“I just don’t know if I’ll ever be happy.”
I know a dear young woman who told me this recently. I don’t think that her sentiment is an unusual one, and I’m sure you have heard this (or experienced it) in your own life. I think that it is an especially relevant topic for the Lenten season.
The short answer? We are made for happiness, but Christian happiness isn’t the same thing as worldly happiness. While we often grasp for fleeting happiness, what we are made for is joy.
The Problem of Happiness
It isn’t wrong to want to be happy, but is often meant by happiness is fleeting at best or impossible to attain at worst. Most often, what is being chased after is a feeling of some sort. What is desired is a feeling of calm and content, a state of doing what is enjoyable and pleasant and avoiding the unpleasant.
Aside from anything else, we have to acknowledge that in a society with the poverty of loneliness and a large number of people suffering from depression and anxiety (which are real medical conditions, and cannot be overcome by simply “trying harder to be happy”), there is real suffering and an unavoidable lack of “good feelings.” It’s hard to feel cheery when you live alone or in a disfunctional or abusive home situation. And even in the happiest of home situations, it’s hard to feel chipper when you are gripped by clinical depression or anxiety disorders.
But even those who are not alone, and who do not suffer from mental illness, do not walk around feeling happy all of the time. Feelings are, by their very nature, fleeting.
Yet, it is feelings that many of us (myself included) often find ourselves chasing after. Wanting to feel good is the reason why we sleep longer, or stay up later than we should, or scroll social media a few extra minutes. This isn’t altogether bad. We are biologically programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is the reason why you don’t see people walking around sticking their hands into flames or sleeping outside in shorts in the middle of the winter. To some extent, we should seek what feels good.
But, if that’s true, than why are some of the things that “feel good” not actually good for us?
Happiness in a Fallen World
The problem, of course, hearkens back to the Garden of Eden. In Eden, what felt good was good. Before sin, before our desires became disordered, we could see the good and choose it. (Free will, after all, isn’t the freedom to choose whatever we want – it is the freedom to choose the good.) But then came sin, and with sin came disordered desires. Now, while we are often grasping for a good thing, we often fulfill those desires in a disordered way. We see this in human sexuality. The Church affirms, over and over, that human sexuality is very good. Human sexuality is intended to be a glimpse of divine love – a total gift of self, a desire for union open to life. It doesn’t take a social scientist to see the ways our society has strayed from that.
Therein lies the real problem. Created goods are meant to point to the Creator. If loved in an ordered way, created goods can be very, very good. The problem comes when we expect them to be a god.
Nothing created can bring us true happiness. Created things and beings can certainly give us a glimpse of true happiness. That is their very purpose – to offer us a glimpse. But glimpsing isn’t staring. A glimpse is passing.
The Secret to True Happiness
So if God, and union with God in heaven, is the only way to attain true happiness…then how can we achieve that?
The answer is simple. The answer is the cross.
The first step is to deny the modern day heresy that we can only be happy by seeking what feels good. The second step is to accept that we can only know true happiness if we daily take up our cross and follow Christ.
The truth is that no one can avoid suffering in this life. All too often, if we try to avoid suffering, it comes to find us anyway. Because our world is a fallen one, and because there is sin in this world, we are all going to suffer. We may all suffer in different ways and to different degrees, but we will all suffer at some point. If we believe that suffering is pure evil and should be avoided at all costs, then we will end up discouraged when we find ourselves faced with it.
But suffering has been redeemed by the suffering of Christ on the cross. Suffering has been redeemed. From a purely worldly view, there is nothing good about suffering. Yet, when united to the cross of Christ, suffering becomes a means in which to love.
Sometimes, this is manifest in a very obvious way. I suffer from hyperemesis gravidarum during pregnancy, which is short term for nine months of stomach flu. It’s a miserable experience of suffering, but it is offered up and undergone for the love of an individual person. Having experienced it for four people, I can assure you that it is always, always worth it.
But sometimes, it is manifest in a less obvious way. All too often, suffering just seems senseless. Why do parents lose children to miscarriage, disease, or other tragedies? Why are some families abusive? Why are some children without families? Why do some people never find the spouse they long for? Why do some people suffer from chronic illness? Why do some people face a lifelong battle with mental illness?
There is no answer for these questions, at least not in this life. God does, however, give us a glimpse of the answer through the cross. I recently had a priest challenge me to pick a moment from crucifixion to pray with during Lent. What came to mind is the moment (or maybe even the moment right before) Jesus utters, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was divine, and so obviously God had not forsaken him. Why would he say that, then? Because he was suffering. If we are suffering, we are not failing. If we aren’t able to smile because it hurts too much, we are not failing. If we are gripped by grief and sorrow, happiness is not unattainable.
Happiness, real happiness, is in the hope of heaven. The death of Christ on the cross opened the gates to heaven. Christ’s suffering and death – viewed as weakness by the world — was in fact the means by which he conquered suffering and death.
So, when we seek happiness, we need look no farther than the cross. It isn’t feelings that we need. What we need is hope.
And so, when we are suffering and in pain, we needn’t despair. Happiness is nearer than we think. “Hail the cross, our only hope!”