Betty Duffy

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quick Takes (with a couple thoughts on unhappiness)

I know this is typically done on Fridays, but it always seems to be the middle of the week when I can't complete a thought, so here it is...

I've been having a "Why did we get a dog?" moment this week. First it was that skunk thing, the smell of which he's only just beginning to shake, and then tonight he went out and rolled in something dead. Licked my knee and now my knee smells like something dead. He's got a fungus on his nose from digging moles, and that doesn't begin to count all the holes in the yard. Chewed the leg of my favorite chair, chewed the leather ottoman, chewed daughter's new bicycle helmet, chewed door frame, countless shoes, and his leash (while I was walking him). I think I'd rather have ten kids.

This weekend was the Blue River Festival, big weekend in my town, a parade with lots of high school marching bands playing OMD arrangements on the Sax and clarinet, boyscouts riding on semi trailers and millions of old Shriners. Shriners driving corvettes, Shriners driving police motorcycles, Shriners driving tiny cars. The "high priest and prophet" of the Shriners waved from a vintage Chevy, and I start to wonder if God told him (in a prophecy) that all these old guys could do nothing better than have a club for every vehicle known to man (with an emphasis on the tiny cars and go-carts).

...and then there were the Church floats, whereby one group chose to dress up as a bunch of clowns and do a mime routine while they walked down the street handing out tracts. Their float was a hot air balloon that said "Up, up and away!" with JESUS on the basket. Sign me up!

It's time to flip the bacon. I wonder where my tongs are. Oh, of course, in the front yard under the yew bushes. Just as I suspected.

According to the Harper’s Index, Israeli researchers have recently developed software that can evaluate the depression of bloggers.


Thanks to Jen, for hosting this little interlude, even though today, Jen's doing a link-a-rama thingy. In that same spirit, I'm going to share a couple links I've been reading lately.

Two of my favorite bloggers, Pentimento and Marie (at Two Ways of Renouncing the Devil) have recently written posts noting that there seems to be little genuine happiness among believers, and this idea has been niggling me ever since.

Marie writes:

"I don’t know any folks that seem to genuinely be Christians that seem to genuinely be happy. Some are joyful or peaceful or content in a Christian way. But very few are happy or at rest in a generic sense. None, I’d say. They are restless. They are, of course, strangers in a strange land."

And similarly,Pentimento writes:

"I kept thinking of how we are all in Babylon, in exile from what is good and beautiful. And it seemed to me that those of us who strive to bring heaven down to earth, to create small utopias of goodness where there appears to be none, are perhaps in the most desolate kind of exile of all. Of those people who order their lives according to daily mass and prayer practices, I know of few who have any real sort of peace in their hearts. Just as I cling to the cross out of desperation, knowing that there is no salvation without it, the people I know who engage in orderly devout practices sometimes appear to be white-knuckling it. And I stress that there is nothing wrong or untoward about that; it's simply the way it is."

I want to expand my thinking on this idea because I have observed the same. Is it just exile? Is it that genuine Christians seek the Cross over, say, happy hot air balloons and driving tiny cars in parades? I start to think that all that "I found peace and happiness when I became a Christian" stuff is what people tell the unconverted to bamboozle their self-interest into believing.

What do you think?


Karen LH said...

I feel happier now than I did before I became Catholic—more at peace, rooted—but I also feel pretty alienated from the culture at large and a lot of my family. So part of it's the feeling of exile. Also, it's a sad time in general: everything seems to be unraveling.

Kimberlie said...

Interesting thoughts that I will ponder some more. I can identify that feeling of being in exile. I think it's because if you are genuinely living your faith you are cross-wise with the mainstream culture. And the whole idea of happiness is, I think, a very "American" thing. We define happiness as having everything we want in life but that is counter to what Jesus teaches us which is to leave it all behind, pick up our crosses, and follow Him (which by the way - He went to THE CROSS). So our cultures constantly feeds into our base, human nature of wanting to please ourselves but our faith urges us to look beyond ourselves to see the hurt and pain in the world and do something to make a difference.

I feel peace, I feel contentment, I have many moments of pure joy but happiness? Not so much.

Um Abdullah said...

I think maybe Kimberlie is right: it must be an "American" thing. I was watching a movie with my son and a commercial came on for "Hannah Montana: Milee says Goodbye?" in which they were talking about the final episode in which we find out where Milee will live, and who she will be with. (oooh, sign me up! cant miss that!). Anyway, they were asking the stars of the show (all between the ages of like 13 and 18) how you know that someone is "the one". Milee Cyrus, with her ridiculous half-grin mumbles "Well...I think someone is the one when they make you happy all the time..." Oh man. I nearly fell out of my seat laughing. Really? Happy ALL THE TIME? And if they don't, they are not "the one". Well, shoot me now cuz that just seems impossible.

