Just so you know

All right. I have ideas. I think about stuff. So here is the spot for stuff I'm thinking about and want to be able to share more broadly and possibly promote. Like I have time for this.

Everything is provisional at this point and subject to change in the future - as far as the blog is concerned. In real life some things will remain unchanged.

Also, our children are not really named Lenny and Linus. We are not that cool.

Feel free to share, rant, disagree, but please remember that I'm an actual person who tries to be respectful. I'd love it if you are and do to.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Culture of Happiness

It's February.  We have had one virus after another sweeping through this house pretty much without stopping since November.  The picture above was taken the other day when the temperatures got above freezing and rain started falling on top of the melting snow.  It's sort of a picture of nothing.  Sometimes winter is really ugly.

And I really want to complain about it.  But if there's one thing I've learned in my life it's that it's not OK to sit around feeling sorry for myself.  I have learned this lesson.  But now I think that I would be better off unlearning it.  Maybe if I would allow myself to give voice to some of my misery I could actually appreciate and experience the joy.

The other day I read this piece that was basically excerpts from travel tips for Russians coming to America.  What struck me about it was the image of the smiling American: 
“US etiquette requires that you smile in each and every situation. If you want to travel to America, be prepared to give a smile not only to friends and acquaintances, but also to all passers-by, in shops, to the staff at the hotel, police on the streets, etc.
"US etiquette also forbids lamenting the troubles of life, or sharing your problems with others. Sharing in this country can only be positive emotions—sorrows and frustrations are impermissible. In the US you only complain to acquaintances in the most extreme cases. Serious problems are for close friends and relatives only.
"However, it would be wrong to believe that the Americans with their smiles only create the illusion of well-being and that their smiles are stretched with false joy. This is not so. Americans: they are a nation that truly feels happy. These people get used to smiling from the cradle onwards, so they do not pretend to be cheerful. The desire for a successful happy life is inculcated from childhood.”
 Wow.  Is this true?  Let me break it down. Compared to some countries we are definitely in-your-face, have-a-good-day, extremely-annoying smiley people.  But without having actually studied the topic in a scientific way I'd guess that people in many countries in Southeast Asia smile more in social situations.  Which is just one reason Americans come back from those countries saying "Everyone  was so friendly!"

Are we allowed to talk about our troubles?  This one is tricky.  I am not very good at figuring out the balance.  I have, you may have noticed, an almost pathological need to tell the truth.  It took me a long time to figure out that when people say "How are you?" the correct, acceptable response is almost always, "Fine!  How are you?"  In fact, it's possible (I have found from experimental evidence) to skip directly to the return "How are you?" without arousing any particular interest in response.  We are allowed to complain about the weather or the annoying roadwork in town.  But really I think the statement above is mostly right.  If you ask me how I'm doing the last thing you are expecting to hear is "Well I'm pretty depressed at the moment but I just started a new medication and I'm pretty hopeful that it will help."

I think that in Evangelical Christian circles this tendency is even more extreme.  We are children of God, right?  How awesome is that?!?!!!!  I mean "In everything give thanks for this is the will of God" right?  We may be a little uncomfortable at the moment, but failing to be thankful for all our blessings?  Not cool.  How does that Sunday School song go?  "I'm so happy, so very happy, I've got the love of Jesus in my heart!"

And how about the last part of the quote from above?  Are we, Americans, actually as happy as our smiling faces would indicate?  Are we faking it?  Somewhere in between, I'd say.  Really, I'd rather live in the Midwest than anywhere in Eastern Europe.  I don't want to sound too ethnocentric.  It's just that I think that stuff like access to healthcare and personal liberty to say nothing of education and fresh vegetables, no matter how flawed it may seem to us, probably increases our chances of being happy.  And our habit of looking "on the bright side" may actually work in our favor.

BUT  You knew that was coming, right?  I'm not trying to pull a fast one here.  The implication from the quote above, in my mind, is that people in Russia have one advantage over any American any day of the week.  They are allowed to have a really crappy day.  And say so.  To anyone who happens to have the audacity to ask them about it.  Also they consume a lot of vodka which is killing them and I wouldn't recommend that, but I would like to propose that we indulge in some authenticity and most of all that we give others the gift of being allowed to have really crappy days.  To acknowledge that our pain and sadness are real.  To stop measuring against the suffering of others and just be in our own sadness for a little while.

A blast from my past:  I have a vivid memory of being in second grade, lined up with my classmates singing,

"Be thankful for the good things that ya got.
Oh be thankful for the good things that ya got.
The good things that ya got are for many just a dream.
So be thankful for the good things that ya got."

This was not a song that was a regular part of the Sunday school song line up.  Our teacher made a point of teaching it to us and having us practice it.  I think that she was trying to make a point.  We were going to school on the outskirts of Manila, in the Philippines.  It was pretty much impossible to go anywhere in that city without seeing people who only dreamed of our lives.  I'm guessing that she got tired of hearing kids complain about having to wait in line for the drinking fountain or not having the right kind of pencil when all around us people were wondering what they were going to feed their kids that night or whether the baby would survive the latest round of diarrhea. 

Within six months prior learning that song I had left the country of my birth and all but four of the people I was related to.  It was the first year I was in boarding school.  (I was one of only a few "dorm kids" in that class.)  So it was the first year I wasn't with my parents on my birthday.  The year I learned to pack my stuff for trips home.  The year I learned what it meant to have a room mate.  I was seven years old.  Or maybe eight.

Don't get me wrong.  I had plenty to be thankful for.   I was getting a first rate education.  Every day when I got home from school someone checked my bag.  Every night someone tucked me into bed.  My days started with a hot breakfast and ended with an evening snack.  In truth my worries were few and my blessings were many.

