Holy days are an annual check to mission drift

September 25, 2009
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 25th September 2009

One of my favourite contemporary phrases is mission drift. First used by the military, it is what happens when, in pursuit of an objective, people forget what objective they were pursuing. You get sidetracked.

The territory turns out to be not like the map. On paper it looks easy to get from A to B. But once you are down there, there are all sorts of diversions. The going is harder than you thought it would be. You lose your way. The car breaks down. On the brink of your departure it looked so simple.

But then, as someone (no one’s quite sure who) once said: “In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is. ”That is what the Jewish high holy days, the new year and the Day of Atonement, are about. They’re about life and how we live it; time and how we use it; values and ideals and how, over time, we tend to forget them. It’s about mission drift. In theory it sounded so simple — life, that is. Obey the rules. Do the right and the good. Be a blessing. But in practice we find ourselves cutting corners, compromising principles, searching for quick fixes, too pressured and hassled to look up and see if we are still on the right road.

It helps, once a year, to stop and look at the map again. Soon it becomes clear that we have taken a number of wrong turns. So we admit our mistakes, apologise, seek atonement and set out again, hopefully this time to reach our destination.

The key word of these days is teshuvah. Normally translated as “penitence”, it really means “return”, getting back on track, a little more determined to get it right this time without getting diverted or delayed. Is it possible for a whole society, even an entire civilisation, to suffer mission drift? Not only is it possible, it’s almost inevitable.

Right now we are going through one of the great mission drifts in the history of the West. The objective long ago was happiness, that at which, according to Aristotle, all people aim. Given that, as angry atheists argue, religion makes people miserable, there must be another way. There were four candidates: the State, the market, science, and technology. They all failed. The State gives us services, not meanings. The principle of liberal democracy is that the State does not tell us how to live. It leaves that choice to us. But since happiness depends on how we live, it cannot be provided by the State.

The market gives us choices, but it does not tell us which choices to make. It sets before us everything money can buy. But as the Beatles sang almost a half century ago, money can’t buy me love — or anything else that has value but not a price. Even people who win a fortune experience temporary exhilaration, which lasts on average a year, and then they’re back to the happiness level they were at before they won.

Science, as Richard Dawkins never lets us forget, tells us where we came from. What is doesn’t, and cannot tell us, is where we are going. Yet happiness is a destination, not a point of departure. It’s part of culture, not nature. Therefore, it lies outside the bounds of science.

Technology has indeed removed many causes of unhappiness. Standards of living have risen. So has life expectancy. Technology has abolished distance and made knowledge more accessible than ever before. But at the same time, it has substituted virtual encounters for real ones, Second Life for real life, Facebook for true face-to-face relationships. Watching a screen and living a life are not the same.

All four institutions are invaluable. They rank among the greatest ever inventions of the human mind. But they don’t lead, in and of themselves, to happiness. Thinking otherwise is to mistake the means for the end.

The new “science of happiness”, a burgeoning discipline, has confirmed some very ancient truths indeed. Happiness involves a sense of meaning and purpose, a network of close and supportive relationships, and an attitude of gratitude. Optimists are healthier than others. So are altruists, those who give time and money to others. Mission drift happens when people in search of happiness choose routes that go elsewhere.

A happy life is a life of altruism, forgiveness and love — which is what religious faith reminds us of on its holy days.