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God With Us, part 3: Joy vs. the Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness is not something to pursue… In pursuing happiness, everything becomes a commodity. — Rebecca Tekautz, When Happy Trumps Holy

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within reach, is joy. Take joy! — Fra Giovanni

Our society devotes a lot of energy to the pursuit of happiness (often reduced to the pursuit of pleasure) all through the year, but the pursuit becomes especially frantic and exhausting at Christmas. Advertisers press us to buy expensive gifts and throw extravagant parties so that we can be as happy as we’re supposed to be. If we buy into their message we’re apt to end up stressed out and maxed out. But opting out of the consumer Christmas doesn’t necessarily relieve the pressure we feel to be happy. I remember one Christmas when I made myself particularly miserable because I had tried to create what I thought was a festive and meaningful celebration with music and candles and greens and festive food and readings and more, and at some point I realized I was tiring, not pleasing, the folks who were celebrating with me. I slunk off and cried, feeling like a failure for not making them happy and not being happy myself–because of course we were supposed to be happy: it was Christmas!

I’ve had some lovely Christmases too. They tended to feature straining less, doing a few things that my family and I enjoyed, and leaving open quiet time in which I could rest and be grateful for all the things in my life that already gave me joy.  When I’m not frantically trying to produce happiness I have attention free to notice the starlight on the snow, to listen to other people’s Christmas stories and share a few of my own, to feel God’s presence.

I believe that God is alive, and God is with us always, and that this is the truest truth there is. So when I let myself go and pay attention to reality I am returned— sometimes to happiness, always to joy, the joy Fra Giovanni saw welling up behind and beneath all our shadows and sorrows.

Perhaps if I can remember this at Christmas I can remember it all year round. Victor Frankl may have said it best: “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”


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