There are popular misconceptions when it comes to happiness.
Happiness defined as a delightful look on your face all the time.
Happiness as "How are you doing?" conversations concluding with an "I'm doing just great!" ending.
Happiness as having a great golf record or a perfect manicure.
Defining happiness in this way makes us feel good in the moment.
But might there be more?
I don't mean to discourage positivity. Because a positivity is a gift. And scientifically proven to reduce sickness, lead to longer relationships, etc. By all means, live with hope.
Two months ago, I posted this blog called "Terrible and Beautiful Things Will Happen." So many of you told me how much you resonated with my words. You also believe that life is of full of the best of times and the worst of times (and sometimes in the same breath).
So today, I want to take that conversation one step further and ask you how you're naming both the terrible and the beautiful? How are you embracing what it most real about your life?
She worked at a job that she excelled and where praise of her work was never to far from anyone's lips.
She mothered three bright-eyed children well on their way to meaningful adulthood. She'd just recently sent her baby to college at Princeton!
She spoke often of her loving husband and all the ways she'd partnered with him to make their shared dreams of owning their own internet company come true!
But, I didn't quite buy it. I never felt at ease around her. She spoke in a fake high-pitched tone whenever anyone new walked in a room. She used words like "Oh yes" and "Honey and Sugar dear" a lot. At church, this woman never spoke up in Bible study when we shared prayer requests. She was too busy telling us all how amazing her life was!
I gave her space and time.
And then one day much to my surprise, she and I had a breakthrough conversation.
Sure, all of those things she most wanted people to know about her were true. She liked her job. Her kids seemed to be doing ok. But on the inside, her marriage was falling apart inside her home and so was her faith.
"I don't know how to talk about this, Pastor" she'd say over and over. "I just want to be happy. My whole life I was taught to be happy. How can I be happy AND acknowledge all of this other stuff?"
I told her to just start. Talk. Tell somebody trustworthy her worries. And, consider how her faith calling was to imperfection. It's not like she was Jesus, afterall . . .
Within weeks, light came to this woman's eyes that I'd never seen before! It was breath-taking to behold as a new community around her began to know her for the first time.
But so few of us talk about it.
Yet, you and I can't truly get to that deep, down gut feeling of security, peace and happiness (what we all really crave) if we don't first start with acknowledging what is not well. And not be ashamed to say:
"I still feel a gaping ache every time I drive the house where my Daddy used to live."
"I yearn for my daughter to make better choices and stop asking me for money."
"I haven't talked to my best friend in ages. We had a falling out."
Or as author Brene Brown writes in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
Brown goes on to describe people who are happy as those who tell the truth about their lives in spaces safe enough to hold them.
My friends, being plastic never looked good on anyone. It doesn't look good me. It doesn't look good on you.
One secret to happiness: just be you. Soon joy will be on the way!
Recently a friend and I were having the conversation about the fact that women (of course some men too) do a really crappy job of telling people what they need. We're really good at saying, "What can I do for you?" or giving a passive aggressive piece of advice to our partners or friends, but when it comes down to saying, "I'd really like you to do ___ for me" we stink. We hold back what is true about us. We just don't know how to ask for what we need. We often just go on doing and doing for others hoping that one day they'll return the favor by reading our minds.
Maybe it is part of the mothering complex that seems to come with the female personality or maybe it is just generational or parenting issues, but regardless, it has been a long time since I've heard a woman confidently say, "This__ makes me really happy."
It's a tell tell sign, I think of how out of touch we are when we simply don't know.
But, we think we do. We are a nation of consumerism after all. We can get loans for what we want like new granite countertops and stainless steel refrigerators, so our kitchens are as nice as our neighbors. And things get worse when we look at what we do to our bodies. In fact, if the stats were revealed, it is true we spend billions of dollars a day on beauty products, get skinny pills and new clothes which are the latest style. It's not that we aren't turning our attention inward-- it is just what kind of attention it is. We are shiny on the outside with no idea of who we are on the inside.
As my friend and I kept talking along these lines, we both agreed it is intentional act to be able to know what makes you happy and what you most need. It's not like you can wake up every morning and always know. "I'd like to do __ today." It's not always that we as women have this kind of freedom of exploration. We think we don't have time to know what makes us happy. Isn't it our job to make everyone else happy?
