This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme:
I’d love to wish everyone a happy new year, but, apart from the general sentiment involved, I wouldn’t actually know what I was wishing you. I’m not sure that happiness – despite its elevation in the US Constitution as one of the ultimate human pursuits – is all it is cracked up to be. It seems to me that most human beings on the planet would settle for survival and freedom from fear.
Well, we are about to launch into a year of commemoration. In fact, we face four years of remembering that only a century ago the world fell apart. All the optimism for the new century, coupled with pride in the inexorable progress of science and technology, would shortly lie bleeding in the fields of Flanders. Humans never seem to change when it comes to violence.
Yet, my guess is that as 1913 gave way to 1914, most people just got on with their life and paid little attention to the seeds of overwhelming destructiveness that were already being sown in Europe. Did anyone really think, when they wished each other a happy new year at midnight, that just after the summer holidays that year a whole generation of young men would begin the four-year slaughter that would in turn sow the seeds of the Second World War? Or did they just wish, as we might do, that everything would turn out OK and that everyone would miraculously start being nice to each other?
If we learn anything from history it must surely be that what appears to be ‘normal’ and stable in the world is actually extremely fragile. Remember the faith we placed in global capitalism until the banking emperors were seen to be naked in 2008 – with many of the poorest of our people still paying the price?
Perhaps the beginning of happiness lies in recognizing this fragility of life, and daring to be challenged by cries for justice even when they cost us dearly. The Hebrew prophets saw through the thin pragmatic veneers of affluence and power, and called on people to be captivated by a vision that was more humane and of eternal value – regardless of how costly its pursuit might turn out to be. Jesus invited people on the edge and people at the centre of power to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear.
I will shortly be back in Germany – a country I visit frequently and one that has lived through two world wars, the Holocaust, Communism and now democratic capitalism. In the city of Halle there is a tram stop called Frohe Zukunft, Happy Future. But the question is: do happy futures just happen, or do we create them? Happiness can quickly turn to horror. And this fragility should evoke humility – the desire to live well and the resolve to live better.