Here I am a week and a half after all that lovely processing, and still I feel like I am reeling from the transitions. Not knowing what is going to happen is my least favorite thing in the world. But I want to keep writing through this as I sort it out. I began writing a post last week, but it lapsed into a description of some women I admire, and I then abandoned the post entirely and wrote letters to the women instead.
I thought about these women, and read my books, and felt wave after wave of heavy emotion flood over my spirit. And now, I have some questions.
Question #1 Is life going to get harder or easier, better or worse?
It is so easy to have the mindset that once we arrive at the next step, life will be easier. Once we graduate or marry or get that job, have a few children, buy a house, add enough to the retirement fund, go on that trip, etc. etc. then we will have arrived, that is, we will be happy. But with the graduation comes the uncertain future, with the marriage comes the adjustment of living and becoming one with another person; the job brings stress and desire for further advancement or a different path; the children bring all kinds of worries and troubles of their own, and now our hearts are tangled up with more people and we carry their problems around with us; the house’s roof needs replacing and the kitchen needs a remodel and the property taxes are too high; the money is never enough, and vacation after vacation ends in the let-down of back-to-the-grind Mondays.
And everyone is going to die, every single person we love, and also us, you and me. Sorry if that’s morbid, but let’s not kid ourselves here: we will lose everything we accumulate or become attached to in this life. Won’t we?
Question #2 How can I be happy?
Difficult circumstances are not only to be more painful in the moment than good times, but they also stick with us more vividly. It is easier to remember the bad things that have happened to us, the terrifying moments, the mean words spoken, the pain; it takes work to recall the beautiful, loving, joyful moments. I find myself less aware of those happy times until after they have ended, whereas when I am suffering I am acutely aware all the while that it hurts. So already it seems that–unless I live an unusually charmed life–the odds are in the favor of unhappiness overshadowing happiness
I read this quote from a marriage book about how marriage isn’t to make you happy, it’s to make you holy. It reminded me of that sinking feeling I always get when I read John Piper. That sinking feeling is guilt; it is the we are lowly worms theology, we are worthy of damnation theology, and so we should be content with misery because God didn’t have to save us in the first place and is this not better than burning in hellfire? etc. And yet, one of the first things I learned from the catechism (I am appealing to orthodoxy here) is that the “chief end” of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I know through experience that there is a solemnity that comes over us when we encounter the Divine–even a fear; even if God loves us more than we can imagine, he also loves all those people we run around ignoring and betraying and lying to and judging and cutting off in traffic and wishing to be dead. If we face any kind of true Goodness and Perfection, we realize how different–how apart and other–such a thing or Being is from us (which is what holiness means). In the face of the Right, we see ourselves horribly wrong, and not just if we’re murderers. But is that the mindset we are supposed to live in?
What I meant to get into here was the question of happiness, and my point is that some theology mixed with self-loathing and insecurity can set us down the path of “I’m not actually supposed to be happy; I’m supposed to be holy (i.e. guilty and ashamed until I pull myself together and start getting it right).” This becomes an explanation for our misery. But I don’t think that’s the answer. Jesus said he came so our joy could be full and complete, and Paul says God’s peace is beyond understanding, and the famous “Beatitudes” of Christ say “blessed are the…” which is actually “happy are the…” Literally, the Greek word means happy, and not an abstract joy, either; it is the word for happiness based on positive circumstances.
So I have been thinking about this “full” and “complete” business, words Jesus uses to describe life and joy if we’re walking his way; and I have been thinking about the “happy are the…” lines, especially, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Brennan Manning writes (in a book that may actually save my life if it doesn’t kill me first, Ruthless Trust) that the basic premise of biblical trust is “the conviction that God wants us to grow, to unfold, and to experience fullness of life. However, this kind of trust is acquired only gradually and often through a series of crises and trials” (p. 9). All of these words seem to be saying that the only way to be happy is to be miserable first. Is that the truth?
Does this seem a little shallow?
Maybe you really are a better person than I am. But I am fairly certain that you want to be happy, that if pressed, in your heart of hearts, if someone asked you what your goal in life is, you would answer like Beyonce: “To be happy.”
I mean, what is the point of all this if we are depressed the whole time? And so many of us are depressed. Our generation is–as Brene Brown points out in her incredible TedTalk on vulnerability–the most medicated, overweight, and addicted generation in American history. We are numbing ourselves to pain; we cannot bear to feel the feelings because they threaten to swallow us up. We cannot bear to look at ourselves honestly; we are drowning in self pity and we are struggling to keep our masks on–even as we complain about how fake, insecure, and full of complaints other people are.
I am reading Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust and wondering what it would mean to know that God’s love goes beyond the good and bad things that happen to me; what if I could trust him in my times of unhappiness–to say like Job, that if I accept good from God’s hands I must accept bad also. How many of us have heard that “becoming a Christian doesn’t mean your life will be perfect” and believed the words in our heads, but have sunk to our knees in anguish close to despair when the raw tragedies of life land on our shoulders?
Somewhere along the way, the gap between “Jesus loves me” and “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him” must be filled.
The question is this: how?
A Note: The tragedies of life can be objectively large like a cancer diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, or unemployment; or, they can be smaller, more personal, like a breakup, a difficult season at work or school, moving to a new city, or an emotional dark cloud over our heads like loneliness, depression, moodiness, or anger. I am not trying to paint my struggles as more dramatic than they are, but as the saying goes: to the man who has the toothache, it is the most terrible pain in the world. Each soul knows its own suffering (and suffering, as defined by Elisabeth Elliot, is having something you don’t want or wanting something you don’t have). And so, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a heavy load.”
Films Watched Since Last Post:
Take the Lead (2006)
Blue Jasmine (2013)
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
Step Up (2006)
Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013)
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Schindler’s List (1993)
Books Currently Reading:
Is Reality Secular? Mary Poplin
The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, Syrie James
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, J.D. Salinger
Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning
The Program Era, Mark McGurl
Reading Degree Zero, Roland Barthes