From time to time I’ll hear Christians discuss the merits of happiness. Oddly, as wonderful as happiness might at first glance appear, in these conversations I often hear it discussed with a measure of suspicion. Happiness, they say, is fleeting, transient, and too often an object of desire, leading us to do all kinds of foolish things as we pursue its superficial comfort. Much better, they say, is joy. In fact, I have rarely heard a Christian conversation about happiness that doesn’t end up relegating it a distant second place behind joy.
On one level, I suppose, I recognize the intent to point to something that resides beyond ourselves, something that we can possess despite outward circumstances. One can suffer loss and still experience joy, after all; one can even grieve and yet know joy. I appreciate that; I really do. But…
But I think it’s the comparison that grates on me. As if we can only really appreciate joy when we recognize its superiority to happiness. But I think I value happiness in part precisely because it is fleeting, because it is something we can pursue, per Thomas Jefferson, but as Raymond Carver reminds us, it most often comes unbidden, as a surprise, a guest we had not invited yet delights us through its transient but glorious presence. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” Exactly.
Moments like those Thoreau alludes to and Carver describes in his poem below won’t last. We know that. And for this reason all we can do is celebrate them…and give thanks.
I pray that you know the depth of Christian joy but also – most definitely also – that your days this weekend and forward contain moments of sheer happiness, happiness that goes beyond any of our talk about it.
So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
Raymond Carver, from Where Water Comes Together with Other Water: Poems, 1986