All this to say that the American ideal of happiness is very candy drops and romance novels. It's not sacrifice or surrender or any of that.

And, to add my last two cents (had enough yet?) I must say I have more joy and peace as a Muslim than I ever did as a Christian, mostly because the religion just absolutely makes sense logically, with no strange loopholes of logic, no random obvious contradictions. It takes the message of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Job, etc., all the way to Jesus and Muhammad and makes sense of it all, the parts the Bible left out/completely threw out/completely changed. So, from my humble perspective, I don't know if it is so much an "exile" mentality, 'oh, we aren't where we belong and that's why we can't find peace', but maybe, just maybe, it's possible that some people don't have joy as Christians because something deep down tells them this isn't right, this doesn't make sense, why should I worship anyone but the One who created me?
-Signed, a humble, American revert to Islam who went to Bible college to become a Missionary and, thank God, learned about what the Bible really says and how far it is from what God really says.

Julie D. said...

Um Abdullah, it is interesting that you say that you found happiness in the Muslim faith because it makes absolute logical sense. That is precisely how I feel, as a Catholic, after having been raised by atheists ... and living most of my life as an atheist. Thanks for sharing that because it reminded me of how much I love the way that God speaks to us all where we are ... and when that happens, then we find peace and happiness.

Um Abdullah said...

@Julie. Ha ha. :-) Yes, I completely agree (and I think all of us God-loving, montheists can agree) that atheism is by far the most illogical of all worldviews. To be sure, Catholicism is most certainly more based in reality than atheism (or polytheism, for that matter) ever could be. Very good points.

Julie D. said...

Oops, I meant to say that I lived most of my life as an agnostic ... always wondering and seeking truth, but not knowing how one knew God existed. :-)

mary said...

I guess it has a lot to do with how you view the nature of happiness. Upon reflection I think I equate happiness with the peace and contentment and sometimes joy that come from the parts of my life that proceed well. Robert Spitzer, S.J, former president of Gonzaga and an amazing and articulate philospher published a book about our culture and life issues in which he reviews the 4 levels of happiness from classical philosophy - Healing the Culture is a great book I've used for many adult classes on faith - it resonates with common experiences and helps the reader recognize the source of ultimate happiness as God. Sorry to be so long but "happiness is a serious problem...."(Dennis Prager - also excellent thinker on the subject)

karyn said...

I was listening to Godspell on the way home with the song in which she sings, "Where are you going, can you take me with you?" I choke up every time because, if you come to love Jesus, the feeling of separation can seem unbearable at times. I have so many blessings in my life, but sometimes I'm tired of the struggle and I want to meet Jesus face-to-face now. Maybe it's depression but it feels different than that. I guess it's the restless exile thing. I remember thinking that if only I was "religious", I would be like those content saint pictures - but once you read about the saints, many of them longed for martyrdom and the chance to go heaven so in some ways they probably weren't considered the happiest, most jovial people.

BettyDuffy said...

Lots of interesting thoughts here.

You know I'm going to quibble with you Um Abdullah, so here it goes:
Although it's a leap I've been known to make, unhappiness does not equal an error in belief.

Like you, as a new convert (to Catholicism in my case) I went through a honeymoon period during which I was intensely happy. Everything was new, so logical, so practical, why wasn't everyone doing this? etc.

If there was a fallacy in my belief it was that I could achieve perfection in this life, and the ongoing reminders that I cannot achieve perfection, but will in fact continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, is a source of frustration and fatigue--much like doing laundry.

I picked up a book today, though, it was a self-guided Ignatian retreat, that had me boggling once again at the infinite depth of the faith, that there seem to be no limits to the pursuit of God--which makes all kinds of sense. And the first week of this retreat is meant to be spent meditating on desolation, omitting thoughts of anything that might inspire joy or excitement, like thoughts of Heaven or any earthly consolation. Instead contemplate the misery of sin and suffering until the soul is convinced of its need for a redeemer.

I'm starting to think that this is just my time to practice this spiritual desolation, to experience temptation again and again, to put off the quest for joy, rebuke laughter, and deprive myself until I'm so thirsty I can't stand it--as long as I can continue a colloquial dialogue with God--maybe I can be satisfied without consolation. Maybe unhappiness is a spiritual gift.

At the same time, I've had a few consolations lately, often through conversations like this one, where the answer answers.

Mike said...

I tend to agree with Mary.

