I’ve always felt a deep annoyance for the English word “happy.” It’s one of those words, like “love,” that has been applied too broadly—to mean too many disparate things—and therefore, has lost all meaning. I’m happy the weather has cooled down. I’m happy to spend time with my closest friend. I’m happy the brain tumor turned out to be benign. Clearly, I mean something different in each of these instances, and if I don’t, I have a problem that goes beyond the shortcomings of language.
But mostly, I get annoyed when people tell me that they want me to be happy, though I’m guilty of doing the same. It’s natural to desire the best for those we love, to want to see their dreams fulfilled, to wish them towards a state of health and contentment and finding their place under the sun. But the error behind this line of thinking is that we’re essentially telling each other, “Our sense of well-being is entirely dependent upon our circumstances.” We live in an unpredictable world, my friends, and to root our satisfaction in anything that can be defined as “earthly” is a dangerous game to play.
The world defines happiness via tangible markers of success: if you’re in a good relationship, if you have kind and basically obedient children, if you have a fulfilling job that pays your bills and also lets you go out for nice dinners and take nice vacations, and if you have friends and family who are always there for you and whom you spend time with on a regular basis—then, you’re considered “happy.” But if you have only some or even none of these things, still, people will try for the trap door: “Well, as long as you’re happy,” they’ll say. And if you, in turn, tell them, “But I’m not,” then everyone gets very sad, and you’re the girl at the party who’s just popped all the balloons.
I don’t have anything against people enjoying their lives, and I’m grateful that those I love want me to do the same. What I resent is the assertion that happiness—this vaporous, fleeting, impermanent state of existence—is somehow the litmus test against which we have to gauge how we’re doing in life. The root of the word “happy” comes from the Middle English word “hap,” meaning “lucky” in the sense of “luck” or “fortune.” When you look at it like that, telling someone you want them to be happy is the same as saying, “I want you to be defined by what you have absolutely no control over.” Great. I’ll get to work on that.
People die. Love gets lost. Jobs flee, children leave, money is burned away. And if you’re telling me that my contentment is dependent upon the presence of any or all of these things, then I am screwed six ways from Sunday—and so are you and everyone else. I am almost thirty years old. Tomorrow, my father will have been dead for one year. I’m not married, I don’t have children, I’m not a published author, and there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think, I could really use some more sleep. I am not, neither by the world’s definition nor that of my younger self, “happy.” But then, happiness, as I’ve here defined it, is no longer what I’m after.
I am definitely one to split semantic hairs between “happy” and “joy,” and fortunately for me, the American English Dictionary backs me up. The word “joy” also comes from Middle English, via the Old French joie, which is based on the Latin gaudium, from gaudere “rejoice.” Luck and fortune are beyond our control, but rejoicing is an action—rejoicing is a choice. Rejoicing springs out of a deep, abiding joy that, unlike happiness, is not dependent on circumstances. A joy that can look at the world my father was ripped out of and still find beauty, still find peace, still find God. A joy that I’ve acquired in the counter-intuitive way Jesus so often works: by being dragged through situations in which it was impossible to hold onto any earthly happiness.
This is what I’m after. Give me more of the joy that compelled me to sing worship songs to my God as my father lay in a coma, and I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that he would die very soon. Give me more of the joy that drives me to continue to attend church and believe what the Bible says about hope and faith and love, when on an hourly basis, I am pelted by the opposite of all these promises, with no sign that the tide is going to turn. Give me a joy that refuses to pretend life doesn’t hurt—or that it sometimes doesn’t feel like the earth ripped open its throat and swallowed me whole—but that even in this, enables me to rejoice. Even in this, helps me still trust God.
I love this picture of my dad holding me the day I was born. I love the sincerity in his face, the sense that he had already been smiling, long before the camera was pointed his way. I’m sure I started screaming my head off not long after. I’m sure, when that happened—and in all the sleepless nights that followed—he and my mother were no longer “happy.” But there is something in this photograph that goes deeper than that. There is joy. There is the assurance that, no matter what came before or what will come after—how hard it will get or what will be taken away—we have been given, in this moment, something bigger and more important than mere happiness.