Choose your poison

Choose your poison May 1, 2014

This morning, a friend who knows fairly well the ups and downs and trials of my life asked me, “Are you happy?” We had been talking about that realization—which comes on most Christians periodically, I think, because we often need to be reminded—that walking with Christ is going to require denying myself every day of the rest of my life. As my friend put it, we create the world around us every day, whether we want to or not, so there is never a time when our choices and actions cease to matter.

So now he wanted to know—in the midst of all of this self-denial, carrying the cross given to me, am I happy?

“Yes.” I surprised myself with the answer. “Yes, I am happy, most of the time.”

Then I thought a little further and added, “But there are moments of utter and abject misery. I think…I don’t think you can escape misery in this life. You only get to choose what kind of misery you will have.”

He chuckled a bit at that, and then my daughter started clamoring my attention, and the phone call ended without much more discussion of the topic. But I am still musing on it.

I said once before that happiness is what happens when you are not looking for it. Certainly that is the case in this season of my life. There are no big events or feasts on the horizon to hope and plan for. There are no grand goals or missions to excel at and boost my social standing or my self-esteem. I don’t do anything, really, that pays off in recognition or allows much self-indulgence. Honestly, I suck at carrying my cross, too. Sometimes it seems that it takes so much will to keep my principles in the big matters that I have little energy left for faithfulness in the small things. And the not-so-small things—despite being a great booster for the Sacrament of Confession, I haven’t actually been in two years. I have lots of excuses involving the ridiculous lack of availability of the sacrament and the difficulty and awkwardness of finding babysitting on a Saturday afternoon, but really it comes down to being sloppy at fitting this whole “life of faith” thing into my actual life.

I’m not happy because I am prospering, or because I am living the life I want, or the life I think I ought to. That is clear enough. Nor am I happy because I never suffer, or because I suffer nobly and beautifully. When I hurt, I am just as ugly and snotty as Simcha describes. There is, within me, a well of loss, doubt, fear, and loneliness that I could draw from daily without ever reaching bottom.

Somehow, I am happy—not overjoyed, not ebullient, not blissful, but reasonably, peacefully happy—most of the time, most days.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. I still think that it is counter-productive to make happiness a goal. I think that asking yourself “what makes me happy?” is much less likely to actually produce a fulfilling life than asking yourself “what kind of world am I creating?” (as in my friend’s observation) or “who am I becoming?”

I’ve not been able to avoid suffering. I can’t really say I’ve stopped trying, but maybe I’ve learned to accept some failure. Sometimes the choice is between two different kinds of privation: I can hold to principle, to my integrity, and suffer this privation…or I can sacrifice the core of myself in attempt to flee that pain and wind up core-less, trying to ignore the sucking wound hidden under wrappings of pleasure and comfort.

I can’t control entirely what I suffer, but I can avoid knowingly drinking poison.

Perhaps I’ve not so much created more happiness for myself as I have been freed from some of the weight of my own expectations of what life is supposed to look like—a neat and tidy narrative, with all of the bumps smoothed out and all of the dramatic moments resolved with effortless revelations and lessons learned, all the loose plot threads trimmed away or woven in.

So I’ll resist weaving today into a facile conclusion. I don’t know if this contentment is a reward for anything, or whether it will last past the next five minutes. I do know that suffering is universal, and I am not entitled to a picture-perfect life. I don’t need to grieve what was never mine to begin with, though I’ve grieved it plenty anyway.

I’ve practiced sitting with my pain and fear so much in the past few years that it is strange to instead sit with my happiness, seeing how the happiness, sadness, pain, and joy mix together in varying proportions, in a pattern that will never be unmixed or resolved in this life.


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