“Est-ce que vous êtes heureux?” (Are you happy?). This is what the founding pastor of our church used to say every time he would greet us on a Sunday morning.
“No. I’m not happy.” I would grumble under my breath. “And, FYI, God isn’t mad at me because I’m not happy.”
Yeah, I’m a charmer like that.
I am sure that there is some good reason why he greeted us that way, but for years this irritated me beyond reason. To be fair, he is a cheerful man. He is not some grand theologian but a rather simple man who has lived a great life and who, I believe, genuinely is happy.
What I resisted was the expectation that I feel happy. As if this was some kind of gauge of my soul’s destination. I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t know what it felt like to be happy.
I remember being a high school Senior, listening to a friend’s little sister (a Freshman) going on and on about how happy she was about the Homecoming dance and how this was the “most important night of her life.” I do believe I rolled my eyes and growled something contrarian like, “You poor fool.”
I have been a happiness naysayer for a long time.
I wish I could put the finger on an exact situation that turned me into a cynic, or a moment at which I learned to distrust happiness. If I were to dig around in the worksite that is my heart, I might just find it. Maybe I should try.
But that’s not the point right yet. The point is this: are you a happiness naysayer? Are you a joy cynic? Be honest with yourself, because you are the only one listening.
A funeral over a marriage any day…
Remember, last week, when I said I preferred going to a funeral over a wedding? This is true for all the reasons I gave.
I used to be a wedding planner, which is also one of the reasons I hate weddings. I worked with some immense bridezillas in my day, and planned some extremely over-the-top extravaganzas. I happen to know that one of the weddings I planned ended in divorce less than six months later.
The fact that we spend so much money and energy planning our wedding and give so little thought to the marriage that is being celebrated…it nauseates me to the point that I cannot, in good conscience, attend a wedding.
And yet once that “we’re planning a wedding” ball starts rolling, nothing else matters. There is an assumption that happiness will naturally follow the party. Well. News flash.
This grumpiness, this mistrust of the concept of happiness has been with me for years. Years. The more someone tried to rub my face in happiness, the more I hated happy people. I pitied people who experienced euphoria…it’s a long fall from bliss back too real life.
Again, this deserves to be an area of self-reflection, but for now, I want to say one thing:
I made an exception to that mistrust of happiness for one thing: I let myself believe, after sixteen years of marriage, that having children would make me happy. It did exactly the opposite. It made me miserable.
It brought me to the absolute lowest point possible on the misery scale, breaking me into so many little pieces that I actually ceased to exist. When you don’t exist, you don’t worry about happiness.
When you don’t exist, you don’t get irritated with people who are happy. When you don’t exist, it’s impossible to be a cynic.
The sparkle factor
Having children broke me. I ashamedly admit that me–proud, strong-willed, self-sufficient, self-indulgent, self-centered me–I was broken by those two little scalawags to whom I gave birth.
I hated the baby phase, because they didn’t interact. They just needed. Needed. Needed. They sapped me dry with all their neediness. I was miserable and they didn’t care. They just needed.
Somehow we survived all that, and one day, this happened:
The day this happened, the day that face lit up like that while he was dancing, I became intensely jealous.
How dare he be so unabashedly happy?
I was jealous of a baby. I was jealous of my baby. He sparkled with joy and innocence and I was jealous of him.
That day, I decided that I wanted to sparkle again, too.
It probably wasn’t going to look like his sparkle. But I needed to re-invest my broken but slowly mending self into something that would have the potential to make me sparkle like that.
Cue: friends who didn’t give up on me
I have written extensively about my friend Aline in the past, but here is the long and the short of it: She and I worked at a summer camp together some fourteen years ago. She is a musician, with lots and lots of ideas. She swooped in and took me along for the ride with her on her adventures. I am a stowaway on the Aline Express. Aline is the person who got me singing again when I had wanted to give up. Aline is the person who started a forty member orchestra from scratch. Aline is the person with whom I played four-hands piano and who shoved a viola in my hands 20 years after the last time I’d played and told me to pinch hit in a string quartet.
I was completely broken after having babies, but Aline, being Aline, said, “Let’s do a concert.”
In typical Aline fashion, this was not a small thing. This was a big deal. A huge choir. The orchestra. Lights and narration and the whole nine yards.
At the time she suggested it, I was tired, I was broken. But something in my heart wouldn’t let me say no (that inability to say no is a different problem entirely.)
Music has always been what held me together, and that concert was an opportunity for me to sparkle. Just a little bit. I found, in that little space of two hours, a place of joy. Not happiness, nothing like that, but I could feel a little bit of sparkle seeping into the cracks of my soul, connecting the broken pieces together.
Kintsugi and you
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken pottery. The joints can be made with many different materials, but sometimes, the broken pieces are mended with gold. The fact that it is broken is not a sufficient reason, for people who practice kintsugi, to dispose of a piece of pottery.
When mended with a precious metal like gold, the newly restored object is more valuable (because of the gold) and more unique than it was before. It could be argued that it is even more beautiful.
The fact of being broken, of being exhausted, of feeling useless or depressed is not a reason for us to give up on happiness. It is, perhaps, in that brokenness that our sparkle can return, seeping into the cracks and putting us back together.
Are you happy?
Because I am a contrarian, if someone still asked me that question every Sunday I would probably still grumble something contradictory.
But if I were to be honest with myself, since I started my “Buy No Clothes in 2021” challenge, I have experienced several moments of what, could, perhaps, register as small moments of happiness. They don’t have anything to do with the actual not buying of clothes, but rather, the fact that I have made progress on deeper reason for why I undertook the challenge in the first place: You need to stop throwing money at your self-worth problems.
I may still be broken in hundreds of little pieces, but the process of putting myself back together, with the help of my family, my friends and a healthy dose of daily prayer, has resulted in something I esteem to be more precious than anything I had before.
The question is this: what is it that you love? What is it that you have always enjoyed? Me, it was music and writing. What is it for you? What is the activity in which you could get lost for hours and your face would look like that little imp dancing to Tutti Frutti?
To help you think this through, I have put together this little document:
This document provides space for you to jot down one happy or positive memory from the first eighteen years of your life. The idea is that I want you remember what it was, when you were young, that made you sparkle.
Tomorrow, we are going to take a look at your homework.