I have an odd thought for you tonight – Unhappiness is not always a sign that something is wrong. All our lives, “the pursuit of happiness” is crammed down our throats, touted as the end-all-be-all of life’s purpose. Whenever we find ourselves uncomfortable or unfulfilled, our peers or gurus or daytime TV talk shows challenge us with “Well, if you could do anything you wanted, anything at all, what would make you happy?” We say to ourselves and each other, QUICK!! Feel happy as fast as you possibly can! Don’t hold back! Do, see, buy whatever it is that you feel will make you happy, because feeling happy is the true sign that you’re doing the “right” thing. Entire industries and bookstore sections have been dedicated to it. But as the years have passed I’ve found that sentiment is just far too simple. Don’t get me wrong, happiness is important. True happiness – deep, peaceful happiness – does speak to who and where we are in our lives because happiness is HARD. Happiness takes work and loss and sacrifice to achieve and most definitely to maintain. It requires that we go through times of unhappiness to refine and clarify what we really need and want to make of our lives.
I’m in an interesting season now. In the last three years, I have experienced both my darkest despair and my most intoxicating bliss. I spent one of those years miserable, to the point of medication and even an empathy for those who suffer with self-destructive thoughts. I spent another year totally free of obligations, traveling, adventuring, falling in love with a person and with life and with God. So believe me, I know what both the highs and lows feel like. As I’ve settled back into a more maintainable, “normal” life after all that growth, I’ve had to evaluate what purpose happiness was going to hold for me. Sure, every time I have a hard day at work and I go home tired and discouraged, I think, “I could just quit, buy an Airstream and a truck, and hit the road for good – go back to the mountains and my bliss.” That’s where “happy” was for me, geographically. But then I consider that I know in my gut I am where I should be. Everything about my life is meaningful – my job is tailor made, my friendships are blossoming and vulnerable, my surroundings are beautiful, and my responsibilities are tended to. I’m not just paying bills or killing time. I feel very “right”, but if pressed, I do think I would say I am currently unhappy.
When this thought occurred to me, I was tempted to think that it must be a sign that I’m doing something wrong or that I’ve made a bad turn somewhere. But as I let the thought simmer, I found that I no longer identify unhappiness with failure. Sometimes, if we’ve gone through the pain of maturing, we’ll find ourselves in seasons where happiness is on the horizon, but not in our hands. I believe these can be times when our hope and faith are tested. Will I abandon my gratitude for the blessings around me just because I don’t feel giddy? Or am I willing to walk around inside of so-called unhappiness and see that providence and fidelity and grace still show up for me when I need them, with or without the emotional payoff? This time is showing me what I still long for, and even more importantly, WHY. Delayed satisfaction provides the opportunity to examine desires, and you may find yourself shedding some and intensifying others with the gift of time.
I challenge you (and myself) – the next time you feel unhappy, sit in it for a while and see what it has to say.