Surprised by happiness
Here's how it started: Jan Wood, making a guest appearance in a Sunday School class at First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, back in 1982, led our group through a gifts discovery workshop. Our class had been studying Peter Wagner's book Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow. Using his vocabulary, my gifts apparently were apostolic, teaching, and evangelistic. Now, in 2019, it seemed that my assignment for the Pacific Northwest Quaker Men's Conference was to present how my awareness of these gifts guided my calling and path among Friends in the decades that followed. Just some chronology and stories—what could be so hard about that?
In preparing my talk, I first tackled my experience of the so-called apostolic gift—collaborative spiritual leadership beyond the local fellowship. I had become a Friend during my student years in Ottawa, Canada, back in the mid-1970s, shortly after I became a Christian. My conversion at age twenty-one was a dramatic reversal of the compulsory atheism of my family upbringing, and I was incredibly grateful to Ottawa Friends Meeting for providing a spiritual home that didn't seem to have the theatrics and hypocrisy that my parents insisted were essential features of Christianity.
(I do know now that Friends are not the only Christians who resist these features!)
I soon had an intuition that my gratitude to Ottawa Friends would someday find an outlet in service to the larger Friends movement. I remember visiting the office of Canadian Friends Service Committee a few months after getting involved with Ottawa Friends, and hearing Ruth Morris say that I would somehow be “used.” I had no idea what that meant.
Canadian Friends did some very concrete things to encourage me in discovering how I would begin serving out my debt of gratitude. First, they put me on the Canadian Friends Foreign Missionary Board. Before you get too impressed with this appointment, you should know that Canadian Friends had no foreign missionaries. It was a board that made grants from an old endowment.
Second, they made me an observer to the Friends World Committee for Consultation's 1976 Triennial sessions in Hamilton, Ontario, giving me my first exposure to the worldwide scope and diversity of the Quaker movement. From this awareness and these contacts flowed my future involvements in international Quaker witness, including twenty-three years of increasingly direct involvement in the Friends movement in Russia.
[In talking about the apostolic gift and its regional and international applications, I was a bit afraid that the word “apostolic” would seem more grandiose than it is in my own understanding—or else it might be tinged with the over-the-top eccentricity of Robert Duvall’s character in The Apostle or the authoritarian overtones in the recent “New Apostolic Reformation” movement. The apostolic gift doesn’t necessarily come with any hierarchical advantage or status; it utterly depends on collaboration, especially among Friends. God knows I had no discernible power as head of the Friends United Meeting staff, beyond the power of persuasion—and that was enough for me.]
At this point in my sketch of my gifts chronology—at precisely the point Russia came into the picture—I came to a sharp halt. I cannot paint a heroic picture of my service in Russia, where I spent most of my time teaching English comprehension, mass media, and exam prep, in a small linguistics institute in the industrial town of Elektrostal. I cannot say that our nine years' residence, or my participation in Moscow Friends Meeting and the Friends House Moscow board, resulted in impressive growth in the Russian Quaker movement! The future of that movement is in hands other than ours. Our continuing role is behind-the-scenes encouragement.
I came to the sobering realization that maybe my main contribution to Christian witness among Russians came from a completely different gift than the ones on our Sunday school list, an irrational and countercultural gift I'm even a bit embarrassed to acknowledge: the gift of happiness.
"Happiness" is often compared unfavorably to "ecstasy" and "joy"—and if it just doesn't seem substantial enough, maybe you'd prefer the term "contentment." Still, it’s a gift.
Why do I call it a gift? Sebastian Moore, in his book The Inner Loneliness, says that our relationship with God (the one who knows us better than we know ourselves, and yet loves us one and all) is the resolution of our primordial “inner loneliness,” the first relationship that shapes all relationships based on mutual blessing. Our ability to love ourselves and each other, and our consequent desire to give of ourselves, is all of a piece with God’s prior love. It is not our initiative to love self and other, it is a gift from God, reflected in the happiness we feel when we give to others. But, just as we find it hard to comprehend grace, we’re often not at peace with our own inner God-given beauty and the capacity for pleasure that results: “We snatch at it, as it were, as though it were too good to be true and we were stealing something that did not belong to us.”
Moore goes on to say, “The reason for this attitude is a deep distrust of happiness, of free, unconditional joy, in the human mind. There is a certain natural pessimism, parsimony, puritanism about the way we think of ourselves. Thus we keep the core-experience, of enjoying ourselves in making another happy, in a kind of limbo of too-good-to-be-true.”
Haven’t you seen evidence of this “parsimony?” I vividly remember reading this book, which I’d bought with my employee discount at Quaker Hill Bookstore, and suddenly understanding that I no longer needed to apologize for my incorrigible optimism. Then I ran into a friend who was on the faculty at Earlham College. I know she loved her subject area, but our conversation was mainly about her overloaded schedule—she said she was just one departmental committee meeting away from insanity. Listening to her with Moore’s words in mind, I thought about all the other conversations I’ve had with my friends in which a kind of overload competition was going on: “You think you have it bad . . .” How rarely I heard stories of contentment, of saying yes and no to obligations out of a place of abundance.
To be honest with you, I still hesitate to talk about my gift of happiness. Some voice is whispering in my ear that to be happy means I'm not carrying my fair share of the load, that I’m avoiding my fair share of the world’s misery. At least keep it under wraps! However, despite all temptations to sabotage God’s gift of happiness, it continues to bubble up as a normal state. And I can't help wondering how many others would confess to being happy if we were all able to shed our culture's emotional wet blanket.
Happiness is not mindless bliss. Catholic theologian Matthew Fox visited Earlham School of Religion back in the mid-80s, and I attended a gathering with him. It was the first time I confessed publicly to being a happy person. For some reason I had to make sure that Fox and the others knew that I was NOT happy that my parents were alcoholics, that their older daughter had been kidnapped and murdered, that my mother was a raging racist, and that I was angry and grieved about the United States’ roles in Central American conflicts.
Another portion of the full picture: I have also another gift that might sound paradoxical. It’s something that Catherine de Hueck Doherty, in her book Poustinia (bought with my employee discount from the Anglican Book Society’s bookstore), calls the “gift of tears.” All my life, tears of grief, compassion, relief, joy, have come easily to me, often at the most awkward times. In Russia, I once showed a beautiful film about the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. When the last note died away and the film ended, I told my students, “Now maybe you understand why I'm here in Russia,” and tears were streaming down my face.
I was so relieved to learn from reading Catherine Doherty that this affliction had some actual dignity to it. Her description might help explain why tears are a gift, and in fact a gift compatible with happiness:
“Clarity of soul is different from clarity of mind. I can see my sins clearly with my mind. I can use the methods recommended by ascetical theology (which is based on reason) to overcome my sins. But clarity of soul is acquired by the gift of tears. I weep, and the gift of tears wash away my sins and the sins of others. My mind is serene and unaffected, because I know that the grace of tears is not from my mind but proceeds from the heart of God. It comes to my heart, and I weep. My mind now is clear and my heart is clear—I am clear . . . We should distinguish between depression and a state of sorrow. [I'd add, distinguish, but don't rank! -jm] Sorrow is a state of union with God in the pain of [humanity].
In Russian culture as we experienced it, overt happiness is even more countercultural than it is here. Anyone who seems happy in public, who smiles on the street, is likely to be judged a bit deranged. Self-gratification and enjoyment of the good company of your friends are just as popular in Russia as anywhere, but hope is definitely in short supply. As a trained political scientist, I’m as skeptical of glib hope as anyone, but I think that at least some of our Russian friends realized that my happiness and hope came from a deeper source. And that, rather than any kind of apostolic heroics, may have been my main ministry in Russia.
This essay first appeared on Johan's blog, Can you believe?