Sunday, July 27, 2014

Happiness and Ancient History

Tutankhamun was about nine years old when he became the Pharaoh of Egypt. During his reign from 1332 - 1323 BC, Egypt prospered by improving trade relations with their neighbors. Then, at age 19, Tutankhamun died suddenly. Scientists do not agree on the cause of death, but historical records indicate that the young king had walked with a cane and may have suffered from epilepsy. The prevailing theory is that Tutankhamun broke his leg, as found in his mummified remains, during an epileptic seizure. When the leg became infected, the already-frail leader was unable to fight the bacteria and ultimately died a premature death.

While we can't be sure of the cause of Tutankhamun's death, his tomb leaves no doubt of his incredible wealth. Ancient Egyptians were often buried with worldly possessions because they believed they would need those possessions in the afterlife. Kings were venerated through the construction of large pyramids and tombs filled with riches. In 1922, Howard Carter and George Herbert found Tutankhamun's tomb, his mummified remains, and more than 3,000 treasures-- most of them solid gold. Though one of Egypt's lesser Pharaohs and buried in an unusually small tomb for his stature, Tutankhamun has been immortalized as 'King Tut', one of the best known images of ancient history.

King Tut's discovery underscores not only the wealth and history of ancient Egypt but also our own inability to carry our possessions with us when we die. For some the phrase 'you can't take it with you', which became popular after Tut was found more than 90 years ago, has become an excuse to 'eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die' (2 Nephi 28:7). This school of thought supposes that we will maximize our joy in life by spending all we have on things that will bring pleasure today.

Abd Al-Rahman III was an emir and caliph in 10th-century Spain that lived by the can't take it with you philosophy. As an absolute ruler he lived complete luxury. He wrote of his life, 'I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity'.

Yet, as is often the case, the more fame, fortune and pleasure Al-Rahman acquired, the more he wanted and the less satisfied he became with his life. He later wrote: 'I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to 14.'

The story of Al-Rahman and a scientific explanation of his tragic plight was included in a recent edition of the New York Times. The entire article is worth reading.

Like the Spanish monarch and the ancient ruler of Egypt, many of us today spend the majority of our time in pursuit of money, recognition and pleasure. We want to do whatever we feel like doing; and, truth be told, our natures are hard wired to pursue money, recognition and physical pleasures-- sexual pleasure, in particular. This is how Mother Nature ensures we pass on our DNA and preserve our species. But, as one well-respected economist has observed, this is where the evolutionary cables have crossed:

'We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness,' he explained. 'My brain says, "Get famous." It also says, "Unhappiness is lousy." I conflate the two, getting, "Get famous and you'll be less unhappy."'

'But that is Mother Nature's cruel hoax,' he continued. 'She doesn't really care either way whether you are unhappy-- she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that's your problem, not nature's. And matters are hardly helped by nature's useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.'

Social sciences are only now very gradually coming to understand the truths the gospel has taught for thousands of years. Alma taught his son, Corianton, around 74 BC:

And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness (Alma 41:11).

Abinidi taught the wicked King Noah: 'Remember that he that persists in his own carnal nature, and goes on in the ways of sin and rebellion against God, remaineth in his fallen state and the devil hath all power over him' (Mosiah 16:5).

Perhaps most famously, King Benjamin taught his people:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19).

Christ thought this message was so important that he taught it to the Jews in Jerusalem and repeated it almost verbatim to the people in the Americas. 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal,' he said.

This teaching from the Savior is particularly credible. Not only did he teach without purse or scrip or 'where to lay his head', but the scripture records that he was explicitly tempted with wealth, fame and pleasure by the devil himself. Satan, the father of lies, first tempted Christ to turn rocks to bread to bring soothing pleasure his fasting stomach. Satan next tempted Jesus to throw himself from the temple and let concourses of angels rescue him in the city center, an act that would undoubtedly bring fame and silence his critics. Finally, the devil promised the Savior untold wealth and kingdoms if he would worship evil. In all cases, Christ refused to heed to temptation and cast the devil from his midst (Matthew 4).

In these verses to the Nephites and the Jews, the the Savior teaches us, who are likewise tempted to compromise our principles for worldly gain, how to avoid or successfully respond to the temptation. First, don't worry about worldly wealth, fame or physical pleasure. 'But', his sermon continued, 'lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.'

