If you want to make yourself unhappy real quickly, ask yourself this set of questions:

Am I happy? Does anyone really love me? Does anyone really understand me truly for who I am? Is my life significant or am I simply another nobody? Who is giving life for me? Am I touched enough? Held enough? Loved enough? Is there real intimacy in my life? Is my sexual life fulfilling? Who has ever taken thorough, non-exploitive delight in me – in my body, my sexuality, my soul, my talents, my uniqueness? Who truly admires me? Who truly respects me? Is life fair to me? Is my work meaningful? Is there joy in my life? Is life slipping away from me without my having accomplished my real dreams?

Haunting questions, valid question, but the wrong questions, all of them. We torture ourselves by examining ourselves against them. They are in fact more of an instrument for unhealthy self-torture than any instrument for healthy self-examination. Why?

Because there will never be enough happiness, understanding, significance, love, recognition, touch, admiration, respect, sexual intimacy, and joy within our lives, no matter how ideal our situation. Moreover, most of us find ourselves so far from the ideal situation that simply to ask ourselves these questions is to bring tears to our eyes. We are wounded persons living in a wounded world. Perfection here can be the enemy of the good.

But that is not the real reason why these questions so torture us and why we shouldn’t ask them. The point is rather that, albeit they are valid questions, they are not the right ones. Why not? Because they invite us to come at happiness, love, meaning, understanding, and significance, head-on, as if these were something that one could attain through active pursuit and as if they were a treasure or resource that one could hold as in a bank. What these questions intimate, however subtly, is that life has somehow failed us and we have somehow failed it. But this is not the wisdom of scripture, the saints, nor indeed even of the great secular figures of wisdom.

What these persons suggest is that happiness, love, understanding, meaning, and joy are a by-product of something else, that they can never be had by going at them head-on, and that they can never be accrued and held as some treasure that one possesses. They don’t work that way and they can’t be had in that manner. They are paradoxical. They will be in our lives only when we are actively giving them away. There are many classical expressions of this, ranging from the famous prayer of St. Francis to the lesser-known, but equally compelling, poem on self-emptying that John of the Cross writes at the end of the First Book on the Ascent of Mount Carmel. It is too no accident that C.S. Lewis entitled his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. These things come into our lives not as the result of an active pursuit of them, but precisely as a surprise, as a by-product of something else. What is that something else?

That something else is precisely our effort to give these things away, our effort to bring joy, love, meaning, and significance into other people’s lives. We have these only by giving them away. Thus, the real questions we should ask ourselves are not whether we are happy, loved, recognized, respected, touched, held, admired blessed, treated fairly, and joy-filled. Rather, like Francis of Assisi, we should instead ask ourselves these questions:

Is the main effort in my life the attempt to make others happy? Am I constantly trying to love others more deeply? Am I stretching my mind, heart, and soul always in an effort to be more understanding of others? Am I tryng always to recognize the significance of others? Do I strive to see the uniqueness and preciousness of other people’s stories? Am I giving enough of my life away? Am I giving enough of my possessions away? Am I giving enough of my time away? Am I giving enough of my heart away? Am I flying, through empathy and carrying the tensions that come to me, to hold others in their pain and struggles? Am I trying to admire? Am I giving others the gaze of admiration? Am I blessing others? Am I blessing beauty? Am I blessing the young? Am I always fair to others? Do I try to create joy and delight in other people’s lives? Am I respectful enough of others? Do I, through my work, try to create meaning for others?

If questions of happiness, joy, love, intimacy, touch, significance, and meaning are so painful for me so as to bring tears to my eyes, perhaps I am asking the wrong set of questions.