Yet, I think if ever are going to move past the plastic interactions with each other and find peace for our souls (that I think most of us really want), then we've got to take step back and simply be able to answer the question. Easier said than done of course. Sacrifices will be required.
To be able to know what makes you happy is a lifestyle of awareness. It's a lifestyle of paying attention. It's a lifestyle of trying new things, taking risks and being able to say "yes" when something brings you joy. And, we can't feel guilty about such a journey. The Divine blesses us when we love and respect the beloved creation that we were made to be. And a funny thing happens, I believe, when we begin to live this way: we have something leftover to give away.
Author Leo Buscaglia once said: “You can only give away what you have ... If you have love, you can give it. If you don't have it, you don't have it to give.” So why then are we so focused on filling ourselves up with what will not fulfill us or give us anything in the first place?
For me, one thing that makes me happy is blogging. It's something I do for myself. (And if any of you happen to enjoy it great). Blogging and other forms of writing are on my happy list along with long uninterrupted conversations with good friends, diet coke from the fountain with just the right fizz, pulling out my passport for a trip, tweeting during major world events, and being at home on the couch in the fall with a fuzzy blanket and a fire going.
I am a writer to my core, so having this place to share, learn the discipline and simply get out thoughts in my head is a gift. Though so many find blogging to be a chore and stop before they get going, for me it is something I eagerly look forward to doing. It makes me happy, but even more important, it brings me joy (the difference between happiness and joy is a conversation for another day).
But, I never would have known this if I hadn't pay attention or allowed others to pay attention to me in more intentional ways. People who say, "You've been writing, haven't you? . . . You look happy" have encouraged me to not let the fears of "I can't" get the best of me when it comes to creating prose. I need to keep writing on my good days and on my worst. It's a nonnegotiable.
So, today, what makes you happy? Go ahead and do it. Or make plans to do it soon. If you don't know what "it" is-- figure it out. You'll be glad you did.
It's always the little things, isn't it that stick with us through life? It's usually not the grand gestures or the extravagant moments, but the whispers. The experiences that are engraved in our memory and won't let us go, even if we tried. Many call this the beginning of grace.
A gem like this has stuck close to me since high school-- though it was not taught to me by any teacher or shared with me by any friend. In fact, it's crazy that I remember it at all. It came from a banner hanging in my school hallway.
From 7th grade on my parents sent me to a Christian school about a 30 minute drive from our home in downtown. They were concerned about the quality of education I'd receive from the public high school assigned to me and they felt really great about academic and social opportunities available for me at this place. My grandparents were even kind enough to help out with the tuition. Small class sizes, individualized attention and loads of spiritual formation was a part of everything I experienced here. Though I wish now that my teenaged years had been full of more racial, religious and socio-economic diversity, I am thankful for the spiritual foundation for my time at the Christian school gave me (basic Bible classes in seminary were much easier from all the preparation!).
In line with this value system, each year, the senior class would select a class verse and class hymn to be read and sung at graduation. Then later, each class' verse of scripture would be sown into a banner and placed along the walls above the lockers. The banners were usually all quite large and colorful. You could hardly walk down the halls without noticing them.
Though I have no memory of my particular class verse was, I do remember one. This banner hung directly across from the door I walked into every morning next to the principal's office. As I gathered my wits together to keep going through school each early morning, I read it daily and was memorized:
It never made much sense to me, especially the ending. "Man (or woman) cannot discover anything about at his future?" Such a sentiment seemed to go against everything I thought I knew about God at the time. Growing up in a fundamental driven household, I believed that I grew up to do the right things at the right times, then my life would be free of trouble. The only people I thought at the time who experienced trouble were those who went against God's plans for their life. (And, with my "I'm spiritual" hat on I knew I wasn't one of them).
But, as I've grown up and heard the words, "when times are good . . . when times are bad" in the back of my head, this verse of scripture has equally made more sense to me and frustrated me all the same.
No matter how good you are or not, life interrupts. Plans you once betted your life on are quickly destroyed. People whom you thought would be in your life forever simple do not have the breath to climb the mountains with you. Grief comes. Sadness comes. The unexplained comes. Life makes absolutely no sense. We cannot have a specific 30 year life plan and even dare to think it will come true. We just don't know. And, it's frustrating. Many of us truly wish for life to simply be more lineal and fair. And it isn't. It never will be.