But the message of the song was clear:  Don't complain.  Don't be ungrateful.  We have decided that enough of your needs are being met.  If this is painful or scary or boring or lonely or confusing to you we don't want to hear about it.  Put on your happy face.  Don't make my life uncomfortable by bringing up the downside of this situation.

I took it to heart.    What I learned was that not having a good day, not being grateful for the blessings in my life (pretty much non-stop) was a character flaw.   It didn't keep me from having times when I felt sad or lonely or confused.  Or even from telling other people about it.  It just meant that while I was doing it I was also a failure.  And when I wasn't having a crappy day I was not so much happy as avoiding failure.  Relieved, at the moment, but not really free to experience the joy.

I'm sure this wasn't the only time I got that message.  It wasn't just that teacher or that year.  It was the culture I was in.  Am still in.  And to be fair, I am that responsible oldest child who tries endlessly to live up to everyone's expectations of me.  I know other people who got the same message and said, (essentially) "screw you, I'm miserable right now and I'm going to let you know it."

I realize as an adult how easy it is to send the message of enforced gratefulness to our children. Since he turned five Lenny has been having the year of unmet needs and desires.  He would like me to be his constant playmate and conversation partner.  But I'm busy and exhausted and rarely manage to read him a story or work on a puzzle with him.  He expresses his frustration by saying "You never play with me!"  Of course I want to defend myself.  I point out the latest walk we took or the time I took him to the library.

But that's not the point.  When I really get it right is when I realize that what he's really saying is that he has needs that he feels are not being met.  It doesn't matter that so many of his needs are met all the time.  It's not about the joy he takes in his little brother or the time his dad spends taking him to music class.  It's about that particular moment feeling lonely and boring and crappy.  When I really get it right I say, "I'm sorry you're having a bad day."  Not "look at how it's good" or "I'm doing my best" (both of which I do also sometimes say) but "I see that this is not what you wish it could be."

So that maybe he can learn that it's not his job to be happy.  It's his job to be real.  It's OK to notice when he is not happy.  It's OK to enjoy the times when he is happy and not worry about the next time someone asks "How are you doing?"  Because he's fine.  Or not.  I hope I can learn that lesson too.  And I hope I survive February.  And I'd like a lot less snot in the house.


  1. Wow, Rachel, I am so glad you wrote this. (And you're right, this is all one thought. I am in the middle of writing a really long post myself, and I considered breaking it up, but really, it's all one story and can't be broken up! So I get that.) Being honest about this, and saying that the good things don't undo the bad things, and we need to pay attention to the bad things too. Sometimes Christians try to do that, because we are uncomfortable with it, or we think it's a sin to ever talk about. (That's where you have to balance Philippians Chapter 4 with most of the Psalms, hehe.) Have you ever read "I have to be perfect and other parsonage heresies"? It's a book for PK's (but I'm reading it b/c my kids are MK's, which is sort of like a subset of PK's, and they were PK's first, before we moved overseas). It tries to break down the lies that we tell ourselves when our families are in ministry. The first part talked about saying "and." It was good AND it was bad. We had been through training that talked a lot about yays and yucks, the paradoxes of life, but I think I thought of the good as a BUT instead. It was bad BUT it was good (as if the good outweighs or undoes the bad). Instead I'm trying to reframe as it was bad AND it was good. Well, anyway, this got to be long, and I know you don't think being an MK was good, so that idea may not apply to that, however, it does still apply to the rest of life :) By the way my husband wrote about this in a post entitled Outlawed Grief. Here it is if you want to read it: Because sometimes, our life is just falling apart, and we shouldn't pretend it isn't.

    1. Thanks! I haven't read that book, but it sounds good. I'm not actually a PK - rare I guess, but my dad was never ordained. Still there were probably some of the same pressures and ideas. I would say that there were good things about being an MK. I may have come across more negatively about that than I should have. I think that I just spent a long time feeling that there was something wrong with me because it was not a good fit for me. Maybe we don't have to "like" our lives. Maybe that's another aspect of the culture of happiness. But it is a question people often ask and one way, I guess, to measure how something is affecting someone.

      Your husband touches on something that I have really struggled with in all this which is the "it's God's plan" line that gets trotted out in hard times. I've thought about that one a lot and don't have many answers. Our pastor is starting a series of teachings that I'm hopeful will help me sort some ideas out.

    2. Yeah, that whole sovereignty of God thing, I think it gets used wrong a lot. You said so yourself in the Forrest Gump post about "sh*t happens." Bad things sometimes happen in this life, and I REFUSE to believe God wants those things. A lot of times when people are hurt, it's because someone else sinned, and God never wants people to sin, though He knows we will. And then of course there are just the horrific accidents that happen too, just bad things happening all the time. So I hate it when people say such and such was God's will. Rather, I like to say, God can use [insert problem] to draw us to Him. Absolutely hate the sovereignty of God being used as an excuse for not having compassion. But I better stop myself before I get really upset. So, bye for now!

  2. I read once that people who complain are optimists, because they have high expectations. I'm not sure that's true, but I used it as an excuse during residency. Sometimes things changed. I am not one to sit by and simply roll with things and accept that something cannot be changed. Sometimes it's my attitude that has to change. But I agree with you that external "happiness" seems to be emphasized especially in the Evangelical Xn community. I remember hearing the saying in my childhood, "When asked how you are, you should not say, 'Pretty well, under the circumstances,' because a Xn should never be under the circumstances." I know now that saying is bunk. Yet I wouldn't say that I'm a negative person, or that I'm discontented. I'm just real, and I love that about you, too. Keep it up, sister. :)

    1. Thought long about what you said and then didn't get a chance to reply. Thanks for the comment. We are definitely "under the circumstances" at the moment.