Sermon Against Happiness

Seven years ago, I traveled to Africa to visit my brother.  I flew into Nairobi via London and hoped he’d show at the airport, because I didn’t have a backup plan.  I didn’t know any hotels in Nairobi.  I didn’t have an address for my brother across the Kenyan border in Arusha, Tanzania.  I was alone and unprepared, really, for a new continent.  He showed.

Together we flew from Nairobi to Dar Es Salaam, and from Dar we caught a ferry to the island of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa.  When we landed in Zanzibar, we took a two hour bus ride over a road with more pot holes than pavement or dirt with trees on either side that almost masked Osama Bin Laden’s face lauded on tiny flags perched atop the sporadic huts.   We finally arrived, covered in dust and travel sweat, at the beach.

My brother’s friends, other interns at the ICTR (The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), had already arrived through various paths to the resort. They planned the vacation together—a whole week away from witness statements and legalese, away from the horror of history.  In many ways, my parents sent me to Africa as the family ambassador: I was meant to negotiate with my brother to discover how he was holding up against the aftermath of genocide.

Zanzibar is still the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, and I’ve gotten around some.  After emerging from my mosquito net into the sand my first morning, I wrote in my journal:

The sky is solid blue–no scratch of white, no grey scars.  Sweat accumulates between my shoulder blades and dirt appears as if from nowhere on my suitcase, my pant leg, in the crevices of my fingernails.  At the bungalows a small, wrinkled man registered us into Room 203–he only smiled once and not at us, at a small native boy with gapped teeth.  A wood staircase leads to the beachside restaurant and the water.  This is what strikes me most: turquoise water which fades to a slate gray in the distance.  It is as though I have entered a palate of blues.  My insides curl and my chest heaves to behold it.  I am never prepared for this kind of natural beauty; I have not been properly prepared for it.  I am frightened, and my instinct, sadly, is to look away as though window shopping and search for the next grand thing.  I try hard to continue staring water-ward, but it pains me, this power, this (silence), so much more voluminous than myself.

Back here in Houston, in 2013, I live in a much different space and time.  I have a retirement plan and a dog.  A house on my stroller-infested block sold yesterday for $900,000.  I’ve been thinking about that journal entry, though.  A lot.  Because here in 2013, on the other side of the Atlantic and far from the girl who might fly to another country without currency or a travel guide, I have everything that should make me happy.

Yesterday I cried outside the gym.  I sounded ridiculous, but I asked my husband, “Is this it?  I have to go to the gym everyday?  I have to live with treadmills and rubber doorstops and leaf blowers and Ziploc bags and left turn lanes?  And I have to go to the grocery store?  And I have to answer emails?  I just.  I can’t.”

First world problems, right?  Only something more serious is going on for me.  I’m not hormonal and I’m not a brat, mostly.  Instead, something about the modern world’s expectations for me–an educated, financially stable, middle-aged, married woman–causes me an ungodly amount of anxiety and my bereft spirit has lately refused to cooperate.  I am actually physically incapable of grinning and bearing it, at least without prescription medication.

Something about the “American Dream”–oppressive illusion–not only disguises, but actively prohibits spiritual wholeness.  The “American Dream” tells us to be happy, and happiness is that place where you can turn on Netflix and feel contently complacent.   Happiness is a reasonable mortgage payment and a 10% tithe every week, a numbing and dulling of the heart’s aches and desires.

We are so quick, in our striving for happiness, to medicate and problem-solve.  We have Xanax and Sisco.  Meanwhile the soul rebels.  The soul requires shitstorms.  It lives and breathes on struggle.  This is not to say that we should romanticize suffering.  I love Wendell Berry’s lines with regard to happiness:

Why all the embarrassment
about being happy?
Sometimes I’m as happy
as a sleeping dog,
and for the same reasons,
and for others.

Berry would be the last person, despite this plea toward zen-like being, to condone complacency.  No.   We, however, have this idea that happiness is the absence of pain, but I’m beginning to suspect that real happiness hurts.   Or rather, I’m beginning to suspect that our lives aren’t meant to be a journey toward self-improvement and happiness as the modern world typically defines those abstractions, and that, in fact, if we could reach out and grab happiness it would burn straight through our flimsy skins.

Imagine that the Jewish mystics are right and that God is a vast light broken into shards across the earth so that each little dark thing has a speck inside it that glistens.  We can’t even look with our bare eyes into the solar system’s round sun.  How would we ever, in this world and in these bodies, be able to see the full light of God?  That much happiness would scorch and blind us.

St. Augustine wrote that “man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible.”  I used to read that line as a reprimand about certain lifestyles.  I would try to imagine what other way I should live so as to make happiness possible.  But I missed his point.  The problem with man in Augustine’s sentence is not how he lives.  The problem lies in the first clause: man wishes to be happy.  It’s the wrong wish.  Or wishing is wrong, period.

On the island of Zanzibar in the year of our Lord 2006, my brother cried sometimes.  He told me a story on New Year’s Eve about a Hutu priest who offered hundreds of Tutsi people sanctuary inside his church.  When they all got inside, he burned the church down.  We drank our beers and walked to the water’s edge.  My brother said, “I can’t even drink enough to feel drunk.”  He was, in this sense, too alive for numbness, to0 scraped up for anesthesia.  It hurt to look at the water, to try and behold that breadth of beauty in the place we stood.  We could not have contained all the ocean inside the weak vessels of our human bodies.

We must have sensed the blasphemy of grasping at happiness in the shadow of such a horror story.   But faces seaward and suffused with sorrow, we also recognized happiness as something real and true.

Just beyond us.


4 thoughts on “Sermon Against Happiness”

  1. Happiness is a recurring and revolving theme for you and one that I am quietly starting to glimpse, but still not understand.ama

  2. Lovely (and heartbreaking).

    Did you read Zadie Smith’s recent essay on joy? It was in the NY Review of Books, but it’s behind a paywall now. If I remember right, she distinguished between joy, which is risky and sometimes painful, and pleasure, which is comfortable and nice but pushes us away from joy. And I think, like you, she was kind of ambivalent about both.

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