Happy New Year! I have to apologize for the short hiatus I went on at the end of 2012. Writing is one of my passions, but as some of you know I was enrolled in a Comp 2 class online last fall. Writing 1000 word papers just about every week was a fun exercise and helped me grow as a writer, but it did leave me very unmotivated to write here for the simple joy of expressing myself. That class recently culminated, successfully I might add, in a brilliant research paper and I’m now back to my own devices in terms of writing.
It’s about 9 pm here so I don’t know how long this is going to be, but I felt like writing and didn’t want to pass on that motivation. I’m doing another break from the ‘my story’ format to do something topical. I’m sure I’ll get back to that next time. Also, if there’s something you’d like me to write about specifically, drop me a line in the comments or send me a message. I’m happy to fill in the gaps if you guys think something is missing from my story or want my take on a specific topic. The reason I’m addressing this topic is because it is something that weighed heavily on my mind as I considered leaving the church. These are the kinds of thoughts I went through while trying to make that decision.
With that, on to the topic. As I’m sure the title gave away, I’m wanting to dig into a curious phrase I found on the church’s website today while doing research for a future blog post. Here’s the quote:”As we seek to be happy, we should remember that the only way to real happiness is to live the gospel.”
As someone who enjoys writing, you might imagine I enjoy words. I love playing with them, learning their meanings, discovering new words… I’m just kind of a big word nerd. I also find that, especially in print when much is left up to the imagination (e.g. tone, body language, etc), the question of ‘Why did the author choose to use a particular word in a particular place?’ is especially interesting to unravel. So what is ‘real’ happiness? As always with endeavors like this I turn to the dictionary, which recently is Google. (Did you know you can just do a Google search with “Define <word>” and it’ll give you the definition? I love Google).
Google gives us the following for happiness: “[The] state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” How about for real? “Actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.” A few synonyms include actual, veritable, and factual. So, logically, when you’re talking about real happiness, then you’re talking about the opposite of fake or pretend happiness.
Chew that over while I switch gears before I bore you all to tears with the word nerd stuff. This isn’t a new phrase to me, or even a new idea really. Anyone who’s been around the LDS church has heard it dozens, if not hundreds of times. Whether it’s from parents, teachers, leaders, friends in the church, you’ve probably heard the,”Yeah, but they’re not really happy.” Or maybe you’ve heard, “They only think they’re happy.”
It’s easy to deduce where this thinking comes from. Two scriptures jump to mind. One is from King Benjamin in Mosiah where, and I’m paraphrasing, he asks the reader/listener to consider the blessed and happy state of those who keep the commandments of God, for they are blessed in all things. The most quoted, hands down though, is “Wickedness never was happiness,” which comes from Alma the Younger’s counsel to his son Corianton (the one who got too friendly with the harlot, and doomed some Zoramites with his unrighteousness… that’s a whole separate post.) The passage is the end of Alma 41:10, but what most people don’t look at when using the scriptural soundbite is the following verse which puts it even better:
“11 And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.”
To piece together the logic behind the cultural interpretation that many have from these scriptures and others, you have the following idea: 1) People who follow the commandments of God are happy. Pretty self-explanatory. 2) Those who don’t follow the commandments after being convinced of the truth of them are almost always unhappy, depressed, and cursed in some way, especially in the Old Testament. 3) Those who are in their ‘natural state,’ those who haven’t yet heard the Gospel or haven’t become convinced of it, are living in a state devoid of ‘true happiness.’ They might think they’re happy, but it’s like comparing a candle to a furnace, they just don’t get it.
Confirmation bias is especially fun when dealing with this kind of paradigm. The hardest part about belonging to such an all-encompassing faith and world view is that it is very difficult for many within it to even consider the views of those that exist outside of it. I mean, why bother? Everything good you see in life is confirmation of a blessing from God. Everything bad that happens to those outside of the church is confirmation of their lack of blessings from God. However, things get trickier, and indeed apostles have dedicated entire sermons to this, what about when things don’t work out this way? Well, then it’s conveniently labeled as a Job-type experience that is meant to test your faith and boom, all is well. After all, I’m sure God will get around to blessing you more for your obedience when he’s finished finding your neighbor’s keys, right? I jest.
So what about those of us who do experience positive feelings after leaving the church. I mean, the pleasure from all the sinning I’ve been doing has got to wear off soon, right? What are these feelings that myself and billions of others feel on a daily basis? As a missionary I always taught new investigators about the fruits of the spirit from Galatians. The ‘warm fuzzies’ of happiness, peace, love, contentment… the super positive feelings that can only come from God, which Satan tries to counterfeit with adrenaline rushes, lust, drugs and alcohol. One of the issues I suddenly found was that I felt those feelings when I wasn’t doing things that were particularly ‘spiritual.’ Like while watching Lord of the Rings, or reading The Giver.
The most poignant example for me was the feeling I got when I held my boyfriend for the first time. I’m not talking about anything coital or sexual in any way. We were watching a movie together, he turned and leaned into me. I wrapped my arms around him as he rested his head back on my shoulder as we watched whatever it was. Now, I’d cuddled in the same exact situation in college with my female friends, and I’ve given loving embraces to my male friends in the past, but this was something so incredibly different from any of that. Holding someone to me that I cared about and was starting to fall in love with, wrapping my arms around him was the first time I’d understood anything from those funny romance novels I used to peak at that my Mom would bring home while growing up. Words fail to express it, but it was as if a surge of pure joy and peace rushed up my spine and it was so powerful it almost brought me to tears when it happened. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Want to know the best part? That feeling hasn’t gone away, I still feel it almost as strongly every time I see him and pull him into my arms. I still get emotional and teary from good movies like The Help, I still feel inspired by the President’s speech in Independence Day. What do my family and LDS friends think about this? What would their explanation be for what I’m experiencing? Who knows. Likely it’s an elaborate ruse from Satan as he leads me carefully down to hell or something of that nature.
So what is happiness, and how does one know it’s real or not? I mean, even if a person thinks they’re happy… aren’t they happy, even if you don’t think so? That would seem to be my take on the situation. I think my opinion can be surmised by Morpheus from the Matrix:
“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure it was real? What if you were unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world, and the real world?
What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
So what is real happiness? Maybe they’re right and I’m imagining it, maybe I’m not ‘really’ happy. Who really knows I suppose. All I know is me, where I was before and where I am now. I used to live with a constant ache in my heart. Something that would throb with pain every time I saw a happy couple, or an attractive guy, and that ache was absolutely persistent no matter how much I prayed, or fasted, or studied my scriptures, or did service, or focused on work, or school, or anything. Every year that ache seemed to get heavier and harder to deal with. There were times in church I felt like I would be physically torn apart by it, because on the one hand I was feeling the spirit, or so I thought, and feeling comforted by the teachings I had always been taught, and simultaneously I was being swallowed up by the pain from this ache in my heart.
Today? The ache is gone. It’s been filled by a love for and from an amazing man. Filled by being able to be honest with people. Filled by choosing my path, and owning my own destiny.
What is real happiness? Who cares. I’m happy.