I was on the plane to Japan for the first time when a seatmate handed me a book about Zen Buddhism written by a Western scholar. (You will remember that at this time, I was an atheist.) To me, the introductory chapter on Taoism was the most interesting.
Now either Taoism is as the author described it, or else he misunderstood it, or else I misunderstood his description of it, but looking back now, I can say that the impression I formed of Taoism after reading that book is nearly exactly what is called hedonism in the West.
From what I could gather, Taoism seemed to teach that we could find happiness by cultivating spontaneity–determining what it was that we felt like doing at that moment, and then doing it. At the time, it seemed like a great idea.
The only problem was, it didn’t seem to work that way in real life. If I was bored at work and felt like leaving, I couldn’t. So basically I still had to spend the majority of my waking hours not being spontaneous, which according to Taoism was the definition of unhappiness. Thinking that way really only amplified the agony.
In fact, I would retain this frustrated desire to have enough control over my circumstances to be spontaneous until I returned to the Church. There I encountered a way of thinking that didn’t ignore large swaths of reality–it told me what to do about them.
Yes, there would be times when I would have to suffer through something I didn’t choose and didn’t like. But I learned that suffering counts for something. I could please God by patiently enduring suffering. I could atone for my sins in the great system of justice I had now learned existed. I could even offer up my suffering for the benefit of others. Imagine that–the more I suffered, the more I could be of benefit to loved ones who I might otherwise have little ability to help!
Suddenly suffering took on a heroic cast. I wasn’t alone in it. There was Someone who was watching and cared how I handled it. And I found that to be more satisfying than stewing at my inability to be spontaneous.