On Cups, Happiness, and Joy


[Portrait of the Apostle John, Adrian Kranz]

My sister Chris’s favorite saying is, “If you can’t change something, change the way you think about it.”  She didn’t originate this saying but she definitely lives it.  

On the flip side, this lyric from a song I love by Ray LaMontagne:

Never learned to count my blessings/

I choose instead to dwell in my disasters.  

How can I appreciate both of those when they say opposite things?  

Two days ago I wrote about a beautiful day I had.  I don’t have many beautiful days.  I have many beautiful moments in the midst of my messy, grace-filled, tortured days.  I suffer insomnia most nights.  I nearly always feel like I’m falling short or failing, in the midst of which I love people and try to speak life to them.  I’ve learned not to live according to those feelings–I don’t spend my days in the fetal position–but that whole “ignore them and they’ll go away” strategy has yet to work for any extended period of time.  Prayer restores my perspective.  It helps me remember that those are mostly lies and, even if they are true, God covers my shortcomings

This next may cross the line of telling you too much about my inner workings–“What?  Mike thinks there’s a line?”–but one reason I love playing ultimate is that after a good game, I get a few hours relief from all that noise in my head.  That post-game high just quiets things down for a while.  Winning the tournament a few weeks ago?  Feeling so good gave me three days of relative quiet!  I asked Kim, “Do people experience this all the time?”  Dang!  No wonder some people can get so much done!  

Now let’s be clear on three things

1)I don’t have it as bad as many other people do, 

2)Too often I contribute to my own struggle,* and

3)God redeems this in my life by using it to give me compassion and empathy for others.  

A friend who was in recovery from alcoholism once told me, “You get it like someone who is in recovery.  I don’t know anybody else not in recovery who understands what people go through like you do.”  I still count that among the best affirmations I’ve ever received.  

On Sunday, my cup ran over.  I could say that it ran over because everything went right, which in Big Picture terms was certainly true.  More, it spilled over because I got to see God’s goodness to me in such profound ways and in so many faces.  

Are all my days that full of God’s goodness?  Could I see it on Sunday because it was writ large in my son’s baptism, in my friend’s son’s miraculous recovery, of which his baptism was the consummation and fulfillment?  

Cup half full, cup half empty.  That talk relates to whether we focus on positives or negatives, whether we feel hopeful or hopeless about what is and what might be.  But all of this addresses what happens.  

Hap is the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness, and it just means luck or chance, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur, good fortune or happiness. German gives us the word Gluck, which to this day means both happiness and chance.

Happiness, literally, was what happened to us, and that was ultimately out of our hands.**

There are other views of happiness, of course, but this one remains a foundational perspective for most of us.  

“How’s it going?”

“Good.  It’s been a good day,” usually meaning, “Things have gone well today.”  

I have some of this mindset, as well, but I try to resist its pull.  The wisdom of my sister’s saying is that if things are bad in a happenstance sense, I’m not stuck being miserable. Not every bad thing or difficult situation can be reframed and thus improved.  A lot can.  

I approach it differently, though.  Henri Nouwen, my all-time favorite spiritual writer (I think), gave me the framework for how I view good and bad events in my life.  

“Joy is essential to spiritual life. Whatever we may think or say about God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit. Jesus reveals to us God’s love so that his joy may become ours and that our joy may become complete. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.

“Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but in the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together…Still, nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.”

*See LaMontagne quote above.  I don’t like it because it’s a great idea that I recommend; I like it because it speaks a truth about my, and many others’, existence.  Real art does that.  

**From Yes! Magazine, “A History of Happiness.”  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *