The Bright Spots | Returning to Happiness
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Poet, Leonard Cohen
When Happiness Seemed Impossible
When tragedy fell on my family, I doubted more than anything else that I would ever be happy again on earth. When my husband, Eric, died in February 2016, a great shadow fell on me and veiled my eyes. In those days, the darkness was so dense that even the brightest truths couldn’t cut through the heaviness in my heart. My laughter was not fake, but it did not touch the bottom of my throat. Pain and sadness, on the other hand, scraped raw the inside of my body. Some days I didn’t feel as stooped in sadness, but the near numbness that often took its place was formidable. In those days, I dragged myself out of bed, but often found myself literally on the ground. The weight of the world pushed me down and the gravity of my sadness held me there. These were the low places.
I truly did not expect to experience belly-laughing good times ever again. I assumed I would taste joy, because of the hope of Heaven after this world, and I predicted that someday I would smile at lovely memories. I did expect to see some kind of light at the end of this tunnel. But happiness? Not likely. Not in this lifetime.
In the Spring of 2017, my family took a vacation to Cozumel, Mexico. The air was hot, but our optimism was up. Grief was inescapable, but we weren’t really trying to escape it. Each new thing gave me a pang of something like guilt that I was doing this without Eric… he would have loved it. I knew I didn’t need to feel that, especially because he is in such glory himself. But, at first, I had to take captive every single thought, and remind myself that it was ok to enjoy my surroundings. Because of the work it took to approach more than a smile, notions of hypothetical lightheartedness were kept at bay.
A Bright Spot
But then, something new happened. When my 3-year-old saw the ocean for the first time, he stopped straight in his sand-filled flip-flops and just stared. Moments before he saw the vastness of this ocean, he had assumed that a small pool was as good as it got. Thinking he’d follow my actions rather than my words, I practically threw my bags into the sand, tossed off my cover-up and ran into the waves. When I turned around, I saw my son still just standing on the beach, staring at me. I’m sure he must have thought I’d lost my mind. I locked eyes with him and beckoned him to join me with exuberant arms.
Before long, he came running as fast as his little legs could carry him! At the shoreline, he hesitated again. He carefully edged toward the tide and let his toes touch the water. He searched my eyes for reassurance. “It’s ok, Bingham, come into the ocean with me!”
When he was ready, he leapt into my arms and giggled. He held me tightly but stared out at the big blue waters. The delight on his face grew with each passing second, and when he stood in the water on his own, I saw a glow in him that I do not remember seeing before. His smile lit up my entire world.
As I beamed back at my son, I realized that I was happy. My entire body exhaled, and as he climbed into the water my arms floated to my sides. My fingers opened to feel the gentle waves, and a small fossil shell was carried into my palm. “This is my happy stone,” I thought, and I felt the sun that had been shining all along.
Returning to Happiness
Before Mexico, I had actually experienced plenty of joy. Joy allowed me to meet the reality of my worst nightmare with the Hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. Joy helped me to believe what I knew in my head from Romans 8:28. Joy gave me the breath to say, “it’s a good thing” because the struggle was producing endurance. With the joy of the Lord, I found the strength to take the next step every day in showing up for my sons and myself.
I had always seen happiness, on the other hand, as a relative, fickle thing that had very little eternal value. According to Hebrews 12:2, Jesus did not go to the cross because of the happiness he wanted to feel. He died in the worst possible way in order to accomplish a rescue for the ones he loved because of the joy that would result from setting them free. Not only did I not expect to ever be happy again, I didn’t believe that it mattered.
But happiness kept popping up in my life. I didn’t believe in belly-deep laughter, until I laughed so hard that a drink came through my nose. I didn’t believe in happy goosebumps, until they scurried up my arms. Little things like my favorite song on the radio, the colors of Autumn, the smell of Spring, and the taste of good coffee give me such delight. A moment of happiness is like a fresh inhale and a fulfilling exhale.
In grief, as in life, happiness is indeed fickle. It comes and goes in an instant. But even though riding on emotions should not define my outlook on life, I’m beginning to truly treasure the temporary lightness that moments of happiness do bring through the cracks of my brokenness.
Even though in a moment I might be crushed in sadness, even though the clouds might shadow the sun in a second, I’m thankful for the sunshine while it is here. I’m choosing to value the bright spots, I’m returning to happiness.
“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Proverbs 17:22