“This Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. Every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, ‘God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”
C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity)
The relationship between God and his children is a model for the ideal relationship between parents and children – easy to please, yet hard to satisfy. I love the analogy of a baby learning to walk. As parents, we want our children to walk. We know we can’t do it for them; they have to figure it out themselves. But we still have a powerful role to play, a Helper as they stumble uphill towards greatness.
How we react to our children’s first steps and the role we play in their striving will frame their experience in life. Sometimes we may want to discourage our nine-month old who is already trying to walk. She is still a baby, she will hurt herself! I am not ready for her to grow up. While an understandable reaction, this is Stifling Motherhood – low expectations and ultimately selfish. Other times, as was the case with my overly-contented babies, we are frustrated by our chubby 14-month old who is still satisfied with his crawling. Is there something wrong with this kid? Why can’t he just walk! This is Disappointed Motherhood. Because our expectations are too high, we miss being present with our current child- the glorious crawler. We have already forgotten our joy at his mastery of that long-awaited skill.
As a previous post explained, we need to have proper expectations for our children. These should be high, but adapted to each child’s capabilities, personality, and talents. We can have high hopes for our child but we must also glory in every feeble step they take- no matter how imperfect or delayed. Expectations become a burden when children feel incapable of achieving them, or when parents never seem content with their efforts.
The Answer of Patience – Joy
So what is this God-like attribute described in the quotation above? How do we maintain our hard-to-satisfy expectations while glorying in our children’s journey? The answer – Patience. God looks upon our feeble and halting steps here on earth as a Loving Father towards his learning toddlers. Just as we would never shame our two-year-old who tearfully admits to knocking over the lamp, He does not chasen us when we trip and fall short of perfection. He freely forgives, if spiritual toddlers even need forgiveness. God may well laugh at our distraught anxiety at our imperfections – just as I chuckle at my three-year-old’s frustration that she can’t ride the hoverboard like her big brother. He knows the timeline, he is in no rush, but the expectation remains the same. Our immaturities do not demand condemnation. They simply require patience and perseverance. Perfectionism is the thief of joy.*
A few years ago, I began praying for patience every night – having 5 kids under 7 can do that to a woman. One night after a day full of my own impatience, I had the thought, Maybe I am doing this wrong. Do I even really know what I am requesting? I would pray, “Please give me patience with these kids’ disobedience! Give me patience with my cold and moldy basement apartment! And please give it to me now!” I don’t think I actually wanted patience. I wanted my wishes granted. I wanted submissive kids and to get out of that basement.
So what is the patience we seek? It can’t simply be learning to wait because necessity requires that. It also isn’t an ability to stop wanting things. We need our desire so we feel compelled to crawl, walk, and run. Good desires should not be abandoned on the altar of “patience”, and waiting without action is no virtue. What we need is to develop God’s patience. Patience is finding joy while we wait. We don’t wait to have joy when our kids are perfectly compliant or our house is above-ground but we find pleasure in the here and now, while we wait. Rather than begrudging that my chunky baby wasn’t walking, I could glory in his crawling. Instead of complaining about living in dilapidated student-housing, I could buy heavy curtains and rejoice in my space-heaters.
“The principle part of faith is patience.”
When our children start to walk, but continue to fall; or when they get discouraged and refuse to attempt the journey into our welcoming arms, we show them God’s Patience. We also accept that our Helper’s patience is there for us as well, in our stumbling steps as a mother. We strive to be better, and delight in each and every small stride. We bless our children with a joyful mother, modeled after our joyful Father, glorying in their small steps toward greatness.
*I hope to do a future post on dropping the load of worldly “perfectionism”.
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“Gratitude is a currency that we can mint for ourselves, and spend without fear of bankruptcy.”
Fred De Witt Van Amburgh
An expression of gratitude is a gift to both receiver and giver. Receiving thanks reminds us that our efforts are not in vain, that we are valuable to others. Giving thanks opens the windows of heaven; it allows us to see what we may have otherwise been blind to.
One of the more difficult aspects of motherhood is that our efforts are often unappreciated. Not only is its significance increasingly disregarded by society but even our own families often don’t acknowledge our sacrifices. Little children rarely think to thank you for making them a sandwich, or going through the hell of potty training. Husbands simply can’t comprehend the misery of the third trimester. This is a reality best accepted rather than resented.*
“Gratitude is a duty which ought to be paid, but which none have a right to expect.” –
Despite the ingratitude of others, we can live in thanksgiving as we adopt our own attitude of gratitude. Even without receiving it, we can spend grateful-currency on others, which makes us richer in the spending.
A few days ago I noticed my son, age ten, allowing his three-year-old sister to drag him around by the shirt as he pretended to be her puppy. This went on for quite a while and I could tell he was not loving this game. He moaned a bit as she pulled him up the stairs, but he generously allowed his persistent little sister to dominate him. She never expressed her gratitude to her older brother, but she was having the time of her life. After they finished playing I sat down next to my son and said, “Thank you so much for playing with her like that. I know you would rather have done something else but she had so much fun with you. You are a very kind big-brother.” It was obvious that this statement of appreciation meant a lot to him. We had a wonderful bonding moment together. He felt loved and I felt blessed to have raised him. It is sad to consider how many similar selfless acts I have ignored. It seems it is not just mothers that are unappreciated.
Thankfulness is only found when we step out of the humdrum nature of life and notice the miraculous around us. As mothers, we have before us perfect miniature-models of this capacity – small children. Children haven’t forgotten to look – they glory in observing their world. They discover new joys everyday as we become increasingly blind to them. When I first moved to the Hill Country of Texas, I remember being enthralled by the majestic Live Oak trees. Now I can go weeks without actually seeing one – despite their ubiquity. I took a walk with my toddler the other day. She inspected the cracks in the sidewalk and screamed excitedly as she discovered a string of fire ants. She lovingly gave me five dandelions to put in my hair. She chased an ill-tempered stray cat. Rather than the annoyance or disregard I typically give to all of the above, she, in actually seeing them, experienced their magic and joy.
But it is not enough to open our eyes, we must open our mouths. Children live in a spirit of gratitude, as adults we must learn to express it.
“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
William Arthur Ward
Now we can call up our mom and thank her for potty training us. We can thank our daughter for not complaining about her chores. We can thank our husbands for taking out the trash. With every acknowledgement of appreciation life looks brighter. In recognizing others good deeds, we see that our own have paid off. My son must have listened to my lessons on kindness, my daughter must be maturing out of her obstinacy, my husband notices the needs of his family.
It is an unfortunate truth that we are all tilted towards the negative, we tend to focus on the wilted rose in our beautiful bouquet.
“Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his happiness.”
However, if we consciously decide to notice the joy in life, and acknowledge it – we unlock the joy that was hidden.
“No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
If we open our eyes as a child we see the glory of life. As we receive these riches we will live in a state of thankfulness, and become rich. If we spend our self-minted money of gratitude generously toward the oft-unappreciated efforts of others, joy increases. The world can become a truly glorious and miraculous place.
“Don’t worry about being happy. Just try to be grateful, and happiness just comes.”
-We are always grateful and appreciative of your shares, recommendations, and comments.
*There are things we can do to teach appreciation to our children, I hope to write a future post on how we can help our children learn the art of gratitude.
“The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.”
William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair)
When I was a freshman at university, I worked in the college Ice Cream Shop. I went through a vigorous fifteen-minute training, done by the creamery supervisor, a sage 19 year-old Sophmore. He demonstrated how to dip the ice cream scoop in water, sink it into the favored barrel, and put it on a cone. After one practice scoop, I had it mastered. He didn’t elaborate on the proper size of the scoop or how to interact with the customers – he didn’t seem concerned with such trivialities. The workplace can be quite relaxed when the management consists of disinterested college students. However, as I worked there I noticed that not everyone interacted the same way with ice cream, or customers for that matter. I discovered some truths about human nature, which have been repeatedly confirmed throughout my life. I realized that there are only two kinds of people in this world – big-scoopers and small-scoopers. Some of my coworkers would dish out wimpy scoops to a child or student, unaware or unphased by their disappointed faces. Others would push the boundaries of a “single scoop” and deliver a very generous scoop to a delighted customer. I was more the latter; in fact, customers began requesting me. After seeing the portions handed out by a tight-fisted employee, they would ask, “Is Ally working tonight?” Now, some would say that the stingy employees were more honest – and if the corporate policy was clear, I might agree. However, it was obvious that no one minded how much we put in a scoop of ice cream.
