Thursday, February 26, 2009

Best Day of Your Life

In case it's not as obvious as the nose on your face, this is a tough year for me. Blogging has been virtually non-existant since the fall. Life at times has felt like crawling on all fours through the swamps of death and foul seaweedy underworld plantlife on the way to Mount Doom, accompanied by Gollum... without elevensies or Viggo Mortensen.

Seems like when you enter a year like that, you gather fellow swamp dwellers who band together to pull out of the swamp to make little fires in caves to stay warm. We strip the slime off one another's backs and sip hot tea. The other day, I was with a friend who has stripped lots of slime off my back. She shared with me a dream she had and it broke my heart. Got me really thinking. (I have her permission to reproduce it here.)

In her dream, a genie appeared to her offering a great gift.
"You may return to and relive the happiest day of your life. Just tell me what it is and I will grant you this one extraordinary wish."
My friend immediately plunged into panic. Best day? Best day ever? So she hunted through her memory banks. Childhood? No, nothing. Each event tainted by some pain unwanted. Raising kids? Nothing came to mind. Wedding? (Even her wedding!) None of these days was truly happy, worth reliving because pain would crowd into the memory. Not one day could be called "happiest of her life."

As the dream went on, she became more and more panicked. Here was a remarkable gift and she had to throw it away because she couldn't find a single happiest day in her life to relive. And she woke up. In pain.

Often in church, I've been taught that happiness is not a goal to be sought. Faithfulness, righteousness, loyalty, goodness, patience, long-suffering, self-discipline all trump feeling happy. Usually at some point when a congregation is flagging from pent up pain, a pastor will intuitively know to pull out the "joy" message. "We can't seek happiness" he says, "after all, its address is on the same street as sin and self-indulgence, but we must be filled with joy." You know, it's a command to be joyful! You can choose joy! Joy is the context of your life, not your feelings. Be joyful, dammit, and stop complaining about being miserable. Believe in your joy. Declare it. Joy is a belief, not a feeling.

But one day, you wake up and realize you don't know what joy is either. According to those pastors and their souped up sermons, joy ought to be translated: Enduring suffering without complaining, pretending happiness when you feel flat, bored, abused, lonely and mistreated. To believe in joy means detaching from the information your senses and spirit give you. You must reframe your very life to match a sermon.

What happens? Eventually along comes a genie giving you the gift of a lifetime and you have no happiness to show for it, no way to access happiness or joy. After all, reliving a day where you believed in joy is just not the same as feeling good. You have instead a long list of days where you've done everything right, where you've denied your self in service of loving someone else (maybe even someone who doesn't deserve your best self's offerings), where you have traded the experience of happiness and joy for "being good" and no amount of "being good" makes you want to relive a single day of that life!

Here's a warning for those who haven't felt happy in a long while (or ever). Look out. It seeks and finds. It knocks and opens. Sometimes it just barges right in, takes up residence and repaints the kitchen in Mediterranean blue. Happiness seeps in through cracks, and holes, and windows, and swamps. It may come in bits and pieces, but it wants to take over. When it does, it overthrows everything you thought you knew about life. There are two options: keep it at bay, or welcome it.

If you keep it at bay, avoid genies. If you welcome it, be prepared. Your whole life is about to change.


musing said...

I so hope you're right.

julieunplugged said...

musings, it takes crawling through the swamp, but I do believe the other end is good.

debbiep said...

Wow! This is really good. Thanks for writing it. It gave me lots to think about and to hope for. Love you.

margaretm said...

I love it! Thanks, Julie :)

Searching For My Willoughby said...

I've read your blog for quite some time but have never commented before now. This post, however, truly touched me. It's left me feeling hopeful that I can conquer this swamp. It's nice to see you posting again.

Kansas Bob said...

This was a simply magnificent observation:

"Enduring suffering without complaining, pretending happiness when you feel flat, bored, abused, lonely and mistreated. To believe in joy means detaching from the information your senses and spirit give you. You must reframe your very life to match a sermon.

A few years ago I started challenging this artificial delineation between joy and happiness.. they are definitely related if not really the same thing.

So sad that many have to escape religious groups and religious people to really experience happiness. Small wonder we are so hard to be around at times :)

And ditto Willoughby.. nice to see you blogging again Julie.. you are an outstanding and talented writer.

Blessings, Bob

NoVA Dad said...

What a magnificent post, and your friend's dream and your comments have definitely given me a lot to think about in my own life. But that's for another chat down the road...

Mike said...

Great post Julie...loved the imagery.

Cynthia said...

thank you. I needed to hear this tonight. Joy and happiness seem to be evasive concepts for me right now. But tonight, I have hope. I am tired of the colorless life I have lived; I have embraced the suffering long enough, thinking it was the way to joy. I am ready for a brilliant new day of happiness.

Sentient Marrow said...

Great post. I am not sure I agree 100% but I am not sure why. I think that I kind of feel like to some extent a person can choose to be happy. To look on their circumstances and choose to let go of the crappiness.... to find happiness amidst the crappiness. Are there any totally happy days? I have no idea. When I think about it, if there are other people involved in that day, then there probably aren't. But, maybe there is such a thing because it is how you choose to live that day? Are you going to focus on the 10 year old who really didn't want to go to the art show and is now trying to make your life miserable or are you going to let them have their opinion and focus on your own enjoyment. (Not the best example, I know)

Anyway, am I misunderstanding your intent?

julieunplugged said...

I think looking on the bright side, finding good in each day, choosing to let go of grudges or pain or hardship, being conscious of the pleasant, right, and meaningful things in each day is a great way to live a positive life.

The sense in which I mean "happiness" here has to do with an "unchosen" stats - a breaking in on you of unanticipated joy. A rush, if you will, perhaps. Followed by contentment that doesn't require effort, but is merely the context of your life.

I'm not even saying that that state can be perennial (as in, always). Rather, I'm saying there is a huge difference between choosing to be positive and happy and experiencing it almost by accident (happiness coming upon you). Both matter.

Scrivener said...

I don't know that I have anything especially insightful to say on the subject of happiness and/or joy. For me, this is kind of a new distinction, though I have long said for myself that my goal is to seek "satisfaction" rather than "happiness." I have tried to do what's right and best, with the recognition that the best thing is not necessarily about doing anything for other people. I have thought that if I could, on a daily basis, make the decisions to live my life in the healthiest, most virtuous manner, then happiness would more or less take care of itself (with "virtuous" being broadly defined, not necessarily about "Christian virtue" or "civic responsibility" or what have you). I think I'm not explaining myself anywhere near as well as you did in this post.

Mostly, I just wanted to say that I'm sorry you're having such a difficult year and that I'm glad you're doing this difficult work of moving through the swamp. I trust you will get to the other side.

julieunplugged said...

Thx Scrivener. Really. I get it about aiming for satisfaction. That's the best way to live - to simply allow for life itself to be fulfilling and nurturing. Happiness for me is something one can't plan or make happen. It's serendipitous. So I want to create space for it by shedding joy stealers and, like you said, to live as a healthy, virtuous person. Makes good sense to me.