I recently found myself in a bout of happiness.
It was the little-things brand of happiness: when you look at the evergreen outside, you smile. Instead of tiredly avoiding conversation, you get excited to see your friends and acquaintances. You accomplish something, maybe even something small like checking your email without falling down an internet rabbit hole, and you feel truly accomplished. A cup of tea warms more than your body. Soft socks feel soothing. A phone-call with your family leaves you grateful rather than homesick. You dance to music because you feel so good you need to move. You can’t stop smiling. And sometimes, you don’t need a reason at all – you are just happy.
But I’ve got the pronouns wrong – it’s me that’s been feeling this. I don’t need a reason at all – I am just happy. What a gift. About halfway through the first day of my first “bout,” when I found myself smiling at the sun coming through my window and laughing because I was so relieved at how easy it was to smile, I said something that may, at first, seem counter-productive or a little cynical. “This, too, shall pass,” I told myself. “This won’t last forever.”
Usually those are words I reserve for my heaviest moments, the ones that sit on my back and breathe down my neck, or the starkest moments, the ones that suck all the color out of the world and flatten it. “This, too, shall pass,” I say. To give myself hope. “This won’t last forever.” You will make it through to the other side.
But this impermanence is no less true of a smile than it is of a sigh. And while acknowledging that fact may sound defeatist or ungrateful, for me, it was just the opposite.
This, too, shall pass. So don’t worry about holding on and making it last forever. Simply receive the moment as a gift.
This, too, shall pass. Embrace this moment for all it’s worth because it only lasts for a heartbeat.
This, too, shall pass. Because all things pass. Because you are alive – a dynamic being. To live is to breathe in and out, to be happy, to be sad, to love, to hurt, to laugh, to sob, to embrace, to push away.
This, too, shall pass. You are not required to keep yourself locked in this one place, this one experience. You will feel sad again. And that does not mean you will have have failed. It simply means you are alive. You are not required to feel happy indefinitely.
English speakers have been attempting to sort out the difference between “happiness” and “joy” for as long as English has been a language. And people have sought to understand the concepts long before that. Is one a feeling and one a way of being? Can you have joy without happiness? Happiness without joy? What does it mean to be joyful if you’re not happy? What does joy mean in the first place?
A few weeks ago I was at the Calvin Worship Symposium, attending a seminar called “Prophetic Lament” in which writers and pastors discussed the necessity of lament in our spiritual practices. One panel member, Danjuma Gibson, talked about the tendency to hurry out of spaces of grief and pain. “But I’m not sure that lament is the opposite of joy,” he said. “I see it as a particular embodiment of joy.” He went on to define joy as “the divine, eternal conviction that, no matter what, I am somebody in God’s creation.” For Gibson, joy is confidence in the existence of my relationship to the Creator and God’s good creation, the faith that I am alive and breathing and beloved. Lament, he said, when rooted in this conviction – this faith, this joy – is the choice to make my place in the world known and heard. Heard by God – and heard by myself.
Happiness, with this definition of joy, is actually not so different from lament. Happiness is also the choice to make my place in the world known and heard. Depression tends to take away my capacity to understand my place in the world and to lift up my voice in any kind of meaningful way. It numbs me. The lifting of depression opens my capacity for all kinds of feelings.
When both happiness and lament are rooted in joy, in the faith of my being beloved by God, I don’t have worry about the passing of any particular emotion. These, too, will pass, even as the conviction of my place in God’s creation remains the same. My bout of happiness did come to an end and was replaced with a gloomy, tired couple of days. But the gloomy days ended, too, and I am smiling at small things once again.
And this, too, will pass. But what a gift this being alive thing is.