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Life, liberty, and the pursuit of misery

Genetically engineered joy would blind us to important truths

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of misery

With that historically dire day, the Ides of March, coming next week, it's time for a column in praise of misery. I'll get into it this way: How would you react if a trustworthy person offered to engineer genetically a future child or grandchild of yours so he would live a life of happiness-with the only cost being a permanent relinquishing of the option of being sad?

If the offer were legitimate, you might easily think, "What's wrong with that?" After all, as we find ways to defeat physical disease, so why not also rout psychological dis-ease? We tell our children when we drop them off for a birthday party, "Have a good time," so why not make every day a party?

But other questions arise. What if sadness sometimes leads to breakthroughs? What if some emptiness comes from God to make us realize that we need Him to fill the holes in our souls?

Many religions and philosophies have sold ways to defeat misery. For two millennia Buddhists have said that human beings should graduate out of human passions such as love, which causes dependence and may lead to suffering. For two centuries Rousseau devotees have embraced the myth of the noble savage, who also avoids the descent to civilization.

Most people didn't follow Buddha or Rousseau. So the 20th century brought the biggest attempts at change in human history, with Soviet and then Chinese Communists insisting that altering material environments and social structures would root out sadness-but revolution's unstoppable force came up against what proved to be an immovable object, human nature. Human nature won.

Marxism is now gone from America except in its university enclaves. But a new genetic-engineering left has emerged. It looks down on primitive efforts like the Buddhist or Rousseauian emphasis on present-mindedness or natural man. It looks down at the old left's emphasis on Marx or the new left's embrace of Marx plus drugs.

The genetic-engineering left certainly looks down on religion and on the alternative religions some of us embrace: sex, food, or the love of power and money. The genetic-engineering left says don't just think something else or take something else or escape to some other pursuit: Be someone else. Change human nature. Be rid of your human hang-ups, your restlessness.

The genetic-engineering left has put its finger on something, on an anxiety that is uniquely human. Animals don't know that they are here today, gone tomorrow. But no matter how affluent we are, we are stuck with a poverty of time, unless we gain the understanding of man's eternal life that comes only with an understanding of God.

Anyone without a strong faith in God and His promises of eternal life lives in a quagmire. At the least, we are anxious-and, as novelist Walker Percy observed, anxiety is evidence that we are strangers in the world. But what if we could be genetically engineered not to be desperate? We know that the grass next door only seems greener, but what if we could have engineered contentment so that our glasses would register green thoughts in green shades wherever we were?

That may well be the choice before us in future decades, a chance to change human nature. Forget bestsellers about why good women chase after bad men. No one would have to make such mistakes again. And why must men be from Mars and women from Venus?

A long time ago, in a country far, far away, some people suffered from discontent. One disconsolate old man named Simeon was "waiting for the consolation of Israel." One 84-year-old woman, Anna, widowed for decades, had such an ineradicable longing that she "did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day." As the apostle Luke tells us in the second chapter of his Gospel, Simeon and Anna longed for God. Their sense of displacement was not a symptom of disease but a pointer toward the cure.

The displacement we feel can be the same. If we pop a pill or cop a little genetic engineering we might feel like contented cows or happy chimps. But in the face of Buddhism, Rousseau, and biotech, we need to assert our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of misery.