“There is in everything that gives us gladness/that catch of breath
that touches us with sadness…”[i]
It depends on whom you ask, of course. For our children growing up overseas, one definition of happiness was surely coming to America every three years in the summertime. Family and friends in California treated us with multiple trips to Disneyland. In Ohio we celebrated Fourth of July with sparklers and had picnics and played backyard croquet. In Texas, summer camp was just the ticket.
It was in Texas one year at the Six Flags Water Park that I discovered my own personal definition of happiness.
We had never experienced a water park, and according to friends there, we needed to. The park seemed to have every ride imaginable that had anything to with water. With my friend Becky, I climbed up to the tallest slide I’d ever seen. I don’t like heights, but there was only one way to get to the bottom. All those people behind me on the steps would never have tolerated the chicken that was me trying to climb back down.
At the top, Becky gave me one piece of advice: “Hold your legs together!”
It was useless advice. I no sooner let myself go when I realized I had no control whatever over what my body was doing. Legs flew apart, arms flailed. My landing was not pretty. I promised myself never to do that again.
But there was another kind of water slide in the park. This one was circular and partially enclosed and just steep and curving enough to allow a peaceful, relaxing ride. I lowered my body into gently flowing water, lay back, and let it carry me on and on, effortlessly. I never wanted it to end.
This is happiness, I thought. This is pure contentment, this blissful gliding—
And then I was back with a splash in the pool, hemmed in by other happiness-seekers, having to defend myself against water-up-the-nose and pranksters pelting water in my face.
If happiness is a water slide, its duration is awfully short-lived. The trend is, after all, down.
Why does enduring happiness seem so elusive?
Happiness, for me, is partially defined by what it is not: it is not fear or anxiety or dread. It is their absence. It is that feeling of well-being, not marred by any detractors. In other words, pure happiness is never touched by “that catch of breath.”
We are fallible humans, however, and live in a fallible world. Read: “prone to failure.” We exist much of the time at the bottom of the water slide where detractors to happiness are the norm. People fail us; circumstances fail us; plans fail us; our own bodies fail us. But “gladness” can be especially punctured when, in the midst of work or pleasure—or on waking up in the morning—that sudden catch of breath comes with a memory of pain or loss or dashed hopes.
I was living in water-slide bliss the last few months of my senior year in college: I was getting married! Plans for the wedding just after graduation were taking up all thought. Suddenly and without warning, the engagement was broken and plans were cancelled. I was at the bottom, floundering in troubled waters. For days and weeks afterward, I woke up in the morning in my dorm room—and remembered why I was experiencing a feeling of emptiness. My once happy future looked very blank.
A later, similar detractor to my happiness came when we moved to the United States after living in Germany for seventeen years. I woke up in the morning for months—and remembered again the finality of the move: we can’t go back…we can’t go back. Once again, the future seemed uncertain and undesirable.
There is no water slide in this life. If life is about being happy, we will never be contented or at rest from grasping, getting, and losing. We will always be in a state of waiting and wanting.
The word “wanting” brings to mind one of the most perfect descriptions of contentment without detractors I know of. It is the statement given by the poet-shepherd-king David in the Book of the Psalms, number twenty-three: I shall not want. David did not mean “I shall not desire—” rather, “I shall not be in need.” He based his conviction on the fact that The Lord is my shepherd. He knew first-hand what it meant to have helpless, fallible, sheep to lead and guide, to protect from harm, to see that their needs were met. He knew they thrived on green pastures and quiet waters. He knew they were fully dependent on him, their shepherd. But he himself was a fallible shepherd, being human. Thus, he took as his shepherd one who could not fail him.
In my perplexity and sense of loss in the two experiences described above (not to mention others since), I eventually—and repeatedly—cast myself on the infallible Shepherd, who promised that my “wanting” was really his provision. He knew what I needed and was taking care of it.
What is it, then, that we ultimately need?
At the end of the psalm, David pens a lovely description of what it is we need and is worth desiring rather than “mere” happiness: goodness and mercy.
Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life— When I follow him, the Shepherd, those qualities will accompany my journey through all possible detractors. His goodness and mercy are infallible: they are not prone to failure. All my life—they will endure to the end.
Thankfully, we can experience water slides now and then and enjoy them to the full—while they last. But we must not mistake them for the kind of contentment that endures.
[i] Unfortunately, I cannot find the source of this quote. It was given to me in college.