King Tut's tomb suggests that the treasures of heaven are different from the treasures of earth that Satan uses to tempt and mislead those who will follow him. Where Satan delights in the misery of the rich and famous (and those in pursuit on one scale or another), our Father in Heaven has provided a plan for our happiness regardless of our material riches. Christ's teaching gives us another clue should anyone suppose that gold and silver not pursued today will collect gold and silver with interest after death. Inasmuch as there will be rain and moths in the Celestial Kingdom-- both strong possibilities given that said kingdom will be here upon this earth-- we must also conclude the treasures of heaven are made neither of metal nor of fabric in order that they might not rust nor be corrupted by moths.

So what are the incorruptible treasures of heaven? At least three speakers addressed this question in the April 2014 General Conference. Elder Anderson stated very directly that 'Families are the treasure of heaven' (April 2014). Elder Donald Rasband taught that we accumulate treasures in heaven as we 'us[e] our time, talents, and agency in service to God.' Finally, Elder Michael Teh taught that the treasures of heaven include Christlike attributes such as faith, hope, humility, and charity; family relationships; and an understanding and testimony of the doctrine of Christ.

In other words, the treasures of heaven are not a pile of gold bars or a Beverly Hills mansion that will be thrust upon you when you die, but rather an accumulation of the attributes, relationships, and knowledge you develop on earth. They are not a tomb full of incredible riches, the fame of a monarch, or all the pleasures in the world. Whether or not those things exist in the Celestial Kingdom, the real treasure of heaven is our own, genuine, eternal happiness made possible by the atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

This being the case, we should note that Christ's teaching to 'lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth... but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven' indicates that it is not enough for us to simply stop coveting pleasure, fame and riches, but we must also be actively engaged in a good cause, helping others and developing our own character in the process. To us, as to the rich man who had kept the commandments from his youth, Jesus says, 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me' (Matthew 19:20-21).

The final verse of Christ's instruction to the Jews and Nephites, respectively, teaches us the guiding principle: 'where your treasure is,' the Savior taught, 'there will your heart be also' (3 Nephi 13:21). If our treasure is our food, our careers, the number of Facebook friends we have, or the sum of our bank accounts, then we have not yet put off the natural man and are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness. Fortunately for us, repentance is simple. If we would change our hearts and become as saints and children, we need only to change what we treasure. 'He that findeth his life shall lose it,' the Lord cautioned, 'and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it' (Matthew 10:39).

We can't take worldly wealth with us after death, but the things that matter most can't be kept in a tomb. If we set our hearts on our relationships including service to others, on developing knowledge and refining our characters, then 'ye shall be the richest of all people', the Lord has said, 'for ye shall have the riches of eternity' (D&C 38:39).

Which leads us to a final question: if riches are a bad thing, why have so many of the Lord's anointed been wealthy? Or really, why have any of them been so well off?

Abraham filled entire valleys with his livestock and had an army of servants at his command large enough to invade Sodom and rescue Lot. Joseph was among the most senior leaders of a prosperous Egypt. Lehi left considerable gold and silver when he left Jerusalem. Many of the apostles and other leaders in the Church today have had prosperous careers as lawyers, pilots, engineers, doctors, professors and businessmen.

Jacob taught, 'Before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good' (Jacob 2:18-19). Here again we see the instruction to lay up treasures in heaven first as we pursue the kingdom of God through righteous living, but Jacob adds that after we have done this riches will come if we seek them.

That the riches of earth follow the pursuit of heavenly treasures is neither coincidence nor a case of getting gold bars dumped on us randomly because we said our prayers and watched a session of conference this year. We know that 'there is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated-- And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated' (D&C 130:20-21).

In many cases, relative wealth is the natural consequence of a life focused on relationships, knowledge, and self-improvement. This statistical relationship has significant support. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 70 percent of all jobs are found through networking. People with doctorate degrees are five times less likely to be unemployed and make more than four times as much annual income on average than a high school dropout. In other words, people focused on what matters most-- relationships, knowledge and character--are more likely on average to find good work, keep good work, and do good work.

If we treasure the treasures of heaven, spreading the good fortune of our riches will be a part of who we are. We will use our riches for the intent to do good-- to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer to the sick and the afflicted-- and our wealth will not be a curse but a great blessing to the kingdom of God.

We will also need to continue to be diligent. Speaking to the earliest of the modern saints in 1831, most of whom were very poor but whose collective posterity is among the wealthiest on earth, the Lord cautioned not to treasure our treasure: 'It must needs be that the riches of the earth are mine to give,' he taught. 'But beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old' (D&C 38:39).

It is too late for Abd Al-Rahman III to add happy days to his life; but yours are still adding up. The only question left is what you'll choose to treasure in your heart-- and how happy you will be with your treasure.

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