“For it is in giving that we receive.”
St. Francis of Assisi
I often wondered why someone, given the freedom to dish out a large scoop or a small one, would continually dish out small ones – especially after witnessing the celebrity status of the big-scoop employees. I noticed that those employees who handed out meager scoops, tended to exhibit other attributes. Rather than enjoying their job working at an ice cream shop, (literally every child’s dream), they came to work grumpy. Rather than interacting joyfully with customers, they acted bored or even rude. They discovered a multitude of reasons to complain about their work conditions or shift schedule. Why interact with the world this way? It certainly seemed this pessimistic view of life was making them miserable and building up their own personal hell.
“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.”
Have we Become Miss Trunchbull?
I recently watched the movie “Matilda” with my children. The headmaster of the school, Miss Trunchbull, is a characterture of an angry and vindictive woman – someone that hates life and takes it out on innocents. Miss Truchbulls are all too common in our children’s lives. In school, children are chastised, “No talking during lunch!” “Don’t climb trees!” In Kindergarten my daughter was even reprimanded for hugging her friend, “No hugs allowed in school!” Adults become the oppressors of childhood joy. By focusing on the negative with children, we may be stifling their generous and happy nature and inadvertently creating a new generation of small scoopers.
We have all met real-life Miss Trunchbulls: a snippy store clerk, that curt librarian, or the lady you pray doesn’t call your number at the DMV. Negative women, and men, are easy to spot and we generally try and avoid them. However, for some reason, it is much harder to recognize ourselves as one of them. We may, in fact, be blissfully unaware that we have become a Miss Trunchbull in children’s eyes, or that we are now ungenerous scoopers. We are so consumed by our own suffering, our own injustices, our own stresses, that we don’t see the hell that follows us. We don’t see that our outlook on life is draining the joy of others around us, that our perspective is teaching our kids that the world is an ungenerous place, a place where ice cream needs to be preserved, not shared.
Why Debbie Downer and not Fezziwig?
“Life begins as a quest of the child for the man, and ends as a journey by the man to rediscover the child.”
There are many reasons we may have allowed ourselves to become ungenerous or negative. Perhaps we have lived a difficult life or have a disagreeable personality type. Perhaps we feel unloved or unappreciated. Maybe we have developed a scarce view of the world, believing in zero-sum happiness. Regardless of the source of our negativity, we must realize that we can never expect good things from life if we refuse to interact with it graciously.
If instead, we decide to take the opposite course, the cheerful-road less traveled, we will find influence that even the most miserly among us can appreciate and cherish. Ebeneezer Scrooge was asked by the Ghost of Christmas Present why he respected his old employer Fezziwig, who spent his money on frivolous amusements. Scrooge said, “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” (Charles Dickens, The Christmas Carol)
So how do we start rendering others happy, rather than unhappy? What can we do to change our negative habits, personality, or outlook?
1. Become a Spectator
“The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.”
Are we unaware of the prison of negativity and hostility in which we are residing? We need to become conscious to the way we are interacting with the world. We need to look at ourselves as an impartial observer. This should be done without judgement. If we become a spectator to our own behavior, we may see things we would never expect. Are we giving out wimpy scoops? Are we yelling at innocent children? Rather than feeling condemned by the imperfections we notice in ourselves, we should see hope – hope of progress. We have likely noticed we are unhappy – here might be a good place to start to rectify that. If we seek to improve our interactions with others, their reactions to us will also certainly improve.
Despite my previous notoriety as a Big Scooper, I regret to admit I have many moments of stingy behavior. It is interesting how I can become a witness to my own destructive behaviors, but seem unable to stop them. This is when I let my impulses overtake my free will. I observe a witchy woman – fully engulfed in emotionality, which I seem powerless to stop. I see myself displaying negative habits and reacting instinctively rather than with thoughtfulness and kindness. I see myself yelling at joyfully laughing children in the backseat. I notice myself unloading emotional baggage on my husband as he walks in the door from a long-day at work, without concern for him. These moments all seem to occur above a common denominator, stress. When we attempt to remove our own bias and see ourselves clearly, we can choose to react differently – more positively. Being self-observant has helped me identify my stress-triggers and prevent them.
2. Decide who you want to be
I used to have a distaste for the phrase, “Fake it till you make it” because I dislike insincerity, I always strive to be genuine and respect others I feel are authentic. However, I have found in marriage and mothering that sometimes if I am in a bad mood – I simply need to fake happiness, for the sake of myself and my family. I want my children to remember their mom as happy and nurturing. I want my husband to feel welcomed by a generous and loving wife.
An interesting and well-known study, now known simply as the Pencil Study, showed that people’s moods can be elevated simply by placing a pencil in their mouths – forcing them to use their smile muscles. It seems “faking it” can trick our brains into producing endorphins and serotonin. Doing charitable acts can make us more charitable. Directing our thoughts to others can decrease our selfishness. We sometimes need to force ourselves out of our negative cycles – improve our posture, take a walk, pray, be grateful. But most of all we must decide who we want to be and work to become that person. We must strive to be the hero of our story and shun the enemy we could become.
3. Integrate who you want to be with how you live
We can decide that we are not going to be a slave to a pessimistic view of life. We can freely choose to prevent such reactions and to interact with the world differently. But it takes using our attention and focus, especially if we are in the habit of reacting negatively.
We must prepare and prevent. We know when our own Miss Trunchbull is likely to emerge. For me it is 5:30 at night as I prepare dinner. My noise bucket is now full and my will-power muscle is worn out, so I start to get snippy with my children. If I do not change the conditions, the outcome will always be the same, so I play relaxing classical music or send the kids outside to play. If it has been a stressful day, I consciously decide to not complain to my husband until he has been home fifteen minutes, even if I have to tell Alexa to remind me. I usually find when 15 minutes are up, I have forgotten my complaints.
If we are going to successfully defeat our mean nature, we need to “negotiate with ourselves”, as Dr. Jordan Peterson says. First we need to become a spectator and witness the negative consequences of our pessimism and unpleasantness. Then we need to decide if we really are willing to become a more positive person. Finally we need to integrate that positivity into our lives. This might require a changing of routines, shifting our outlook, and even some moments of “pretending”. But there is hope that we can become a big-scooper again. As we see the benefit of positivity, our efforts will be a reward unto themselves.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. Those who knock, it is opened.”
C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce)
Bring Heaven Down
When I look back at my days at the Creamery, I remember it as pure joy. I gloried in that ice cream and the happiness it brought. I want that “Ally” back for good. Some days she is here and other days Miss Trunchbull makes her appearance. I have hope that I can live the heavenly days of college again, and why not? I am now surrounded by my children and husband, whom I love dearly. Now should be the time I am most capable of building up my own heaven. I remain convinced of the truth I learned in college: there are only two types of people in this world, big-scoopers and small-scoopers. But now I know that the choice is before me day after day, moment after moment, who will I be? Will I make a heaven or a hell?
“At the end of things, The Blessed will say, “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven.” And the lost will say, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”
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“The best thing about not having children is that you can go on believing that you’re a good person.” Fay Weldon.
Raising children can bring out the worst in us, but also potentially the best. Because of children’s ability to expose our weaknesses, parents are given a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge our faults and attempt to change them. It is important to recognize our own “dark side” so we can conquer it. Change is extremely difficult and can even seem impossible – however the love we have for our precious and innocent children (and our desire to not screw them up) is one of the best motivators for personal progression.
In the short clip below Dr. Peterson helps us recognize our own dark potential in parenting, and how we can use this truth to teach our children.
*His rule, “Don’t allow your children to do anything that makes you dislike them” sounds harsh but there is great truth in it. However, it is important to note that the application of this rule is dependent on the maturity and progression of the parent. If a parent “dislikes” harmless and appropriate behavior in their children then he/she is not ready for its application. Clip 3:48
There are a lot of conflicting reports on parenthood and happiness. As I researched this topic, I found studies showing differing correlation, but the data is too complex to show causation. However, it seems the trendy view is that parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. The Young Turks, a left-leaning outlet geared towards young adults, has a video entitled “Proof Parenthood Destroys Your Happiness”. This bold claim is based on short-term evidence from a single study in a first-world nation. However, despite the limitations of the study, one of the commentators said the results were enough to convince her to never have children! So is parenthood really that detrimental to happiness? For the sake of this article lets take the prevailing view and assume it is, at least in the short-term. Does it necessarily follow that the best choice is then to forgo having children? Perhaps we shouldn’t throw out our potential babies with the unhappy bath-water, at least before giving it some careful consideration.
Jordan Peterson gave some great insight on this subject that summarizes the short-sightedness of the “Unhappy Parent” perspective (4:36).
At church on Sunday I noticed a young man standing in the back bouncing his newborn baby girl. He was in his 20s, good-looking, and well-dressed in a white sweater (color choice was a dead giveaway to his rookie status). His new daughter was fussy and he seemed stressed as he tried to calm her down. I had to chuckle as I noticed that his baby had spit-up on his sweater. What a shame. A previously confident young man with his whole life ahead of him – forced to frantically try and calm an inconsolable child. He could be relaxing at home playing Madden Football. With our modern aspirations for a life free of stress and worry, this scene can certainly be seen as a tragedy.
Maturing from Fun to Happiness to Suffering
Kids have their finger on the pulse of happiness – or as they like to call it “fun”. “What are we doing fun today?” “This isn’t fun!” As adults we don’t ask about fun anymore – that is childish. Instead we focus on happiness. “I am just not happy.” “Just do whatever makes you happy.” Are these really that different? Have we really matured beyond our six-year-old self’s demands? The truth is that the constant expectation of happiness, perhaps exasperated by a fun-filled childhood, can create a feeling of discontent.
The transition the young father will go through in the next few years will likely not be the “happiest” time of his life. There is pain as we change from a me-focused mindset to an other-focused perspective. This is called maturing. This is the shift from a life driven by happiness to a life driven by meaning. “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs.* This young man’s fatherhood is forcing him to find a new path to joy, a less selfish path, and a path sure to include distress. Calming an upset infant is not easy! “God creates us free, free to be selfish, but He adds a mechanism that will penetrate our selfishness and wake us up to the presence of others in this world, and that mechanism is called suffering.” William Nicholson.
Happiness is Selfish
Happiness is simply an emotion; it is dependent on what happens to us, and how satisfied we feel in the moment. “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” researchers on happiness write.*
There is a place for selfishness, and I hope there is a big place for happiness – but orienting our lives to maximize the realization of our selfish desires is a recipe for destruction. As the Stoics understood thousands of years ago, Viktor Frankl exclaimed, “It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness.” Because of the selfish nature of happiness, its pursuit often negatively affects relationships. Ask the new mother whose husband plays video games until 3 am. Or the kids whose mom ran off with the “love of her life” fitness trainer. (Fascinating clip hyperlinked here by C.S. Lewis on the supremacy of Sexual Happiness). Striving for happiness is our natural inclination, but put in a place of prominence it can become pathological. It can obscure your long-term concerns for yourself and any concern for the feelings of others (mania and psychopathy). In the clip below Jordan Peterson explains how positive emotions must be balanced with necessary negative emotions.
Selfishness and a focus on personal-satisfaction can certainly be a motivation to choose a childless life. Kids severely limit your options; they are a constant source of work and stress. However, as Erin explained so well in her post last week – the limiting of our options may in fact open us up for more depth and potential.** I am not saying all childless couples are selfish. People have various, and often justified, reasons for not having children. However, if their justification is solely based on the prospect of unhappiness, I would urge them to reconsider. Opening yourself up to the world of “others” and self-sacrifice can bring profundity and meaning to your life. “If you’re constantly in a state of satisfaction and happiness then nothing is going to affect you deeply enough so that you will become deep, and life without depth is, by definition, shallow and meaningless.” Jordan Peterson.
Happiness is Judgemental
There is a new show on Netflix called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Marie helps people order their lives by throwing out most of their belongings. A few years ago I read her book and threw out ten garbage bags of stuff. It was awesome. One of her recommendations is that you hold everything in front of you and ask “Does this spark joy?.” I asked myself that question 300 times or more as I went through my house. I can certainly see the utility in that. However, I can also see some pathological perfectionism in that statement. It is sterilizing life. When you look in the background after Marie Kondo has done her tydinging magic, the room can look fake and unsettling. Maybe it is the slob in me talking, but is a house swept of imperfection cozy or charming? Does it have character? We can judge our possessions selfishly – our shoes won’t be offended if we dump them at Goodwill. However, do we sometimes have a similar mindset when examining the people and experiences we have in life? Do we sometimes wish we could discard other things/people impeding our joy? Should we “Kondo” our family? How about our duties? Is sparking joy the ultimate measurement of worth?
When I was a 27-year-old mother with 2 little kids, I had a tough time in the transition to maturity. I acted like a spoiled brat sometimes when my husband got home. “I clean the house up and the kids just mess it up. I am a prisoner at home; I can’t do anything between naps and nursing!” I complained because I believed that happiness should be the default of existence therefore something was wrong if I wasn’t happy. I judged whether each moment was in-line with my expectations. Constantly observing my unhappiness only added to it.
The problem with evaluating your life based on “joy-sparking” is it’s not a fair judgement, it is only taking into account one thing – happiness. It doesn’t ask if it is the right thing to do, or the necessary thing to do. If I used this method I would never do laundry again! When people forgo parenthood because they don’t think having children would “spark joy,” they are using happiness as the judge, and who made “happiness” the best judge of life? “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” Ecclesiastes 3:1-3. Life must be seen for all its complexity and should not be reduced to happy or unhappy.
Happiness is Not the Standard
Underneath our judgments of life is an underlying belief that life is “supposed to be happy”. A school of philosophers called Existentialists reject this view of the world. Instead they remind us of the intrinsic difficulty of life. Jordan Peterson is an existentialist – like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky before him. Growing up in the military, I traveled the world and saw that poverty and hardship were commonplace. Life seemed so arbitrary and unfair. When I was a teenager I read The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky portrays suffering as intrinsic to the story of human experience. However, he shows that as we accept the fragility of life we can live life more fully. We can take upon ourselves the responsibility of relieving the hardships we see around us. We can accept that pain and disappointment are part of the package, along with joy and happiness. We can be more grateful for happiness when it comes because we know it can be fleeting and must be worked for, rather than expected. Dostoyevsky’s work shaped my worldview. There is much joy and meaning to be found when you let go of expectation of constant happiness. As Mike Rowe once put it, “Happiness is a terrific symptom, it is a terrible goal, because it’s a sucker’s bet.”
The ultimate reality is death. Accepting life as temporary can help us prioritize our lives. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so eloquently said, “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be the unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.” By choosing to accept the tenuousness of happiness and the harsh realities of life, we lose our naive desires and seek a higher purpose.
Life is For Meaning
Researchers studying the effect of meaning in a person’s life, found that the things that makes life meaningful do not necessarily make us happy.* The study showed, “People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment.” When my husband and I decided to have a large family we imagined a future full of loving relationships, adventure, and lots of potential grandchildren. We didn’t really think about how much work or stress five kids would be. I am glad we didn’t. If I had focused on the difficulty of raising a large family I might not have done it (I am pretty selfish). The joy we experience and inexpressible love we have for our children far outweighs the daily difficulty of raising them.
Living a meaningful life is necessary for the kind of happiness I would call joy – a happiness that does not fade. Not the “sparking joy” kind we experience when we wear our favorite shirt – but deep joy stemming from a life well-lived. Meaning comes from making a difference in someone’s life. This is what Dostoyevsky was referring to when he said, “Men are made for happiness, and he who is completely happy has the right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’” This may be why studies show that parents who feel they are doing a good-job have much higher levels of happiness than those who don’t.***
Parenthood as Purpose Throughout Human History
Human life has continued because people have children – because that is just what people do. That is what life is, it is what makes life and continues life. Until recently, children were considered a precious gift. Cultures and society were set up largely for their benefit. The Psalms says, “Children are an heritage to the Lord, Happy is the man who hath his quiver full of them.” So why are so many millenials choosing to remain childless? Is it partly due to our over-emphasis on the “happy life”?
Even today, most people worldwide (especially in developing countries) take having a family as obvious and unquestioned. When I was 18, I went on a University “Field Study” with my Geography Department. Another girl and I were dropped off in a remote village near Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania for four months. Many children in the village had never seen a white person; very few spoke English; there was no running water or electricity. My friend and I stayed in the one brick building in the village – the small home of a Catholic priest (who had many children by the way). With our limited Swahili we quickly became friends with the locals. These friendship have helped define my life. The women in this village were tough. They worked hard all day for their husbands and children. They cooked their meals over a kerosene stove or a fire. They walked to the nearest well for water. If I had asked one of these women, “Did becoming a mom make you more or less happy?”, they would have started at me in bewilderment. What does happy have to do with anything? They did not have the luxury of such emotional questioning. My Tanzanian friends laughed, they cried, they had misfortunes, and they had blessings – as all of us do. They did not stop in front of every scenario and ask if it was sparking joy. They lived life unimpeded by selfishness and judgement of every situation.
Some might say that just because having children has been the norm does not mean it is the best path forward. Why not pave a new normal? There are a lot of problems with that idea – but the one that strikes me most is rejection of humanity and life itself. Is life not worth preserving? Do we not have something to pass on? Is there no value to the role of children in society? Dostoevsky said, “Through children the soul is healed…”
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is,” Viktor Frankl. As we build strong relationships with our children and help them grow into healthy adults, we get to experience not only our own life filled with happiness, pain, and all that life is – but also our children’s’ happiness and pain – that is living life, and living it more abundantly. If we give up on children because it may momentarily impede our pursuit of happiness, we may be denying ourselves the prospect of a life filled with meaning and love.
Joy is Found in Love
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.” C.S. Lewis
We often sacrifice relationships on the selfish altar of happiness. Children bear the brunt of the selfish choices of their parents. Psychologists’ offices are full of people traumatized in childhood by self-centered adults. These adults put their own happiness above maintaining a loving relationship with their families. Perhaps if our culture shifted and we stopped saying, “Do whatever makes you happy”, fewer children would be traumatized and more people would find meaning.
Harvard recently did an 80-year study detailing the factors influencing the formation of a happy and healthy life.**** The results surprised the researchers, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.” Family is where these strong relationships are most easily found, the blood and experience that tie us to our family is not easily replicable. We don’t get to choose our children’s temperament, adapting ourselves to preserve meaningful relationships with them develops our character and resilience. (I do believe people can and have built lives full of meaning and love without children as they focus on others).
A New Perspective on Happiness
When that handsome young man in the spit-up covered sweater was bouncing his precious child, he was at the beginning of a long journey with his daughter. This journey will have “seasons” filled with diverse emotions and experiences. It will be an adventure. He may have to throw out his white sweater. He won’t be as handsome at the end of it. Parenthood might even temporarily lessen his happiness, but if he keeps his mind focused on developing meaning and love, he will be glad he made the choice.
Let’s let go of a naive and selfish view of life as simply the pursuit of happiness. As we embrace the challenges and pain necessary to build a life of meaning and love, we can find the strength to risk unhappiness for lasting joy. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Postscript: Happiness Comes in the Letting-go of It
Dostoyevsky said that “with love one can live even without happiness.” But I don’t want to give up on happiness just yet. We don’t actually have to throw out the unhappy bath-water, we may be able to cleanse it. In order to obtain more happiness we need the foundation of the existential idea that things haven’t necessarily “gone wrong” when it is absent. I plan to write a series of posts in the next few months highlighting the ways we can more happily live in meaningful marriage and family.
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