Tragedies and joys in the pursuit of happiness

In March 2016, a 35-year-old junior barrister appeared at the Old Bailey in March and admitted two counts of supplying controlled drugs to his boyfriend, 18-year-old Colombian waiter, Miguel. The barrister woke on a morning in January 2015 to find his partner dead beside him. The previous afternoon they had taken their dog to the vet, in the evening they had dinner, drank some wine, and then at midnight Miguel took some drugs.

The lawyer recalls, “I was working the next day, so I didn’t have any on that occasion, but he did. He had some G (GHB – gammahydroxybutrate, a class C drug). It was quite a nice experience and we went to sleep. I woke up and he was dead, next to me. I’d never seen a dead person before but when I turned him over, he was non-responsive, he was purple in the face and his face was frozen.” GHB has a sedative effect which can last up to seven hours and produce feelings of euphoria. Risks include unconsciousness, coma and death. When taken with alcohol the substance is much more dangerous.

Looking back on the tragic event, the lawyer now admits that he feels responsible for Miguel’s death, “I was older, I should have known better, I was 34 then, he was only 18. It should have been me saying ‘we’re not going to do this’ … I didn’t make th

at call when I should have done, and for that reason, and that reason alone, I put his tragic death on my shoulders.”

Numerous studies in the UK and elsewhere have shown that men who have sex with men (MSM) experience disproportionate levels of ill-health compared to the general population, and still today are one of the highest risk groups for HIV in every part of the world. As we are all too aware, gay and bisexual men frequently face significant stigma and discrimination from their families, communities and, in some countries, are the subject of systemic repression and persecution. Often this repression and stigmatisation can make accessing appropriate health services, where they exist, problematic. A significant concern among health professionals and advocates who work to improve the health and well-being of MSMs relates to the common and increasing phenomenon of drug use on the gay scene. Recent studies reveal that gay people are three times more likely to take drugs than their straight counterparts. Coupled with evidence of increased risk-taking in having unprotected sex suggests that sometime in the future we should brace ourselves for another devastating pandemic approaching the scale of HIV/AIDS.

Until his arrest, the junior barrister would have regarded himself as a successful man enjoying a successful career, representing high-profile figures and politicians, occupying a flat in the heart of the Temple, the legal quarter in central London, and in a happy, loving relationship.

The pursuit of happiness can take us in many directions; some good, others perilous. Some of us equate happiness with wealth, chasing big dreams, acquiring material goods. We have the freedom to pursue happiness, but there’s no guarantee that we will achieve it, a great deal depends on how and where we look for it.

The most useful definition for happiness – and it is one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioural economists, positive psychologists, and theologians – is more accurately described as being satisfied or content than “happy” in its strict ‘overcome-with-joy’ sense. It has a depth and a deliberation to it encompassing living a meaningful life, utilising our gifts and our time, living with thought and purpose.

Happiness is maximized when we also feel part of a community and when confronting annoyances and crises of everyday life with grace. It involves a willingness to learn and stretch and grow, which sometimes involves discomfort. It requires acting on life, not merely taking it in. It is not a temporary exhilaration, or even pleasure, neither is it a reward for escaping pain; it demands that we confront negative feelings head-on, without letting them overwhelm us. Fr Christopher Jamison (former abbot of the community of Benedictine monks at Worth Abbey who featured prominently in the BBC TV series The Monastery) has stated that, “To teach happiness does not simply mean offering healthy lifestyle advice; it means teaching that goodness and virtue are integral parts of happiness” (Finding Happiness – Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008).

The gay community has to a remarkable degree gained social acceptance in the UK in recent decades. Are we now putting this acceptance at risk by not counterbalancing the advances made by exercising personal responsibility? It seems that there is a lack of widespread recognition and acceptance of the need to take personal responsibility for our behaviour with regard to sexual practices and the misuse of drugs. This is not to suggest, that members of the “straight” community accept more personal responsibility for their behaviour than gay men for their temptations are not so very different from ours. A Scottish study – Community, Responsibility and Culpability: HIV Risk-Management amongst Scottish Gay Men, Paul Flowers, Barbara Duncan and Jamie Frankis, published in the Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, July 2000 – revealed that when addressing unprotected sex, rather than assuming their partners were HIV positive, some men seemed to operate under the assumption that everyone was, in actual fact, HIV negative. In respect of the misuse of substances, Brandi Redding, a freelance writer on social work in the United States, believes that people may be discouraged from seeking treatment because of previous negative experiences in coming out to health care providers, anticipating negative reactions from the providers, or having heard about others’ bad experiences when seeking treatment.

One significant question remains unanswered in my mind: what compels some men to adopt destructive lifestyles in the mistaken belief that thereby they can achieve happiness? It is one that I have pondered for some time and still wrestle with. In pursuit of an answer perhaps I should look no further than myself. What is it that I am willing to settle for in my own pursuit of happiness? Looking back, it is apparent that I have on occasion been far off course in my own search for happiness, fulfilment, and meaning. My values have not always been the values of the Gospel, rather they have been the lure of passing fads. Short-term gratification and temptation have driven me to make any kind of choice as long as happiness is guaranteed, or so it seemed at the time. Some of my choices were made out of habit, some out of emotion, and some out of sheer acquiescence. It is with regret that the lofty ideal of a life in Christ did not countermand these short-term remedies. I thought that I had grown wiser with age but it is abundantly clear that I am still capable of making unwise choices.

In his book, Fr Christopher identifies Eight Virtues or stepping stones required in finding happiness: moderation, chaste love and generosity (virtues of the body); gentleness, gladness and spiritual awareness (virtues in the heart and mind); magnanimity and humility (virtues in the soul). He acknowledges that choosing to live these virtues will be difficult and that “our feet will often slip off these stepping stones”, but with “God’s grace we can persevere, we can be forgiven and we can start again”.

The barrister is not alone in having learned, though in the most heart-breaking of circumstances, the lesson of a self-indulgent lifestyle which promised happiness and delivered tragedy. For his role in the death of his lover he was handed a community order by the criminal courts with 18 months supervision and 140 hours unpaid work as well as being suspended from practice by the Bar Standards Board for three years.

Pope St Leo the Great in a sermon on the Resurrection said that “the end of our dying or living is of the utmost importance, for there is a death that brings life, and a life that brings death. It is only in this fleeting world that both are sought together, so that the difference in our future rewards depends upon the quality of our present actions.”

— Adam McIntosh

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