Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Misery

“I call heaven and earth today to bear witness against you: I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring: (Deuteronomy 30:19).

With 50 years of psychiatric experience to my credit, I feel qualified to paraphrase the Founding Fathers statement in the Declaration of Independence, that among the inalienable rights of man are “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Misery.”

But what normal person would pursue misery instead of happiness? From the words of Moses, it is evident that it necessary to tell people to choose life and blessing over death and curse. In fact, Moses also had to increase their motivation for this choice by telling them that the choice they make will affect future generations. Clearly there are people who would choose death and curse, but why?

Having treated thousands of alcohol and drug addicts, the answer became obvious. In active addiction, the person pursues the object of his addiction with a ferocity that is unparalleled. He will do anything to attain what he feels is the greatest good in life, although it is in fact the greatest curse. One recovered addict said, “The worst day of my recovery is far better than the best day of my addiction.” However, the desire for the chemical blinds the addict to reality.

Whereas the lethality of chemicals is obvious to the non-addict, there are other desires that are no less lethal, but their toxicity is more subtle. The Talmud says, “Jealously, lust and glory remove a person from the world” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:28). “Remove a person from the world” should be taken literally. These are insatiable drives, and unless a person puts firm limits and tight restraints on them, their pursuit may take one’s life. Yet so many people pursue these drives, as deluded as the addict that they will bring one happiness. Yes, there may be momentary pleasures in gratifying these drives, just as the addict has a fleeting “high” from his chemical, but the long term result is anything but happy.

Recovery from the fatal pursuit of chemical addiction requires that the addict seek a spiritual goal in life, rather than the ephemeral “high.” This is equally true for those who are deluded to think that pursuit of jealousy, lust and glory will bring them happiness. Only true spirituality can turn them away from the pursuit of misery to the pursuit of happiness.