I traveled to Ireland during two college summers, where a pair of South African sisters befriended me. Their mother stood tall and thin, a slight smile often curving her lips. When one of her children entered the room, her smile would grow, and she’d greet her child.
“Hi, my little happiness.”
Happiness and I have a generally complicated relationship. At some point in my conservative Evangelical upbringing, I heard enough messages about the merits of “joy” as compared to “happiness,” and I decided happiness was beneath me, unholy, less than good. It wasn’t that I decided to be sad all the time. Rather, I determined to experience and express joy, unaffected by my circumstances.
The problem, of course, is that I asked joy to fill an emotional space it wasn’t designed to fill. God didn’t create joy so that we could eschew sadness or happiness. He created joy so we could stay afloat when overwhelming sadness threatens to pull us under; to stay rooted when happiness tempts us to ignore the shaky ground beneath our feet.
Sadness and pain have repeatedly tested my earliest beliefs about joy. Through cancer, a child born with a disability, and a clinical depression diagnosis, I’ve slowly learned that joy and anguish can share a room. I can grieve now, at least better than I used to be able to. I can lament. I can name my heartache.
But my happinesses are another story. Thus far, I almost exclusively use the word “happy” like my friends’ mom did. I’ve unashamedly copied her and refer to my two boys as little happinesses. After all the evidence that my sons embody happiness overwhelms me. They’re red-headed five- and three-year-olds with smatterings of freckles, vibrant personalities, and questions for days. To call my children “little happinesses” seems like simply interpreting data.
And even still I worry that referring to my children as “little happinesses” means I am somehow not teaching them that steadfast, fingernails-dug-in “joy” that I’m supposed to be. I fear happiness—as if happiness masquerades as joy then steals the real thing. I think about happiness like playing with fire.
The South African sisters now have families of their own. Every once in a while, I’ll notice that one of them has posted a picture of herself with her husband or baby. Just below, I’ll see the comment from her mother. “So beautiful, my happiness.”
I’ll reply sometimes, my head-back-in-laughter profile photo cropped from a picture taken just after Gabriel was born testifying to my own little happinesses.
I told friends today that it's not work for me to write the darkness. It's work for me to write the light.
My ease in writing the darkness and juxtaposed struggle to write the light stem from the fact that I’ve become quite convinced that God finds me in the shadows, in the dark nights, in the hospital rooms. But on my couch at the end of the day, in shared laughter over a movie, in simple enjoyment—I’m not yet convinced that he’s there.
Whenever I reflect on my attempts at rest, reprieve, or happiness, I see interruption. I see a honeymoon disrupted by E. coli, my malignant tumor during Jared’s first year of seminary, horrific colic in our first baby and a disability in our second. I don’t wallow in the sadnesses, I just, almost in a detached way, see attempts at abundant happiness thwarted.
Happiness feels too hard, too elusive. I’m just starting to get my hands around this God-in-the-sadness thing. God-in-the-happiness feels like too much.
I’ve spent decades training myself to not need happiness. I’m convinced, at this point, that I’m safer that way. But the edges of those beliefs have started to fray as my puppy-like boys crash into the room and, “Hi, my little happinesses,” slips from my lips. It’s as if happiness has been waiting for me to give it its due all this time. I feel not at all ready to give in to the happier things, to let them wash over me the way I’ve allowed sadness to.
But I want my boys to roll their eyes as adults when I inevitably call them my “happinesses. ” I want them to remember a mom who couldn’t help but speak of the good and the light she saw in them even as she spoke honestly about the darkness of life. I want my husband to hear more of my snort-punctuated laugh that he loves. And I want my writing to testify to the fullness of the God who looks at me, whether I like or not, and says, “Hi, my little happiness.”