Today (September 24, 2013) is the 37th anniversary of the death of my daughter, Stacie Michelle. And in memory of her (this will not be so much about her as in memory of her), I want to write a few words, in general, about happiness. Some of this will be personal.
At the time of this writing, CWP Classroom is in the 2nd session of a class on “The Pursuit of Happiness” led by Oscar Miles. Like many others, I think about this topic from time to time (or just maybe every day) not because I am feeling “lost”, but because in addition to dealing with my own struggles, I also deal (like you do) with many people who wrestle with all kinds of stuff: family, friends, work, relationships, money, loss, hardship, and on and on. So, it is a topic never far from the surface.
Now it is often the case that when Christian teachers speak of this topic, it gets so overlaid with biblistic syrup and ridicule for any human feelings that it just makes me sick. It almost comes out that to be truly happy, you can’t have any human feelings or longings at all. I’m proud to say that Oscar is not taking this approach in his class. (I also emphasize that in what I say now, these are my opinions and may not represent the feelings of anyone else.)
The biblical documents we have were not written for this reason—-to show us the route to happiness. Certainly, various ones talk about love, joy, peace, etc., but these are by-products (results, outcomes) of life in the spirit. Blessed are the people who follow Jesus, and numerous other important things, but again, the issue is not “how to attain happiness”; the topic is nearly always discipleship, service, or some other lofty goal. Now in the Hebrew scriptures, we do find the ideal of every Jewish male: “every man under his vine and under his fig tree—-and drinking water from his own well” (texts like these talk about this on one level or another 1 Ki. 4:25; 2 Ki. 18:31; Isa. 34:4; Isa. 36:16; Jer. 8:13; Joel 1:7, 12; Joel 2:22; Mic. 4:4; Hag. 2:19; Zech. 3:10), but nearly all of these are wrapped up in obedience to God and keeping the covenant. Ecclesiastes uses the topic of “purpose” to talk about fearing God. The proverbs say that true wisdom is the fear of God. And on this goes.
The Bible is not about how to attain happiness. Actually, sometimes it is a call to what appears to be the opposite: suffering, sacrifice, hardship, and more. Happiness is not the immediate goal. People like C. S. Lewis have long pointed out that maybe God is not particularly focused on human happiness:
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ( C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
What It Feels Like
Ok, if I take the above seriously, then it is just fine to ask, “What does it feel like: ‘Under your vine, under your fig tree, and drinking water from your own well?'” They all knew what that meant; and they all wanted it.
I can tell you what it doesn’t feel like: nails through your feet. Jesus knew this and he said, “I don’t want to do this!” I know this too, because as a kid I rammed two prongs of a pitchfork through my foot—-all the way through. That is not happiness. Learning obedience through what we suffer (for the Lord) is fine; it may lead to ultimate happiness, that is wonderful. We might count it all joy to suffer for the name of Christ. But we know this: suffering and happiness are two different things. Otherwise, they would not be juxtaposed the way they are.
So what does “it” feel like, happiness? (So I’m getting to the personal part.) This is what happiness feels like to me. It is not just one thing, it is many things on many levels, and at many, many different times. And they are not all of the same kind. They are also not that untypical of others.
Happiness is the memory I have of getting off the elevator and hearing (with 5 other people) a high pitched screech of a newborn child that made all of us laugh and say “pity the parents of THAT child.” And then I held little Julie Carol in my arms.
And my son, Craig. Just knowing that he was healthy and safe, when just a year before, in the same hospital, we held little Stacie knowing she would not live.
And later my grandchildren.
It is also (on a very different kind of level) when I am walking neck-deep in a Greek text of the NT or OT. Some people scoff at this. What it tells me is, they just don’t get it. They have no idea what is going on down there and so they laugh at what they don’t understand. But for me, I can get lost there, surrounded by a beauty that cannot be described, only experienced. It is many other things, too, unspoken here.
But I will go one more step, this one off the deep end. For the truth, you see, is that I have been divorced twice and married three times, and I have wonderful memories from all three marriages. I also have very sad memories. So there is a very deep and rubbed-raw part of me that not only wants to believe happiness is possible, but even more deeply than before to experience it. (Divorce is not just some “thing” you go through, it can rip your insides out and lay you out like raw meat.) Now although many people will say “divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me,” nobody courts, loves, and marries with the idea, “Hey one day we get to learn how to hate each other and tear each other apart—-including our kids, families, and friends—-in divorce court!! It’ll be the best thing that ever happens to ya! So, let’s get married, what do you say?”
Ok, there are crazy people in the world, but most sane people do not want to go through that kind of hell. What they want is a peaceful, supportive, loving, exciting, and fulfilling relationship—-where they can bless someone else, and be blessed; fill and be filled; love and be loved. In the spirit and in the flesh, on shallow and deep levels. And all by a real, live, human being, right now and right here. We might experience that, we might not, but there is nothing at all wrong with wanting it.
“What does happiness feel like?” Well, I DO know. For me. I have felt it in all three of my marriages, and for the past 14 years have been blessed to live in a nearly continual state of it. This is not “Pollyanna talk” and I am not bragging about anything, since I have no room to brag about anything. I am praising God for blessings.
And so, I’m going to share something with you that you’ll either understand, or you will think is silly or foolish. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. I’m not trying to please, impress, or convert you. I’m trying to share just a little bit of something with you. Here it is.
In 1985, a movie came out with Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood (her last movie, she drowned before it was completed). This PG-rated science-fiction love story, Brainstorm, is about a scientific breakthrough in which something like a small headset can be worn that will record your thoughts and feelings. In this story, these two are married, but barely, and are headed for a divorce; they’ve sold the house already, won’t talk much, are “seeing” other people already, and so on. When I watched the movie the first time, I knew what was going to happen: like always, the movie was going to show why divorce was just fine and natural, and that free love was also a cool thing.
But I was wrong about that. Because through an unexpected event with that neural recording device, the husband was jolted when he not only got to see, but to feel what she felt about him. This is what most husbands and wives don’t do: listen, see, feel. They just expect. So, having seen up close what his wife thought of him, the husband makes a tape of himself—-who he really is, what he really feels—-and he shares the tape with his wife. What happens next is one of my all-time favorite scenes from any movie. Because it shows what can happen when two people get inside of each others’ heads and feel what the other feels.
So here is that scene. For me, this is a tiny sliver of what happiness feels like. Is it more than this? Of course it is. But there is nothing wrong with feeling even a sliver of happiness. It begins as all seems lost, and the wife is at home alone, starting to pack things up. When it shows her later playing the piano, she is recording her “self” for him.
I love you Stacie Michelle. And we all still remember.
b. September 17, 1976
d. September 24, 1976