Thursday, August 27, 2009

Miserable… And Loving It

The classroom was about half full. About twenty five students scattered through the room patiently waiting their turn to introduce themselves to the class. Our professor had told us to give a brief introduction about who we were. I looked over at Mark and rolled my eyes. The idea was to stand up and give a few quick highlights, most importantly, or so I thought, was my name. Maybe my favourite colour. Or the name of my cat. Inevitably however, someone decided that anything less than their troubled childhood and road to redemption and how Jesus had set them free and how unique and wonderful their story was… complete with a signed book contract from Disney that would probably turn into a wonderfully inspirational story that everyone could relate to so that so many lives could be changed and oh yeah, did they mention how unusual their story was and how it had never happened before in the history of the universe and yet was still totally relatable to everyone… somehow wasn't enough. It was amazing, but some people actually believed we'd paid thousands of dollars to pursue our Masters to hear them, and not the Professors. Don't get me wrong, I liked meeting people. And in a class like Spiritual Formation, I knew the value of meeting people from a variety of theological and cultural backgrounds would be a boon to my faith. I just hated the introductions. So far however, things had been progressing smoothly.

Our professor called another name, and a blond, middle aged woman stepped up to the front. I groaned inwardly. Never a good sign when someone went to the front. Not in a class of twenty five when everyone could hear you if you whispered.

The woman was somehow bouncing while standing still, and she smiled at us all like she was addressing a class of curious five year olds. She said hello to the class. I wanted to say "Hi Mrs. Carroll" with the rest of the students, but everyone else was too busy listening. She went through her story, a three act drama that would have made Aristotle proud. And when she'd finished, she looked at us all, her adopted Sunday School class, and clasped her hands together.

"And now, with Jesus, it's just joy all the time! Joy, joy, joy! All of the time!"

Dr. Sherbano thanked the woman and she sat down, somehow bouncing as she did so. I looked over at Mark, my eyebrows raised. What? Was she serious? Whatever she'd had, and I don't mean faith, I wanted.

Mark and I would joke about that class – and that introduction – for months after. Though we always laughed, there was a sense of sadness in it too. Both of us believed that God was not only real, but that he loved people. And both of us believed that the church, while flawed, could play a valuable role in the world. Unfortunately, this consumer ideal of perfection, this idea that what we attach to happiness sells better than what we attach to sorrow, was an indefatigable force in the Seminary. A stroll through any Christian bookstore revealed that it was the same in the churches. On some level, it was understandable and even logical. Who would invest in a faith that promised heartache and misery? People would move to the next section of the bookstore, the self-help section, and find something. They would miss the gospel! We must make the church relevant and positive! What saddened Mark and I was that positivism, whether connected to the church or not, eventually faded in the light of real sorrow and human life. And when that occurred, the bouncy positivists had two choices: Reject the notion of "Jesus Happy" as being true and leave the church, or reject the reality of pain and leave the world. In my years since ministry, I'd seen both, and neither one ended well.

*****


"C'mon, Diane, ten seconds more. You can do it."

I glanced at my stop watch and back at my client, who was lying forward on her elbows and toes in what was called a Plank.

"Done, great job." I said.

She collapsed on the mat and slowly rolled into a sitting position. I smiled and looked at the time.

"All done, girl. Good job today."

She nodded and wiped her face with a towel.

"Did I tell you my friend got a trainer back in November. She hasn't lost a single pound. What a terrible trainer."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, she hasn't lost any weight. She looks exactly the same."

"Diane, a trainer has one hour a week. It may be that her trainer is incompetent, but more likely she has not used the 167 of 168 hours she's on her own the way she should."

My client was silent for a minute.

"Yeah, I guess."

From that day on, I noticed an improvement in my client. It was as if it finally occurred to her that the endgame was the process, not the reward. Paying for a trainer was a good idea, but only if you were willing to put in the time on your own, if only you were willing to be miserable without someone holding your hand. It is ironic that North America, a rich culture more affected by depression and loneliness than any in the world, hasn't figured out that the way to happiness isn't through pleasure, but misery.


*****

Perhaps more than any culture in history, the Western belief structure is built on the ideology that happiness is tied to pleasure. That more is better. These are not anthropological or sociological assumptions, they're marketing visions for multi-national corporations. Promulgated by the "success" of the mega-church movement, this secular ideology is reflected in the church by the "Jesus Happy" movement that dominates the Christian bookstores and media. The wide swath it cuts across the Western landscape is both awesome and destructive. Even a critic can not help but admire the largesse and gall of those authours and speakers who mouth happy stories and miracle living with dentally correct smiles, perfectly parted powder white hair, and thin, blonde women who sit beside them nodding in agreement. There is no talk of misery. Or sadness. At least, not without an "upper" story to follow. (Redemption, God's Grace, New Ministry, etc...) It is the perfect storm of a child's ideals, happy endings, cool new stuff, condescending simplicity to opposing viewpoints, and reaffirmed uniqueness of the individual.

It does leave a few questions though, like what happens when I'm miserable? How can we be positive and "joy, joy, joy-ing" when we've just suffered a death or lost our job or watched a family member self-destruct? Those are the moments that reveal the "Jesus happy" movement to be completely in touch with consumer society, and completely irrelevant to humanity.

The key to contentment is not pleasure or bright smiles or shiny cars or the latest six step formula from pseudo theologians like Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez). The true source of contentment… is misery.

****


I found a table near the outlet in the far corner of the café and set up my laptop, a 1996 model that weighed more than a small car. A long piece of tape was wrapped around the side that kept the CD drive from popping out. I glanced at the other shiny laptops in the vicinity, most of which were sleek silver things that looked like something out of the latest science fiction movie and glanced at my own, which would have looked new in the original Star Trek series. I shook myself for being so self-conscious and grumbled inwardly at my self-pity. I hadn't felt like coming in tonight, but it was time to write. I'd spent the morning working on my novel, and after working out and spending some time doing work for my clients in the afternoon, it was time to write again. I didn't want to write, and knew I was being petulant about it, which only made me feel like more of an idiot.

By the time I grabbed my coffee, my computer had finally come to life. As I bent to my work, the two high school girls in front of me started arguing. The one, a stout, long haired girl, had draped her legs over the arm of one of the big sofa chairs. Her friend, a self-conscious brunette, sat close by, playing with her hair.

"Is it Callie? Does she know?" Said the one in the sofa chair.

"I can't tell you."

"What about their relationship?"

"I can't tell you."

"Does Jillian even know?"

"I can't tell you."

For a full two minutes, the one girl peppered the other with questions, who always answered with the same "I can't tell you." You rarely see that kind of doggedness outside of Bob Woodward or fundamentalism, and even I, in my grumpiness, couldn't help but admire it. Even more surprising was how engaged the girls were every time the one asked a question. "I can't tell you" was delivered each time like it was a new line. Realizing that perhaps it would be a while before any new revelations about Jillian's rocky relationship with her boyfriend would be revealed, I plugged in my MP3 player and turned on some music.

The idea that misery is a good thing is counter to the definition of the word, especially here in North America. In our culture, we tend to define our lives by what we own, the importance of our job relative to the perceived hierarchy and class structure inherent within any society, and the amount of leisure time we are able to incorporate into our schedule. In fact, happiness is most often equated with leisure. Our vacations. Our new purchases. Our time spent doing what we want. The end result is that we try to cram as much leisure and pleasure as we can into our lives. We work hard so that we can relax well. We tolerate the work we do so that we can squeeze joy from those few moments when we live on our own terms, those few minutes or hours or days when we answer to no one save ourselves. After that, it's 'back to the grind'.

And it's all a load of crap.

No wonder the evangelicals teach this constant joy, joy, joy. This idea that to be a Christian is to be bouncy and happy ALL THE TIME. Who wants to merely tolerate the parts of our life that make up the majority of it? To that end, they have the right of it. Unfortunately, it's more like a bandage on a broken leg than a real solution to the real sorrows of life.

The truth is that we will be miserable. That we will experience great sorrow and great tragedy. That we will suffer losses and hurt and mourn and question God's existence and our own. And it's in those times that we need to accept the misery, acknowledge it, and live anyway.

I don't mean paint a false smile on our face and pretend all is well because we're afraid people will think our faith is weak or that we're weak. What we need to do is learn to accept the misery, accept the sorrow, and do what we're supposed to do anyway. I'm convinced a person has not experienced real contentment until they've beat back the forces of misery by pursuing their life goals and dreams without accepting the shallow sentimentality you find in the stores.

In fact, most misery comes not from the sorrows of life, but the self-wrought tragedies orchestrated by our own hands when we fail to do what God has called us to do. Whether that's art or business or charity or writing, when we ignore our own giftings and passions we set ourselves up for a lifetime of misery and drama. We have bought into the 300 billion dollar lie that we should be happy at all times. And so, we refuse to work through the necessary misery of real life because we are afraid to try something different. Afraid to fail. Afraid to succeed. Afraid to offend our parents or family. Afraid that people will not understand us or will forget us. We work very hard to maintain the status quo, and instead of happiness, find that we spend more time congratulating ourselves on how great things are. How joyful we are because of whatever new thing or new idea we discovered the past week.

Real contentment is found when we pursue our passions in the face of misery; when we thumb our noses at a society that keeps trying to sell us shiny new things and tell them that the reward is in the work, not the reward. Most people do not pursue their dreams because they fall short, but because they refuse to embrace the misery necessary to get them where they're supposed to go. Somehow they feel the universe, that God, should grant them a free pass from the Valley of the Shadow simply because they believe the right things or say the right things. Somehow we've forgotten that real growth occurs in the hard parts of our lives.

The problem with North American Christianity is that it has adopted "happiness" as it's 'raison d'etre'. The purpose of our lives is not happiness. We were not created to feel good all the time, no matter what mantra we mumble on our way to work in the morning. The purpose of our lives is to discover the passions unique to each one of us, be it an entrepreneur or a writer or a father or a combination of different things, and do that. The purpose of our lives is not the reward of heaven but the work of our calling.

The older generations have often said that people nowadays do not know how to work, that they spend too much time worrying about silly things. That may be true, but to work for the sake of work, to repeat yourself over and over each day because the job is secure or because you're too afraid to find out what you love or try new things, is just as bad.

The challenge of life is to understand that misery is not only part of it, but that it is a good thing. It helps us figure out who we are. It gives us a mountain to climb and a valley to travel, which, upon completion, gives us an even fuller sense of self.

My prayer this week is that you will see through the shallow nature of 'happy' movements, that you will take time to consider exactly what it is that you love and aim your life towards it, and that you will know the misery that leads not to sadness, but fulfillment.

-Steve