The question of "happiness" depends entirely on how one defines it.

We know as Christians we cannot define "happiness" the way that the culture does. And frankly, once that bridge is crossed, once you're finally convinced that "happiness" is not achieved by material things, power, fame, honor, sensual pleasures and all of the other things which the culture says we should "fill" ourselves with, it's a tremendous relief. It's like being let out of a kind of prison.

But then you begin to ask yourself how "happiness" is achieved. If not in the way dictated by the culture, then how?

My answer is very much like Mary's. "Peace and contentment and sometimes joy that come from the parts of my life that proceed well." That's a very good definition in my book.

"Happiness" for Christians is paradoxical. It's not about being "full," but rather about being "empty." This paradox chafes against my fallen nature everyday, and for this reason sometimes I don't realize that I really am happy. I have to remind myself everyday.

Sometimes this little phrase, which I repeat to myself, works pretty well: "I have the riches of a king."

Hope said...

I've always viewed happiness as being dependent on circumstances and well, who has circumstances that will make them happy forever? So to me, happiness is fleeting.

Joy, peace and contentment seem fleeting, too, though.

I don't chase any of it, but am grateful when it appears, for however long it's here.

My struggle has been to be at peace with feeling my feelings, instead of pretending they don't exist. I grew up burying my feelings out of necessity. When I became a Christian I buried them because I wanted to be seen as a good witness for Christ and in my mind and from what I heard in sermons that meant being perfect or pretending life was perfect because now I had Jesus.

Becoming Catholic was a turning point where I found the freedom to simply be where I was at. I cannot tell you how much of a relief it has been. And somehow Reconciliation figures into that big time but I can't put into words why or how.

Marie said...

Thank you for the link, wow, that changed the face of my hits graph. . .

Interesting comments here. I always find Muslim commentary interesting because studying Islam is part of what returned me to Catholicism. I'd grown up in an "UP UP and AWAY with JESUS" parish or two and Islam reminded me of things like fasting and praying.

I wonder now, after thinking, whether anyone at all is happy, by the modern American expectation your commenters talk about. I think maybe no one is "happy", per se, it's just Catholics think they might get there some day and folks outside a religious world view think they'll get it in just a minute, when they hit "Pay Now" on their shopping cart or when UPS shows up or when they get that next bite of candy bar (not that I do any of that). So it's not that some are happy and some aren't, it's that some figure they'll be happy soon and some figure it might be awhile?

At the same time. . .

My middle daughter had a migraine last night. My littlest daughter told her, "I'm sorry your head hurts" and middle was appreciative. Youngest tells me, "She feels happy now." Not willing to lie or to crush her pride, either, I responded, "Well, she feels loved now."
"Loved *is* happy," Youngest says.

Oh, and as an antidote to the Jesus balloon float image that I will forever carry in my head until it is burned away in Purgatory, have you seen this rosary?

Marie said...

"My struggle has been to be at peace with feeling my feelings, instead of pretending they don't exist. I grew up burying my feelings out of necessity. When I became a Christian I buried them because I wanted to be seen as a good witness for Christ and in my mind and from what I heard in sermons that meant being perfect or pretending life was perfect because now I had Jesus."

I found that very insightful. A friend of mine was, I think, in this place, she felt like she needed to show me how great Christianity was by showing me how happy she was, it was very hard on her, I think.

BettyDuffy said...

Mike, ""Happiness" for Christians is paradoxical. It's not about being "full," but rather about being "empty." This paradox chafes against my fallen nature everyday, and for this reason sometimes I don't realize that I really am happy. I have to remind myself everyday."--I think I only just put this idea into perspective this week. Thinking about this home retreat idea (which I'm not technically doing, just thinking about) it talks about putting aside ANYTHING that is not God--well, that's about 95% if my life. First there are the "things" that are distractions, and after that, the thoughts--and I'm not even going try to figure out what to do with the kids, I'm keeping them on my radar, I guess, as part of God's body. Anyway, just facing up to these things helps me realize why I always feel like the "rich young man" who walks away sad.

Hope and Marie, I love the points you've made.

TS said...

I wonder how much happiness can simply be equated with gratitude. And what gets me about the saints is they have such a level gratitude and such a microscopic level of entitlement. St. Monica cried tears of prayer for years before her son was converted, and that can be discouraging because of how much emotion and prayer from a saint it took to change her son. Of course he did go on to become one of the greatest figures in Church history, so God was not outdone in generosity.

BettyDuffy said...

"If this is how you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few of them"--Does that sound like gratitude?