But, this does not take from us the moments-- the pure and beautiful moments of our journey. Which is what I think this verse is all about.
When life is good, let's rejoice, but when it bad, let's remember that each experience of life can be just a season. Life's joys, even as tainted as they may be by past losses, will return. Joy comes in the morning . . . (even if we have to wade through the night for years and years and years).
Over the past couple of weeks, I've heard countless stories from friends and colleagues about this dichotomy of life.
Some parents' children have died much too young from rare diseases. While other parents' children have soared into a new school year-- making their first goal at soccer matches and getting their first 100% on Spelling Tests. Some parents have cried new deep rivers of tears. Other parents have smiled for so long they thought their mouths would burst.
Some marriages have ended in bitter word wars over financial issues. While other marriages have only just begun with cakes, glamour photos and gleeful expectations based on promises for a long future. Some have entered new dark seasons of self-doubt and life crushing agony. Other folks have soared to high once in a lifetime emotional peeks.
Some long-term partnerships have ended because of the death of one from an unsuccessful battle with cancer. While other partnerships have soared with the expectations of new shared dreams and common goals. Some have cried tears they never expected to ever leak. Other folks have simultaneously said to themselves, "I didn't know that life could be this wonderful."
This is the mystery of life. Or as my friend Leslie said the a couple of days ago on Facebook, "On any given "best" day, someone, somewhere, is having their worst day. I guess that's the deal. Please God, give us strength when we need it."
I'm glad for the ever-present reminder of this wisdom as I long for the day when we are all made whole.
I know I've met my share of over the top loving kind of Christians through the years being in church as long as I have.
I've met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree in which they decide to sell their home and pack up their things and move across the world-- to third world nations sometimes even-- to share hope in medical supplies, food and friendship with some of the world's most discouraged and broken people. They do so saying, "God has called me to show Christ's love."
I've met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree in which they open up rooms in their home to internationals, struggling single mothers, or exhausted college students -- even when the person has no means to financially repay their kindness and nurture them back on their feet again. They do so citing, "God has called me to show Christ's love."
I've met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree that they'll spend hours of their free time making hospital visits to the terminally ill without family attending -- bringing a compassionate touch of support to those who would not otherwise have any. They do so citing, "God has called me to show Christ's love."
I've met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree that they ask their own young children to go without that desired toy at Christmas so that instead the money can be used to buy toys, clothes and other household items for families in their neighborhood who have recently lost everything in a destructive fire. They do so citing, "God has called me to me show Christ's love."
I've also met Christians who follow Jesus to the degree that they stop everything they are doing when they learn a member of their church has experienced a death in the family. Soon piles and piles of mac and cheese, broccoli chicken casserole, and hearty soups are delivered to the home of the grieving just in case they get hungry. They do so citing, "God has called me to show Christ' s love."
Christians can be crazy people can't that? Doing the behind the scenes work of compassionate deeds, sacrificial giving and life-giving hospitality that others in the world might find to be foolish, a waste of resources or for some, just plain dumb. But, truly Christian act-- or seek to act in love because of the life and witness of Jesus Christ.
I John 3 lays it out clearly for us here:
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
As followers of Christ, our hearts are full of compassion for others in the same way that we know God has been compassionate toward us.
So, while sure, Christians don't have a market on this whole "loving deeds" business (a tenant of people of all world religions), we certainly are people who can't avoid it. We can't say that loving each other is some humanistic talk without spiritual value to Jesus. We can't boil our faith down to a commitment we made years ago with no evidence of it in our daily life. Just as Christ loved us and taught us how to love, we are to love one another.
I'm proud to be a member and a pastor of a church that is about the "crazy" business of loving each other and any who would come in our doors. Just a couple of weeks ago a group of homeless teens came to worship and I was so proud of how everyone responded to them feel at home. Just yesterday, we all piled our resources together and hosted a lunch for a family who recently lost their loved ones. And countless other examples could be given. Loving other always our calling-- even when we don't agree theologically, even we don't always understand one another, even when we get on each other's nerves. We can still love. We can always love. And if they call us crazy for doing so, then this makes Jesus crazy too and we'd be in good company!