Growing up, my parents and grandparents made clear their goal for me in life was to be happy. I hear my wife’s parents say the same thing to my wife–“I just want you to be happy.” As a parent, I look to my children and find myself hoping for their happiness. Since it does seem to be that important, it doesn’t surprise me that when I walk through a bookstore’s self-help isle (which I often do), I see many titles on attaining happiness. I don’t know if it is just Americans who want to be happy but we sure do want to be happy. I often wonder if the dialogue relates to a human struggle with happiness.
A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon on the meaning of life–articulating very clearly that I do not know the meaning of life. In closing, I articulated my belief that asking the question is more important than getting an answer. As I consider meaning with happiness I wonder if you, as readers and human beings, think much about happiness like I do. For me, meaning and happiness cross paths. These few paragraphs are simply my reflections on happiness, and as reflections they may not resolve much, but it is part of my belief that we should always think on and ask the questions, whether we ever find the answers.
Happiness is a feeling, at least that is how we often handle it. When I worked with people who have a hard time articulating their feelings I ask for a simple response to external stimuli; are you sad, glad, mad, or scared? This simple question offers the beginning of a path toward self-awareness. I often find it easier to list the negative ones than the positive. I wonder if that is because I spend more time fixated on the negative.
I struggled growing up (and into adulthood) with negative emotions. Maybe not with the emotions themselves but with a very obsessive focus on them. I had grown up with various physical limitations that made me keenly aware of when I was getting too excited. In general, excited led to nervousness, then anxiety, then fear, which led to physical pain. I grew up with (simply stated) “a nervous stomach” that was later fixed with surgery. And though the physical issue was fixed the emotional one stayed behind.
As I approached adulthood, I noticed that I was never really happy. That doesn’t mean I never felt joy or excitement, but that the positive emotions never sunk in deeply. Over time, I actually had to learn how to let the positive happen–happiness was fleeting while anxiety and sorrow was lasting. Happiness only led to disappointment, thus happiness became something to fear. However, when I started seminary, I began to learn spiritual principles that changed my understanding.
I was a reactive child (and am often a reactive adult). I believed it was external pressures that caused negative feelings. My feelings were caused by people and situations. There was nothing I could do to change them. I was enslaved to them. If I could only change the outside, I’d fix the pressures. If only I could find the right friends, faith, or woman, I wouldn’t have to fear sadness anymore. I wouldn’t have to fear sorrow and that would fix my anxiety. If only I could create the world in the image I wanted then I could find happiness.
Over time, I learned that happiness did not come from degrees, jobs, friends, faith, or even a wife. These things could not cause happiness to grow within me, because happiness didn’t come from without, but from within me. The fear of sorrow was always stalking me. Therefore, if I could equate joy with happiness, I had to think of joy and wonder. I knew joy. I had felt it many times. I loved the feeling of joy and I craved it. When joy would come, I would hold on to it, grasp it with tight fists and never let go. However, what I noticed was that the joy was gone when I opened my hand. All that was left was a feeling of loss.
Over many years, through different perspectives, something more has seemed to emerge. This truth has risen through the waters of chaos like a small peak. Joy is an emotion and maybe it is fleeting; but then isn’t sorrow also an emotion, thus also fleeting? What if all emotions are fleeting, what if they all evaporate into the spiritual atmosphere around us once they are finished? What if in one day I can feel joy, sorrow, love, fear, hope, and anger? How do I categorize that day happy or sad?
Over the years I have learned I cannot always control those emotions, but maybe I can control how I respond to them. When I felt joy and grasped hold of it, I couldn’t keep it–I lost it; but when I left my hands open, I let it evaporate into the atmosphere. Maybe a simpler way to put it is, “I let it go.” When I felt sorrow, I kept my hands open and let it go. When I felt love, I kept my hands open and let it go. Then, and only then, could I truly experience life and really know joy.
A fact of life is that there will always be bad. The problem is that when we take away bad, we have to take away the good, and, over time, we decide, however unintentionally, that it is just easier to sacrifice the good so we can avoid the bad. But maybe happiness comes when we realize the good and bad flow through us. Our hearts are permeable. Our feelings come and go as they will, but the minute we try to hold them too tightly we lose them, especially the good ones. What if the secret to happiness is being willing to let good and bad feelings run their course–fully experiencing all of life–not just the parts we want to?