I'm not sure I'm going to go with you on this one, because the idea that any trouble can be surmounted by thinking happy gratitude thoughts, is a little pet peeve of mine. I think it comes dangerously close to "willing" things to be--and I know that's not exactly what you're saying--but I think it's a rational fear that many Christians have--if they admit discontent, or that things aren't going well--they are often met with something like, "Maybe you're not praying enough," or "Be grateful for what you have." When in reality, I think discontent is often a signal that the groanings of change are already underway, and as such, is often a fruit of good prayer.

Rather than mourning her son's lost faith, if Saint Monica had said, "Well, at least I have a son--I should just be grateful" she probably would not have been moved to pray him into sainthood.

I do think unhappiness is sometimes a vocation.

Kate said...

I think I have met very few 'happy' people of any stripe...perhaps committed people of faith, because they have meaning to their life beyond happiness, pursue it less and less fervently? I know my secular friends put a lot of energy into having and enjoying things, and are very protective of their pleasures - which makes sense to me, because if I thought this life was all there was, I would be always alert to every possibility for pleasure. Being Catholic, as I am, and believing that this life is not all we have to look forward to, I am more content to let passing pleasures...pass. And put my peace and satisfaction in doing instead what is right or true or good, rather than just what will be pleasing in that moment.

That said...Mother Teresa underwent, as we know now, a heck of a dark night of the soul. And yet, if you see any video of her, she just radiates happiness.

Marie said...

I completely agree with Kate about my atheist or agnostic friends being "very protective of their pleasures", and usually they aren't shy about it. I don't think there's any general shame or self-awareness of the discord with history in folks who say that the goal of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, both for ourselves and others. I had a dear friend who was furious with me, seething, at my third pregnancy. Maybe to this day I don't entirely understand that, but I think it came down to the idea that it would prevent us from having the kind of life this person pictured as happy -- low stress, low pain. My kids were healthy, I had plenty of them (2), our income seemed enough the support a nice lifestyle, what neurosis of mine was pushing me to rock the boat? He was, I think, angry because I was thwarting his hopes for happiness for me. Of course, his very anger greatly increased my unhappiness. But his intentions were good, he wanted me to be happy in this life and he thought I was blowing it.

TS said...

I see what you mean BD. I'll have to ponder that. I
You're right about St Monica not being satisfied with something less, but I wonder how she stayed in live w God throughout thise yrs of anguish.

On happiness of the earthly variety, have you heard of studies that show it is more or less pre-determined and that everyone has an individual set point which can't be significantly altered, for good or ill, by events - at least over the long haul? What do you make of that?

TS said...

Come to think of it, the Blessed Mother told St Bernadette that she'd be unhappy in this life.

Alyssa said...

I like John Piper's take on joy and the Christian life: "The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever." And also this from C.S. Lewis: "The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire....If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards as promised in the Gospels, it would seem that that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

I believe the Christian life should be one of a deep joy and peace, and I think many people are put off by Christians who seem to be dour and sour. That being said, choosing the path of greatest joy often means suffering in the here and now, and we may not always feel happy or content. That's ok--Jesus was not happy or content in the Garden of Gethsemane. But he laid down his life anyway, motivated by the glory that was set before him, and he found joy through the offering.

dylan said...

I'm hoping this is relevant to the discussion, but I remember C S Lewis saying somewhere that to speak of "the consolations of religion" is a bit odd, like speaking of the consolations of a visit to the dentist's! We never know quite how sinful we are until we approach the purity of God, and the knowledge is not exactly consoling! At the same time, it shouldn't discourage. (But in my case, it often does discourage!)

berenike said...

I remember a priest tutor saying once "People say "Believe in Jesus! Your life will be happy!" This is rubbish! Accepting the Gospel is just the beginning of your troubles!"

BettyDuffy said...

From Pope Benedict XVI:
"This was the task set before the Baptist as he lay in prison: to become blessed by the unquestioning acceptance of God's obscure will; to reach the point of asking no further for external, visible, unquivocal clarity, but, instead, of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and his own life..."

Can't remember where I read it, but it seems like Mother Teresa also said that if she were to become a saint, she would be the Patroness of those who live in darkness.

Magnificat said...

If happiness is life as shown on tv commercials - no problems at all, sun is always shining, everybody's smiling, gorgeus house etc. - well, Jesus didn't promise us that.
"A servant is not greater than his master" - so, our life inevitably imitate His. So, no much tv happiness, I suppose :-)))
But also "your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you", "peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you", "you will indeed be free".
Since I've tasted this unbelivable freedom, overwhelming joy and profound peace, I have no reason to wonder what the world has to offer.