The quest for wellbeing is a contemporary version of the universal human desire for health and happiness. This edition of Case Quarterly explores this quest, identifying key elements of wellbeing, and also some concerns lurking beneath its radiant glow.
Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For non-Jewish people seek all these things but your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (Matthew 6:31-32)
This is but a snippet of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount about our concerns and the anxiety they excite. Little has changed: if Jesus were delivering his sermon in Sydney today, it might sound something like this:
Do not be anxious, saying, ‘Am I eating right, exercising enough, getting enough sex? Am I making enough money? Working effectively? Optimising my me?’ For Australians run after these things …
These questions, quoted from a recent Sydney Morning Herald piece[i], show where we’re looking for wellbeing. Yet our restless search ironically undermines the very thing we seek: disabling anxiety is currently the most common mental illness in Australia.[ii]
Writing in the shadow of Anzac Day I am reminded of Jesus’ often quoted words, ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13). The contrast between this love, and absorption in one’s own wellbeing, is especially striking as we remember those who sacrificed their wellbeing for others.
Elizabeth Farrelly, author of the article quoted above, also notes the uneasy relationship between morality and wellbeing:
[D]irectionally, ethics and wellbeing they are opposites. Where ethics asks, how can I do good in the world, wellbeing asks, what is good for me.
Seeking one’s own wellbeing is important. Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbours as oneself presupposes we will seek our own good. But as Farrelly points out, if we stop there, or even disguise our quest for wellbeing as a moral duty to self-optimisation, we are heading towards narcissism and consumerism.
This concern is echoed in this edition’s articles. Kirsten Birkett steps into the world of mindfulness with an appraisal of the concept of flow. Flow is a desirable state, and Birkett offers practical advice on how to experience it. Yet to pin all one’s hopes on achieving flow is perilous: there is an ever-present threat that flow will be thwarted by external circumstances, and a danger of losing perspective on important realities.
Another important aspect of wellbeing is rest. Like flow, rest as an end in itself, is ultimately unsatisfying, and Colin Noble argues for the importance of engaging in God-honouring rest, that lifts our eyes above our own enjoyment and relaxation.
Our final article asks whether institutions run by Christians and churches will prioritise the wellbeing of people under their care, even when reputation or convenience is at stake. The assumption that they will has been painfully called into question of late. Reflections on the pastoral care programs at New College and New College Postgraduate Village draw on theological and pragmatic considerations to safeguard individual wellbeing.
The quest for wellbeing is a good one, but it leads us awry if becomes the ultimate quest. Again, Farrelly:
Your body may be your temple but a temple should enable worship, not receive it. We’re in big trouble when our temples become our gods.
True. Our ultimate concern should be God. And when he is, our wellbeing is in good hands:
Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
We may not always see it now, as we take up our crosses and follow the self-sacrificial Jesus, but we know he who has promised is faithful.
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