Happy? Observant readers will note the question mark. Yes, it’s a question. One our culture forces us to ask ourselves continually, constantly. Am I happy? Are others happier than I? Is there something I can buy? A pill I can take? Maybe if I lose ten pounds….move to a different street…break up with my partner…. I’ll be happy. No question mark.
Happy? Was the question put to me recently by my friend Carol, who writes for the Alumni Magazine. She knows me well, and so she also knows that I have an allergy to pat answers. I was grateful that there were layers to her question. We explored these together. What is happiness? How is religion linked to happiness? Beyond a transitory mood, how is happiness linked to deeper states of joy, peacefulness, fulfillment? But in the end, she circled back around to the question I ‘d hoped she’d forgotten: Am I happy?
The day Carol interviewed me, I had just returned from a weekend at Holy Cross monastery. I was there on silent retreat with a group of students. Time with the brothers there always anchors me. The singing of the psalms ; the daily rhythm of prayer in the chapel; the deep silence amid the gleaming icons; the glimmer and gleam of the breaking ice as it slides by on the river
In fact, while at the monastery I had an experience of happiness. It happened while I was sitting at breakfast on Sunday morning. It wasn’t due to the oatmeal, which was tasty but quite ordinary. Nor to the sleepy faces of the students around me at table, much as I love them all. Nor was it due to the river, which was not in my view since I’d come in late and missed the choicest seats. Nor to the beauty of the morning liturgy, which was yet to take place. What happened was not due to any one of these things; although, perhaps, it was all of these things that prepared my soul to receive it. What was it? Nothing. Everything. A moment of pure joy. I only recognized it in retrospect, so pure and out-of-time its aspect. All I know is that I was gazing out the window at a cloud, sailing behind a tracery of branches in the morning sky. Time stopped. My heart filled. That’s all. By the time I recognized the moment, it was over. I did not share this story with Carol. But it’s memory colored every word of my answer to her question.
Am I happy? I poke myself to see. It’s Holy Week, a time of drama and dark reflection in the church year. The spring has been slow in its arrival, the buds grudging, the late March wind a chilly knife. The news I read in the morning paper is unrepentantly bad. But today my youngest son is here, having stopped overnight on his way to New York. He is the same age as the young man at whose funeral I officiated last week. Happy? I think of the tears of that other mother, clinging to me after the service. I think of the arms of the mother of Jesus, cradling her son. Dare I acknowledge my joy while embracing my own son, in a world so filled with sorrow? Dare I not?
Happy? Perhaps my name has scripted me toward worrying this question, a dog on its bone. I was named Joyce after my mother’s sister, who died just before I was born. Joy was my vocation, before I could know the word’s meaning. I have been shaped by that name and that legacy, a difficult ministry in its own right. My family jokes at how I am, still, ridiculously happy about small things. A brown bird. A gray cloud. A spotted bug. A smile from a stranger. This trait could be a burden, I suppose, or an irritating habit, or a neurosis that signifies an anxious childhood. But I choose to view it as a gift. It makes me - -happy. No question mark.