Tim Keller says Christians are the happiest and saddest people on earth.
If I’m a good case study, he’s spot on.
Follow me on Instagram and you’d think I was the happiest person alive (Or the best at faking it). I catalogue blessings every day: A great cup of coffee… AWESOME! A beautiful sunset… AMAZING! My kid wore a hat… FABULOUS! Smiles, smiles everywhere! I post like five times a day sometimes, all of it rainbows and unicorns. It’s exhaustingly perky.
But it’s how I feel. Sooooooo happy. Blessed. Thankful. Like the world is made of light and love. My Father is the Giver of good gifts and I find perfect presents piling up at my feet with each step.
But read my blog posts and you might think I was the saddest person on earth. I’m always talking about people dying and people being broken and why you shouldn’t do all the things that seem like not a big deal but will actually enslave you. My bio includes my apocalypse survival strategy. Because I think about the world collapsing into chaos and squalor and how I might need to lead a team of pacifist warriors.
Last month, in the same week, I wrote a post sub-titled “Your Dark Times Survival Skill” and another titled “Christmas is the Worst.” For real. I wrote, “Christmas is the worst.” I am exhaustingly sad.
But it’s how I feel. Because I hate evil and it’s everywhere. And because I don’t belong here, and I’m stranded. Because everywhere I look people are lying to me and my kids and my friends. Because sin eats at who I want to be. I’m sad because it feels like the world is flooded with dark and we’re all in danger of drowning.
It’s possible I am the happiest saddest person on earth. Or the saddest happiest person, maybe.
My sister-in-law made me take some online psychiatric test and, turns out, I may have schizophrenic tendencies. Big surprise…
I saw a quote about toddlers and old people recently—about how they’re always crying. Happy and sad tears, both, stream down their cheeks freely, unchecked. That’s true. My grandfather cries every time I see him—when we sing songs about Heaven and when we remember and when I have to go. My daughter London once said to me, face wet, eyes tired, “Mom, I don’t know if I’m happy or sad. Maybe both.”
Last week, my family went to the beach. We played football and walked and drew in the sand. Joy splashed. Late in the day as the sun slid low in the sky Justin got a phone call. I watched him look down at the number. I saw his face fall. He walked away and I watched him from the corner of my eye as I built a sandcastle with Eve—intense, resolved, beautiful Eve. I watched him walk further as I took pictures of London stomping in the sea, her hoodie pulled up on her head, sand coating her pink furry boots—adorable. I knew as I saw Justin’s shoulders slump; our friend Ralph had died.
In Bible class recently a friend of mine tried to draw a picture of life on the whiteboard, and he said while we wish it was just a steady climb, always getting better, it’s actually more like a roller coaster: down one minute, up the next, and then unexpectedly upside down.
I like that. Life as a rollercoaster… It smacks of excitement, risk, adventure.
But for me, it seems like every moment is up and down at once. Right side up and upside down. Like I’m falling and flying…
I had a professor in grad school who loved “liminal zones”—spots in a story where the character stood between worlds, literal and symbolic doorways, not quite inside, not quite out. A character in a liminal zone can see—but only in part—both worlds, where he’s been and where he’s headed. He knows too much and not enough.
I think that’s why I’m so happy/sad. Why so many of us Christians are. Because we can see ahead and behind, neither one perfectly, but more clearly than ever before. We’ve seen the first hints of dawn and they’ve changed the way we see in the dark.
Truth—the kind of foggy, through a glass truth we know now—seeing the world and ourselves and God clearly (as clearly as we can), always leads to mixed feelings. Intense ones.
So that some moments I’m weeping and longing and angry. I don’t understand and can’t imagine why… And other moments, maybe two hours later, I’m skipping on a beach with two little girls and a husband who can’t stop smiling, my belly full of blueberry pancake, my head, my whole body, light like my clothes are helium balloons and I barely touch the ground.
I think this is the best (and only) way to live—for now. Very happy. And very sad.
You might be with me. And you might think I need medication.
Most people prefer very happy. They’d like all the happy and none of the sad. That’s why we choose alcohol or porn or Facebook or a bag of chili cheese Fritos or binge-watching Downton Abbey. Because we’re sad and we think that’s bad and distractions help us hide it, masking and dulling.
We think we can “medicate” the sad without messing up the happy, bringing the lows up and keeping the highs high.
It seems doable, but it doesn’t actually work.
Ask anybody addicted to porn. Ask an alcoholic. Ask an overeater or a mom who spends too much time on her phone and not enough time with her kid. All that distraction seeps so that eventually we’re dulling everything, missing joy’s overtures because we’re hung over or sick or shackled.
Our solutions to sadness (by and large) will ultimately become obstacles to joy.
Sadness, particularly godly sadness, sadness born from a God-shaped heart, isn’t always something to fix.
Some things are sad. And we need to feel sad.
I think it’s important that of the limited things we know about Jesus, we know Jesus wept.
And, of course, our Bibles are full of weeping. God weeping. His prophets weeping. His people.
In Romans, Paul stains the page with tear-wet words, knowing that so many of his Jewish brothers, God’s chosen, will choose against God.
In 2 Corinthians Paul encourages godly sorrow—when we’re sad because our lives and God’s will get out of line.
Louis C.K recently talked about sadness on Conan. And what he said, while off color, was absolutely true. Don’t watch it with your kids, but do watch it…
The sadness he talks about is not the sadness Christians feel. It’s deeper and, as he says, forever. It’s hopeless. And a Christian’s sadness is never that.
Which is why I think we can afford to feel it, knowing that this world is a temporary place, knowing sickness will end, knowing death is not a void, knowing relationships and love matter more than money and power, knowing things can and will get better, knowing everyone has a chance at abundant life, knowing the story isn’t over…
Hope doesn’t eliminate sadness. It filters it. So that, like an Instagram filter might color a snapshot, hope colors our hurt, making it into something potentially beautiful and immediately bearable, less heavy. Still heavy.
Life is so much about feeling—happy, sad, exhilarated, tired, full, hungry, scared, safe—all of our emotions and longings and fulfillments fit together like puzzle pieces, completing each other.
My daughter recently asked a friend of mine to tell her a story. He tried. She was unimpressed. She said, offering her best story-telling advice, “A story is when everything’s fine and then something bad happens and then something good happens.”
You need sad and happy in a story.
Supposing you choose to live like this, you will be exhausted—fully, vulnerably aware of all the pain. And you will be exhilarated—fully present in all life’s happiness-soaked blessings. You will likely laugh and cry every day. Every. Day.
Don’t worry; you’re not crazy. You’re living. Believe it or not, you’re living the life abundant.