Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Our Mothers Lied to Us: Why Unhappiness Makes Sense

It begins when we’re children. We wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, “Mommy, Mommy, I had a scary dream”. Our mothers hugs us, calm us down, and tell us “don’t worry, everything will be alright”. Comforted by these words, we go back to sleep. And long after this childhood nightmare, we cling to the faith that life has only happy endings, that “everything will be alright”.

But our mothers lied to us. When tragedy strikes, we’re shocked to find out how vulnerable we really are.

This discovery hits us in our 30's. One day, Naomi, a young woman in her early 30's, arrived in my office in tears. She was distraught over the death of her friend Donna, and couldn’t sleep at night. Naomi couldn’t understand how it was possible that someone so nice, so young, and so vital could just die suddenly. After speaking for a few minutes, we both understood that Naomi wasn’t grieving because she had lost a good friend; in fact, she wasn’t that close to Donna. What upset her was how Donna died; she had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, and died on her front lawn. Naomi couldn’t understand how such an absurd death could happen to a young, healthy, good person just like her.

When Donna died, Naomi’s world came tumbling down. She assumed that life always follows the traditional suburban, middle class narrative, with a loving spouse, a nice cozy home, a minivan and smiling, happy children. Now that Donna, a nice, thirty-something mother with three small children had died, Naomi realized the story doesn’t always have a happy ending. And she came to my office searching for her lost sense of security.

Naomi is like the rest of us; she believed her mother, and assumed “everything will be alright”.

Unfortunately, when Donna died, she realized it’s not such a wonderful life after all. And now she was insecure and unhappy.

Yet feeling miserable and insecure is the first step on the road to happiness. If “everything is going to be alright” then we might as well sit back wait for happiness. But that’s not the reality of life. Happiness is never served on a silver platter.

One of the most difficult theological problems is theodicy, or why bad things happen to good people. Rabbis through the ages were desperate to answer this question and defend God’s glory. Yet they refused. Rabbi Yannai said:

"Neither the security of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous are within the grasp of our understanding."

This Mishna is bizarre. At first glance all R. Yannai is doing is teaching us that he’s ignorant and out of answers. Telling others about your ignorance is not usually something you would call “teaching”.

Yet R. Yannai actually has a profound lesson. He's not merely saying he doesn't have an answer; he's saying we can never discover the answer. R. Yannai is exposing us to a fundamental truth: life is unfair. Unhappiness makes sense.

But R. Yannai's lesson doesn’t end there. He wants us to learn how to respond to an unfair life. If we realize that even God will not guarantee us worldly happiness, then we have to do the job ourselves. We have to fight for happiness in an unjust world.

And we have to become Happiness Warriors.

No comments: