According to Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence upon which this great country was built, all men are created equal and have been given by God the inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
According to Dr. Phil, happiness is a choice. “Happiness can be a feeling that comes from filling your days with what matters to you, living authentically, or working for what you want.”
According to the direct marketers on TV, you can achieve happiness and the life you’ve always wanted by losing weight, exercising your abs, earning millions of dollars from home or by growing more hair.
In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner is just trying to survive.
Struggling to make ends meet, Gardner (Will Smith) is a determined but ineffective salesman in San Francisco during the early 80s. With the support of his wife, he invests their combined savings into an exclusive territory to sell portable bone density scanners to hospitals and physician offices.
He soon realizes that the scanners are a luxury many health professionals can’t afford. Despite his best efforts, the scanners are slow to leave their small apartment. Rent payments can’t be made, parking tickets can’t be paid and the couple argues often about their current situation and their future.
There’s no disagreement, however, about their love for their son Christopher (Smith’s real life son Jaden Smith). They both care deeply for him and work hard to remain good parents.
Chris hears about an internship program with Dean Witter in which he would learn to become a stock broker. Although he never attended college (the real life Chris Gardner entered the Navy after high school), Gardner has always been good with numbers.
He impresses one of the partners with his intellect by solving the Rubik’s Cube in a very short time and wins an interview for the internship program.
Unfortunately, the bills, expenses and pressures continue to mount. Chris’s wife can not handle the bad times and moves to New York, leaving Chris to raise his son by himself.
Gardner is then told he must leave the apartment in a week because he can’t pay the rent. As he helps his landlord by painting the apartment, policemen arrive and arrest him for the unpaid parking tickets, forcing him to stay overnight in jail.
His life continues to spiral downward. He joins the six-month internship program but discovers there is no pay check. There is hope for a paid position at the end, but only one of the twenty interns will be chosen.
He is forced to work quickly during a six-hour day in order to pick his son up from daycare and then take a bus across town to get in line outside a homeless shelter. One night there is no room, so he and his son wander around town until they find refuge in a subway restroom.
Yet in the midst of this terrible situation, Gardner talks freely with his son, keeping their spirits high above the hardships they face. Through it all, especially in the eyes of his son, Gardner continues to be a “good Papa.”
At first glance, the film is a traditional Horatio Alger story – a poor man works hard and overcomes many obstacles to succeed and live the American dream.
But when you consider that Gardner was working not to get rich for himself but to create a better life for his son, the pursuit of happiness takes on a different meaning. It’s no longer happiness with fancy cars and new clothes, it’s “happyness” with love and consideration for others.
As parents, we understand that hard work, hard choices and a hard life are often necessary to provide food, shelter and good education to our children.
Yet we risk getting caught up in the American dream of acquiring the newest and best of everything. Sometimes the focus shifts away from care for others and focuses on acquiring more stuff.
Jesus said that we should “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but give to God what belongs to God.” (Luke 20:25) It’s important to keep this lesson in mind as we pursue our dreams.
Near the end of the film Gardner and his son get away from the city and enjoy Golden Gate Park. Their future is still unknown, yet they delight in the love they share as they play in the park.
According to Catholic author and spiritualist Thomas Merton, “a happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found…true happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared.”
May our daily pursuits be mindful of what belongs to God, so that we can focus on a true “happyness” that can be shared with others.
First published in the January 26, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio