My favourite “clipping service” has lately been filling my email inbox with quotes from a book by Andy Merrifield called The Wisdom of Donkeys.
Recently a selection arrived in which Merrifield speaks about the problems we create when we impose upon life our demands and expectations for happiness.
With hindsight, I know now the problem was really inside me: I was the problem. You see, I’d set such high standards for this dream, held on to them fiercely for thirty years, that now that I had this dream, was living it out, I absolutely had to be happy. How could I not be? This was it: there was nowhere else to go, no place else to dream of. And for a while I convinced myself that I was happy, that I needed to be happy, how could I not be happy? Yet, deep down, I was very unhappy, very lost, but denied it, deluded myself. I was enslaved; and part of being free was freeing myself of this dream, and the ambition of the dream, smashing it, breaking out of it forever, doing something utterly beyond the dream. I thought then that I was in control; but I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t, that I was out of control, that I was wrong. It was a sense of disappointment that I didn’t know how to handle.
Often we set ourselves goals we think will make us happy, goals we aim for, pursue ardently, believing happiness resides only in their attainment. But it’s these goals that cause our unhappiness, that condemn us, whether we achieve them or not. They force us down a specific route, with no turning back, no room for detour. Happiness, we believe, lies down this one road only. Henceforth we’ve little scope for maneuver and a lot of meanwhile to fill. And once we’re there, what do we do next? So I’ve given up no on trying to make my dreams real. I make sure they stay strictly bedtime affairs, modest bedtime affairs. I take comfort in something Jacques Brel sang in Avec Elegance: ‘No longer having grand things to dream of / But to listen to a heart that dances / To be desperate / But with elegance.’ Listening to my heart dance, I daydream instead now, in a place I never dreamed I’d be, where I’ve been cast by chance not volition. Of this place I ask nothing, expect nothing, make no demands. And it expects nothing in return. (pp131-132)
How different this is from young Etty Hillesum. Even as an internee in the Westerbork concentration camp, Etty is able to experience a transcendent joy that surpasses anything circumstantial happiness might ever provide:
The misery here is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart – I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force – the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world. Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves.
Within the horrifying confines of a concentration camp Etty Hillesum experienced true freedom. She discovered a happiness that no misery could undo. The happiness Etty discovered did not depend upon her circumstances being a certain way. It was not dependent upon things working out well for her, or even upon her ability to provide the most basic human necessities of life. Etty’s happiness transcended all the discomforts and sorrows of her daily existence. She experienced a happiness that existed in the depths of her being and therefore could be taken from her by nothing and no one.
True happiness – like true strength, peace, contentment, and satisfaction – is an inside job. Nothing external has the power to bestow upon us any lasting happiness. Happiness that depends upon life being a certain way will always be fleeting, here when life is good, gone as soon as things get difficult. But we never need to be without the happiness that flows from a deep inner awareness of the ultimate goodness and presence of God at the heart of all life. When we stop demanding life turn out a certain way, a space opens within us that makes possible the deep joy that is true happiness.