Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Happiness Is . . .


This winter—our first here in Rochester—I fell into a depression that was initially hard for me to recognize because I’d never before experienced depression that didn’t seem to have a direct cause, such as my father’s death. I therefore looked for what I thought I might be missing. Initially I thought I missed Chicago. I thought I missed being in a walkable neighborhood. I thought I missed my sisters, my brothers, my mom, my dad, and even friends I never made. But as soon as the first daffodil bloomed outside my back door and I had to squint when I stepped into the yard, I knew I had simply missed the sun.

Before spring finally showed up, my routine included too much HGTV and History Channel. It included finding reasons to be angry at Ron so I could unleash some of the blackness I was feeling. It included wondering why he ever married me in the first place, and wondering how we were going to survive as a couple after the kids all leave home, and wondering what I have to offer as a mother now that I’m no longer changing diapers or kissing scrapes or finding ways to entertain children that have figured out finally how to entertain themselves. But more than anything, it included me trying to figure out how to find happiness again.

And then I realized I don’t need to find it. It’s okay not to have it.

I’m not cynical or a defeatist. I’m a sufficer, Ron would say. I’m comfortable without an extra pillow. I’ll order the same thing every time I go to a restaurant. I don’t need to maximize every moment of my life, and I forgot this over the last several months of gray.

Until I came across a couple of scriptures: Philippians 4:11-12.

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.

As an editor, I cringe at the use of the passive voice. So in these verses, I was drawn (passive voice) to “I am instructed.” Who is instructing Paul? Is it God? I thought so at first, but I couldn’t understand why God would instruct Paul to be full and hungry, to abound and to suffer need. But it’s not God. It’s Paul’s own doing. It’s his notice of the world, his partaking of it, that is instructing him. He sees the world offers him options in his decision to be content. Or not. He can be abased AND he can abound. Or he can be abased OR he can abound. He can choose whether to be full OR to be hungry. He can choose to abound OR to want. In saying he has learned to be content, he is actually saying he has chosen to be content.

Not happy: content.

I think we place too much emphasis on happiness—on our pursuit of something that may always be just out of reach.

In February, our family went to St. John. On our last full day there, we hiked for about an hour or so to reach the petroglyphs. When the Taino Indians inhabited the island, this spot was sacred to them because of the waterfall they found there, and the reflecting pool at its base. Of course, we, visiting in 2013, ended up being underwhelmed. The waterfall was dry, and even had it not been, there was nothing grand about it. The pool was stagnant, dark, and little more than a gathering place for bugs. The petroglyphs were likewise unimpressive: only a few scattered scrapings into the stone, more or less unrecognizable and certainly lacking all meaning for us.

Still, there was something remarkable if not amazing to me about the clearing, because it reminded me of how accustomed we’ve become to not being amazed. We stand in line for hours for a five-minute ride on a roller coaster, because rolling down a hill isn’t fun enough anymore. We jump out of planes to freefall for 7,000 feet before pulling the parachute cord, because jumping off a swing no longer tickles our stomachs. We go to the Virgin Islands for a week because our gloomy backyard is making us angry at our husband and making us yell at our kids and making us forget to take notice of the cardinals and the way the snow weighs down the branches and the way the ice creates patterns out of itself on the windows. We’re looking for more, because we want to be amazed and yet can’t remember how.

But if we could just find contentment . . . If we could know what hunger is and yet choose to be full . . . If we could know need and yet choose to see how much we already have . . . If I could live through the cloudy days and choose to focus on the warmth of my house, my home, my family . . .

Then I don’t need to be amazed. I don’t need year-round sunshine. And I don’t need happiness or joy or elation when I can choose to be content. I don’t need a feast, when, as the saying goes, enough is a feast. And I have enough. I have plenty.

1 comment:

Holly said...

I think it's true, with the outside gloom comes temporary depression. In our Pittsburgh house I was so tired of feeling gloomy that I painted the walls bright white and bought furniture that was white, light blue, and yellow, which had never really been my favorite colors. But, I had to have something inside to balance out the cold and darkness outside. Now I live where it is almost always warm and sunny, my house can be decorated with dark woods and rich colors, and that winter sadness stays away.