The Plague of Happiness

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It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything. My “best” posts (or at least the ones I like the most) have been the darker ones. The ones written in times of struggling, frustration, confusion. The ones most “relatable” since we all so often find ourselves struggling, frustrated, and confused. So I’ve carried this fear with me that if I write anything outside of those categories it wouldn’t be received well, or worse, would be fall into that untenable category of “cheesy.”

I fear sounding trite more than maybe anything else, and the last thing I want is a “puppies and rainbows” kind of post here. But I’m going to write about happiness and I hope that’s ok.

I listened to a Ted Talk recently given by Daniel Kahneman and titled “The riddle of experience vs. memory.” It’s fascinating and I recommend it. One of the things he talks about are the “cognitive traps” of happiness. I’ll quote him here:

“There are several cognitive traps that … make it almost impossible to think straight about happiness…

The first of these traps is a reluctance to admit complexity. It turns out that the word “happiness” is just not a useful word anymore, because we apply it to too many different things…

The second trap is a confusion between experience and memory… between being happy in your life, and being happy about your life or happy with your life. And those are two very different concepts, and they’re both lumped in the notion of happiness.

And the third is the focusing illusion, and it’s the unfortunate fact that we can’t think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance.”

I can’t do justice to any one of those ideas, much less all three, but o how they resonate. “Happy” has always felt like such a shallow emotion to me. In the Christian world we talk a lot about the difference between happiness and joy, the former being fleeting, while the latter carries a connotation of depth and endurance. And I think I interpreted that to mean that happiness is useless, weak even. Happiness is for the immature Christian; joy is for the varsity.

To be sure, happiness has a place in our lives. It’s a gift. It’s a reprieve from the trials that we are warned of, even promised, in scripture (John 16:33). But how much weight should it carry? Does it make me a more mature Christian to downplay my happiness because I know it is temporary? Or is that the cognitive trap of distorting its importance?

I’ll pause here because there are so many tentacles of this issue that I want to pursue and I’m finding myself heading that way. Is happiness a worthy pursuit for the Christian? How does Christian hedonism come into play? Why is suffering so seemingly “glorified” in our culture? And on and on.

I hope to explore those ideas soon. On my own or on paper, I’m not sure. But today I’m most struck by happiness itself and why I’m so damn scared of it.

I’m terrified to be happy. Which is pretty inconvenient because recently I really have been. I love the freedom of my job, the ability to travel as often as I want, the slow mornings in my apartment spent with hot tea and open windows. I love fall and the long awaited release of the Texas heat. I love my family, amidst all the messiness and change, and the friends who’ve walked with me through it, and who dream with me about jobs we might want and lives we might live. I have two legs that can run (albeit slowly), two hands that can cook (albeit messily), and this wildly good looking guy that keeps wanting to hang out with me and I couldn’t tell you why.

And I’m scared to enjoy any of it because what if I enjoy it too much am I making it an idol does that mean I don’t love God enough will he take it away to teach me a lesson I really don’t want to go back to the valley what if this is the calm before the storm

Somewhere along the way I’ve convinced myself that I get too happy the plagues will come. Just as the Lord sent plagues to the Egyptians to dethrone their gods and empty them of their promises, surely God will plague the very things that make me happy, too. Surely I’m too weak to enjoy something without making it an idol. Surely the locusts will swarm the second I get too comfortable.

To be sure, God does love us enough to reveal to us our idols to remind us that he alone satisfies. And often he does so by taking that idol away or diluting its effect. This is good and right for him to do. He has done it for me many times and, though painful, it is beautiful, gracious, and kind.

But I think I’ve bloated this picture of God’s love for me to the point of denying his good gifts. I’m so terrified that my happiness will inevitably lead to loss – so paralyzed by the fear of enjoying them “too much” – that I’ve confused blessings for arrows and act like there’s a target on my back.

As if God is up there with his bow just waiting to teach me a lesson. As if he doesn’t want to give me good gifts. As if he’s waiting for me to cross some arbitrary threshold of happiness to remind me who’s boss. As if he isn’t the author of happiness himself.

It’s good to be aware of the potential pitfalls of idolatry and to be careful. But when we end up doing spiritual somersaults to avoid them, I think we miss the whole point. We start looking for locusts. We miss out on enjoying his good and perfect gifts (James 1:17). We distort the importance of the giver himself.

There are still a lot of questions here, a lot of fears simmering, a lot of unknowns in the days and months to come. But for today, and for however long this season lasts, I want to know that God is not trying to trap me, trust that he delights in my gladness, and enjoy the still waters he’s led me to.

Is this miracle enough for anybody? Or has the thunder of “god loved the world so much” been so muffled by the roar of religions rhetoric that we are deaf to the word that God could have tender feelings for us?” – Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning

2 thoughts on “The Plague of Happiness

  1. “Somewhere along the way I’ve convinced myself that I get too happy the plagues will come.”

    My guess is being a life-long Auburn fan has a great deal to do with this. 😉

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