Happiness. We all desire this. At what cost?
I ask you to name your price.
For anyone familiar with the TV show Once Upon a Time, the statement “name your price” is likely to ring a bell. The phrase is said by fairytale character Rumpelstiltskin, known as the “Dark One,” just before making a deal with anyone. The Dark One holds authority over all magic in the enchanted fairytale land so anyone needing a favor requiring magic must come to him. Those who come to Rumpelstiltskin are desperate. Fate has positioned them in a place where they must make a deal with him or else forgo the happiness they planned for and dreamed. Before agreeing to any favors, Rumpelstiltskin names his price.
The Dark One uses their desperation as a tool to his own advantage. He requires that a favor be owed to him in exchange, leaving him with the upper hand of all deals. In return, he has ultimate power not only over magic, but now, over them. Anyone coming to Rumplestiltskin for a favor is bound to him and must return the favor in whatever way he chooses. This is the deal that must be made. This is the cost of their happiness.
When life is spiraling down the drain, people get desperate. Being in a position where life feels completely doomed does that to a person. It convinces you that your only option is to strike up a deal with the “Dark One”. That the only way to happiness is by compromising with what is evil. When all other options are thrown out the window and fate is against you, you will rethink everything.
In moments of despair, our values will be one of the first areas of the heart to be examined. When the walls of life are crumbling, the very cornerstone of it is put under intense questioning. Our moral values are the cornerstone of how we choose to live. It is the compass used to decide this way or that. When hopelessness sickens the heart with desperation it seems that compromising your values is the only choice to any happiness. You will rethink what your values actually mean and at what cost. Are they worth forgoing the happiness you have planned for and hoped? Imagine a loved one is sick or in danger and there is little time left. Or imagine your entire country is entirely lost after a world war and you begin to lose hope for all generations ahead. What will you do?
Compromising your values, in a state of hopelessness, seems like a silver lining in the midst of a violent thunderstorm of tragedy. Forgoing your values seems like the only shot at salvaging the brokenness that surrounds you. This is precisely what Hildebrand faced in the seemingly hopeless situation of German post-WWI. It was in the midst of such despair of an entire country that Hitler offered a solution. A solution that came with the price of compromising the commitment to defending the dignity of human life.
Dietrich von Hildebrand knows exactly how this intense questioning of values feels. He stood in the midst of a Nazi Germany and risked his life to defend what was good. I am positive that these intense moments of questioning helped strengthen him to defend his values and protect the dignity of life, even if it meant losing his own. He saw the necessity of standing up against the persuasive powers of evil and did not succumb to the weakness of despair. He regarded each person as necessary and recognized their inherent dignity. He valued life as a gift. He cooperated with this gift of life by committing to defend the dignity of the human person. He responded to value.
Hildebrand regarded moral value as the highest value of all natural values. (1) Such a responsibility must be dutifully lived out and practiced with consistency. Responding to these values is an absolute moral obligation. Inconsistency is what leads a man to the corruption of his values because it weakens him. Hildebrand regarded corruption as “the worst form of moral irresponsibility.” (2) Corruption weakens a man’s value response and leaves him prey to the whims of evil. Man must stand firm in the face of evil and not take the path of least resistance, especially if at the expense of others.
In regards to values, he was convicted that,
“The more faithful, the more constant a man is, the richer and more substantial he will be, the more capable of becoming a vessel of moral values, a being in whom purity, justice, humility, love, and goodness will dwell lastingly and from whom those values will radiate to the world about him.” (3)
I am all for happy endings, let’s be clear about that. I am quick to question, however, the cost of these happy endings. If there is anything I have realized more fully with Once Upon a Time, it’s the value of our free will at the cost of our happiness. You see, the Dark One not only recognizes people’s despair, but craves it. It makes his day when someone loses hope. Their paralyzing hopelessness puts them under his power to use in any way he wishes. The Dark One realizes that, in spite of all the power and magic he has, there is a magic far greater that he also wants control over: free will.
Our free will is one of the most important gifts God has given us. The highest form of this freedom is when our actions are in cooperation with what we value. It is only by our free will that we can choose to accept or reject Him. It is only by our free will that we can either make a stand against evil or succumb to it. It is a powerful force that is often overlooked. Do not take this gift for granted, or worse, freely hand it over. Out of our free will we choose life or death, good or evil, God or self. Our free will is what paves the way to happiness or destruction.
Like Hildebrand, our free will must be anchored in what is good, beautiful and true. Hildebrand saw the radiance of value in each human person, including Jewish people. He stopped at nothing to live in cooperation with this value. He allowed this value to illuminate his life and actively responded to it. Values must be anchored if we are to stand against the greatest of temptations, the ones closest to the heart. Self-determination is central to the identity of the human person, but it must always be in response to the good. Without this anchor, too easily will we falter and blow wherever the winds of life takes us. Too easily will we create a life based on compromises with evil. Too easily will we choose to compromise ourselves in the hopes of having happiness. We are creatures made not simply to be reactive to the strikes of evil, but more importantly, to be proactive against it.
What will we do when tragedy knocks on our door? Will we be ready? Will we fall to our knees and forget who we are? Where is our anchor? When doom surrounds you and you must find the light of day, when you must rediscover your happiness--what will you do? What is the cost of your happiness? I ask you to name your price. Is it worth it?
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, page 22
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, page 27
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, page 20
Image 1: Photo by Brook J.