laws, institutions and communities honoring life’s diversity, individual liberty, and the pursuit of love, purpose and meaning.
Happiness is a moral concern and its pursuit fosters creativity, justice, compassion, generosity, fearlessness and a desire to uplift both self and others.
Happiness is an economic concern liberating us from both poverty and enslavement to endless consumption. Happiness calls us to seek just enough wealth to be happy, and frees us from the lie that to be more we must have more.
Happiness is an international concern challenging us to lead the world not in how much stuff we consume or garbage we produce, but in our capacity to free our citizens to pursue love, purpose and meaning.
Happiness is a civic concern for people pursuing love, purpose and meaning are unmoved by propaganda—commercial, political and religious—designed to poison them and their communities with fear, self-loathing, lack, conformity, bigotry and intolerance.
Happiness is a spiritual concern for people steeped in love, purpose and meaning reject exclusivism, fear, exploitation and hate, and resist religiously sanctioned violence, religiously sponsored ignorance and the rants of clergy and pundits whose sense of compassion and justice is restricted to those who believe as they do.
Mr. President-elect, I believe we are entering a time of global apocalypse, literally an “unveiling” of the ignorance and hubris behind which we have hidden so long from our interdependence with and responsibility toward all life.
This unveiling will take many forms: economic collapse, environmental chaos, greater religious and ethnic violence, rising crime and increased suicide and substance abuse. We will be knocked back on our heels, and then knocked down to our knees. The question is not if this will happen or even when— it is already happening. Our challenge is not how to avoid the apocalypse but how to navigate it with our humanity intact.
When last confronted with apocalyptic violence your predecessor urged us to go shopping; to stuff ourselves with goods that we might not notice that our goodness was being stolen from us by the very people we elected to protect it. This time you can offer us something else. Not a time to consume but a time to consider. Not a rush to get more, but a chance to reimagine what is enough. Not a fearful scramble to settle matters, but a thoughtful rethinking of what really matters. And in navigating this horror, happiness can be your compass.
We are happiest when we are free from fear. We are happiest when we are free from usury and deceptive business practices. We are happiest when we are free from church and state meddling in our private lives. We are happiest when our scientists, scholars and educators can pursue truth unfettered by theology. We are happiest when our concern for the unborn challenges us to think not only of the next nine months but the next nine generations. We are happiest when we have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. We are happiest when we have a solid roof over our heads, and safe food on your table. We are happiest when we have the opportunity for life-long learning. We are happiest when we take care of the least among us. We are happiest when our relationship with other species and the planet is based on respect, mutuality and interdependence. We are happiest when we measure success by the quality of our lives, rather than the quantity of stuff that clutters them. We are happiest when we, as individuals and as a nation, make a positive difference in the world.
While no government can or should provide us with happiness, our government can and should free us to pursue it.
What I suggest, sir, is this: When weighing policy decisions ask yourself, “Will this enhance our capacity to cultivate love, purpose and meaning? Is it in service to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?” If the answer is “yes,” then promote it. But if the answer is “no,” please, sir, resist it at all costs. This is the change we need.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn. A version of this column appeared originally on his blog.