Yesterday was a good day. Daryl stayed on green at Kindergarten. A friend blessed me by bringing him home from school, so I could get some things done and Amelia could take an early nap. She’s not been well. In the afternoon, both kids were angels at the doctor’s office. Sitting side-by-side, arms around one another, as I read books to them. Amelia cooperated with the nurse and doesn’t have an ear infection. We treated ourselves to frozen yogurt on the way home. Then the kids played nicely together in the fall sunshine until it was time to pick up Daddy from the train. The three of us sat in anticipation at the station.
“Yay! Daddy’s coming!” Amelia cried. Big grin. Hands thrown in the air.
“Whoever sees Daddy first gets to go home and practice piano and then watch Curious George!” Daryl shouted.
“Okay. Deal,” I said. Then, of course, Daryl spotted him first, crossing the road, all smiles.
Daddy circled the car, poking his head into each window, giving each of us a kiss. Then he climbed in next to me, and we drove off into the sunset.
We were so Happy! The take-our-picture-and-post-it-on-facebook kind of Happy. The film-us-for-the-closing-shot-of-your-movie kind of Happy.
But then…the Love of My Life went off script and said this: “I have a meeting tonight, remember?”
What? No. I did not remember.
So I said so. Then he said. Then I said. Then he said. Then finally Daryl said, “Fight.” Ouch. End of scene.
In my mind, the LOML should have known. He should have known that I needed him to put the kids to bed. That I needed the evening to write. That beneath the Happy Wife façade was a pulsing electric current of fear and stress. I thought I had explained it to him a couple of nights ago.
A couple of nights ago, I had emerged from our basement storage room, dusty and frustrated. The kids were asleep. The LOML was lounging in the family room, playing on his PS3.
“What’s the matter?” he asked when he saw my face.
“I can only find a handful of pictures. I’ve checked every single box,” I said, my irritation growing by the second. “There should be a lot more. And without them, I don’t know where to go with this next piece. It’s not coming as easily as the others have. And I haven’t had the great big block of time I need to really hammer it out—”
“What’s this next piece about again?” he asked, all casual-like.
“I already told you.” I sort of growled. “Happiness.”
And he laughed. He actually laughed. All right. The irony was not lost on me. But in that moment, the humor was.
You might remember that, according to child development experts, Secure Attachment is the Foundation of a strong mother-child relationship (“On Mom”). And Safety and Security is a first Building Block that makes us who we are (“In the Face of Danger” ).
Well, other key qualities that are typically used to describe a healthy home are these: Resilience. (When relationships are fractured, they are also repaired.) Support. (Members are valued simply because of the fact that they are.) Patience. (Children are allowed to grow at their own pace.)
This raises some questions, doesn’t it? First of all, did I grow up in a Happy Home?
I’m not exactly sure how to answer that. I do have Happy memories. Of riding my bike through the neighborhood. Of long summer afternoons at the Richfield Pool. Of family vacations at Naniboujou Lodge on the north shore of Lake Superior. Of building my own “Happy Homes” out of blankets or leaves or snow or blocks or refrigerator boxes from across the street. But these memories seem somehow vague, abstract, faceless.
And I want to remember more. I want to balance the very vivid memories of mattress fires and car crashes and a falling father and a weary mother with something else. And that’s why I was digging through the storage room in the basement the other night, trying to find a box of Happiness. A box of photos from my childhood. Truthfully, I’m not even sure such a box exists, but I think it must.
In 2005, we bought This Old McHenry House with my parents and moved them—and all of their belongings—in with us. My mom didn’t take a lot of pictures when we were growing up. But I do remember that the top drawer of her dresser was once full of them. As a child, I loved to look through them. But where have they gone?
Surely, she didn’t get rid of them. Surely, they survived the move. Maybe they were taken to our new storage unit when we put This Old McHenry House on the market last January and did a giant purge. Maybe I need to take a day and sort through that storage unit and find them because I feel sort of desperate now to see the smiling faces of my mom and my dad and my baby brother and the young me.
Because that’s the thing about photos. The faces are usually smiling. And they, at least, look Happy.
But actually all of this begs the real question. What is Happiness anyhow? It’s more than smiling pictures piled in a box or posted on facebook.
Jasmin Lee Cori describes a Happy Home as a place to feel good. A place to relax and be yourself. “In a happy home,” she writes, “mother seems to have enough to provide for everyone without resentment. She seems to enjoy giving….She’s happy to be here. She’s happy with you and anyone else in the picture…She is relaxed! When Mommy is relaxed and smiling, we sense that her world is right. And when her world is right, then our world is right.”
Oh boy. It sounds lovely. But this was not often my experience. My mom lived at the mercy of her emotions. And so did the rest of us. When she felt Happy, we all enjoyed it. But without warning, everything could change. Fear or anger or sadness or stress could wash over her and our home with a tidal wave force. And because my dad had as much trouble standing up relationally as he did physically, he would be swept under, along with my brother and me.
She was my model. I learned to live as she did. But I have spent much of the last decade trying to learn a different way.
Trying to learn that True Happiness is more than what Cori describes. True Happiness is not just the absence of negative emotion. Not just a demeanor of relaxation. It’s more than a subjective and passing state of pleasure or satisfaction or enjoyment.
Whenever I think of Happiness, I think of my favorite scene from the 1993 film Shadowlands. C.S. Lewis’ beloved Joy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. When she was in remission, they took a final road trip through the English countryside. As they were driving, Jack (Anthony Hopkins) asked Joy (Debra Winger): “Are you happy?”
Then Joy said: “Yes.”
Then he said: “What kind of happy?”
Then she said: “Just happy.”
Then they bantered a bit, until finally Jack said: “I don’t want to be somewhere else anymore. Not waiting for anything new to happen. Not looking around the next corner, not the next hill. Here now. That’s enough.”
Then Joy said: “That’s your kind of happy, isn’t it?”
Then Jack said: “Yes. Yes, it is.”
It’s a lovely bit of scriptwriting. And I think it gets closer to the real deal. Happiness as Contentment. Certainly, it’s difficult to call yourself “Truly Happy” when you want life to be other than it is. When you’re longing hard for something else.
I spent my teenage years wanting to be independent. My 20s wanting to be married. And most of my 30s wanting to be a mom. As far as life on this planet goes, I am now—finally—closer than ever to finding Jack’s kind of Happy.
But as lovely as the movie Shadowlands is, I think the real C.S. Lewis might argue for a different kind of Happiness again. In his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” he said this: “If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
It isn’t the presence of our Want that’s the problem. It’s the object.
Jesus Christ talked about True Happiness in his Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed (Happy) are the poor in spirit…Blessed (Happy) are those who mourn…Blessed (Happy) are the meek…” And so forth.
And what is the source of their Happiness? The Kingdom of Heaven. Their certain inheritance. Their identity as Children of God. Now and forevermore.
The Apostle Peter echoes this theme in the first chapter of his first book:
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect…who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
“…In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith…may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
Did you catch all of that? That is True Happiness. Inexpressible and glorious joy. Because of who we are. Elect and chosen. Because of what we have. A new birth. A living hope. An inheritance that can never fade away. Because of who He is. Jesus Christ revealed. The Savior of our Souls.
I couldn’t write a piece about Happiness without asking Daryl, our resident mini-philosopher, what he thinks and if he is Happy. But I wanted to choose the moment carefully. An ordinary moment—not after he had been disciplined, and not when he was having a treat.
So one afternoon last week we were changing the sheets. I was wrestling with the fitted sheet, and he was wrapping himself in the flat one.
And I said: “Are you happy, Daryl?”
Then he said: “Yes.”
Then I said: “How do you know? Why are you Happy?”
Then he said: “Because I’m with you and you love me so much and I know that you will never let me go.”
Good answer, D. Happiness as Belonging. That’s a pretty great kind of Happy.
I do love you. I chose you. And as much as it is in my power, I will never let you go. But there is one who loves you more. Whose grip on you is eternal. Whose inheritance for you is incorruptible. That’s the kind of Happy I pray for you.
For the record, last night the LOML stayed home. (Grace.) He put the kids to bed. (Grace.) He even warmed up for me the plate of curry he brought home from a dinner party on Saturday night that I couldn’t attend because Amelia was sick. (Grace in abundance.) I mumbled a humble apology. And we are back on the road to Happy.