“I believe I am a happy person.”
Songwriter Oscar Hammerstein makes this simple statement in an essay he read aloud in a radio series called This I Believe. I’ve been listening to the series on CD as I drive around town. It pulls together statements from people both obscure and famous, apple farmers and pizza deliverers and George Bush and Albert Einstein. Each one tells in just a couple of minutes what they most believe: being present, learning, God with us, asking for help, admitting what we don’t understand, our own smallness, and many other admirable beliefs.
This one made me shut off the CD and digest. He was the only one to state he believes something about himself. Of all things to say about himself, he is happy.
I recently met with University of Wisconsin chancellor Rebecca Blank. She’s done big things like serve as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce under Obama. She’s also written articles and books that helped me think about my dissertation. It’s rare to find such an interesting mentor so near my home, so I requested to talk to her.
I told her I’d noticed that in her writing about the economy, she’s ultimately optimistic, and that struck me as something rare.
She said maybe she has to be an optimist. Not too many pessimists end up as good leaders.
Both she and Roger Hammerstein are choosing to be optimists. They’re not shallow in their optimism. I’d call them weathered optimists.
Weathered optimists are happy not because they’re ignorant of challenges and dangers. They’re happy because they believe in seeing through and beyond challenges, mistakes, hurts, and failures.
I declare, too, that I choose to be a weathered optimist and a happy person.
We do not usually allow ourselves to say this. In my culture it is socially correct to complain and downplay successes.
Just today at the grocery store when the woman in front of me struck up a conversation about the bag of kale in my cart, I felt compelled to tell her that I think kale tastes bitter and I worry that my husband will soon give up his health kick of making gingery kale smoothies. I did not tell her how much I’ve been loving those smoothies, how cool it is that my husband values good health, or how our friend once grew a gloriously bountiful kale forest yielding several hundred pounds of kale on our land.
I am not afraid to say it here and now. Kale makes me happy.
I got thinking about what else makes me happy. What right do I have to say I’m happy, when I know all too well about the many sucky things happening in the world?
The Bible I got as a third grade Sunday school gift translated the famous verses in Matthew “Happy are you who…” Some translations say “blessed,” but happy is a word that means something in our language.
I like these statements because they are declarations of weathered optimism. They tell me happy people are poor, weeping, meek, merciful, peacemaking, and persecuted.
I do believe happiness comes in any and all of these.
To the extent that my possessions do not possess me, I am happy (Matthew 5:3).
To the extent that I can still cry over a book about juvenile detention centers or a radio program about a murdered child, I am happy, like my children who always laugh and hug most easily after a good cry (Mt. 5:4).
To the extent that I admit that I’m often wrong, I need help, I can follow, and I want others’ reputations to grow bigger than mine, I am happy (Mt. 5:5).
To the extent that I crave for this world’s knotty messes to get straightened through out one gift of painstaking effort after another, and crave it so much I won’t leave those messes alone, I am happy (5:6).
To the extent that I know I need the mercy of a loving savior and I pass on mercy to my husband, my children, the people who murder kids, or the guy who stops at a yellow light even when I, driving behind him in a royal hurry, am convinced we could have made it through, I am happy (Mt. 5:7).
To the extent that I speak out words and convey a calm presence of peace that heals wounds and carries us through road construction or bawling babies, I am happy (Mt. 5:8).
To the extent that I go on clinging to Jesus now matter what it costs me, I am happy (5:9).
I do none of these things all of the time, but by God’s grace, I believe I am becoming capable of some of them, some of the time.
And that, I believe, makes me a happy person.
When I told her about the idea for this blog, my friend just reminded me the Bible also says “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” That means happiness, real deep weathered happiness worthy of the word “joy,” makes us strong, and without it, we’re weak.
Try it. Say, “I believe I am a happy person.”
It’s not a self-help, prosperity-gospel gimmick. It’s about focusing on what’s true.
Can you say it? If not, what would it take for you to be able to say it? And if so, go live accordingly.