There’s this weird phenomena I’ve observed. It’s unclear where its nexus lies— It may be influenced by the rise of the Pinterest quote culture, or the focus on and elevation of lifestyle blogs. Are wall-quotes in living-areas a symptom or a cause? I’m not sure. What I see in my own community, on social media, and online in general, is an elevation of happiness being considered a virtue, a morally superior position. Being happy is great, of course, but the converse side of expecting happiness (or cheerfulness) as a marker of faith is that those who are somehow not “happy” or who struggle in any way, are somehow perilously close to morally failing.
What a horrible expectation to place on anyone walking through the normal emotions that come with the trials of a lived life.
As Mormons, we’re particularly guilty. We talk of the Gospel as though it should be a magic band-aid that will insulate us from human reality. It’s not. Just because I have faith in God and in Jesus doesn’t somehow make it incumbent on me to be “too strong for fear” or “too happy to permit the presence of trouble.” I call BS. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things are scary. Sometimes trouble finds us, and it sucks. The idea that I (or anyone) is somehow responsible and should exercise control over the human condition is actually contra to Gospel principles.
This is evident in how Mormons treat death and funerals. It may be my convert sensibilities, but turning a funeral into a missionary experience leaves little room for real grief or for the bereaved to openly and honestly experience their loss with the support of their community. Naked, raw grief gets pushed to the side, while we congratulate ourselves on our beliefs. Instead of talking of our missed loved-one, we talk of the plan of happiness, of the plan of salvation, of how great it is that the departed is in reunion with their family. While that may be true, there is also a living family still present; a family who is missing and aching for that same loved one, and their feelings should also be honored and given space. What a burden we place on the surviving family when we expect a focus on happiness in the face of tremendous and sometimes terrible loss.
I see similar inertia in others going through hard times- be it divorce, unemployment, mental health challenges, wayward children, or anything you can dream up that somehow doesn’t fit the ideal. The idea that we must always face towards “happiness” creates little space for people to be human. I see women who are deeply hurt, but who lack the vocabulary to even admit it. I see people who are afraid of feeling anger, people who believe the outward appearance must always be cheerful, and who are then swallowed by shame and fear that their facade will crack. This isn’t healthy, and frankly, is a lived denial of the salvic power of the atonement.
Grief is real. Sadness is real. Depression, anger, sorrow, frustration and weariness are all real. We are not moral failures if we feel these things. We needn’t plaster over our feelings with peel-off wall quotes and pretend everything is awesome. When you set a shiny-happy example of what your life is like to your friends and family, where are they to turn when their own life doesn’t match up with you shiny-face? How can they know that you also struggle, that you also grieve and are angry sometimes? Pretending and presenting further alienates us from one another. Pretending has never, ever, built a bridge to another person.
I’m not suggesting we wallow in our sorrows, or carry them around held high- I’m suggesting a healthy balance is… healthy. A person exiting a painful (they all are) divorce shouldn’t be expected to only praise their ex-spouse. A person who lost someone to a violent cancer or who is left to raise young children alone should not have to experience their loss as a missionary moment. Let people be angry, sad, grieve, mourn, and be with them, hold space for them, as they move through the real emotions of a lived life. When we shove feelings we deem less favorite down, they can germinate in the dark, and can grow and cripple us. If we allow our feelings room to be, to run their course, their energy is then dissipated and carried by our support structures and our own processes, and they become faded memories.
We also model for our friends and family what it looks like to actually walk in faith. Walking in faith through hard things, while acknowledging they’re hard, is beautiful. There is a vulnerability in taking off the mask of positivity, and allowing yourself to feel what you feel. The irony is, God knows anyway. We’re only fooling ourselves and each other.
Next time you’re tempted to attach morality to a feeling, or to shove away part of yourself, take a moment to stop. Ask if this is healthy, or if perhaps, it might be better to model a more fully fleshed-out version of what it means to be alive. Life is not always pretty, nor fit for the cover page of a lifestyle blog. And that’s okay. As a matter of fact, that’s what makes it beautiful. (originally published for By Common Consent)
3 thoughts on “Shiny Happy No Thanks”
This is all so true…another thing that goes along with it is sometimes members of the Church don’t seem to think we need time to grieve. I lost both of my parents within at 14 month period. Along with the “they’re in a better place now”, “they aren’t in any pain”, etc,,, thoughts is the thing that you should get over it quickly because of those beliefs. It doesn’t work that way…it’s all individual and it takes time, sometimes more time that they think is needed. And it’s a painful process.
Tracy – thank you for this! This resonates with me deeply. I am surprised (not sure why) when people further question me after asking me how I am and my answer of I am OK. Considering I am 3 weeks post-operative, of my THIRD surgery – I consider OK a huge success! OK means at the moment I am not crying on my husband’s shoulder (which happens a lot – and that is OK too). I am not shriveled up in bed not wanting to stay there, though I have those moments too. I am not great, and don’t have the energy to pretend to be (though I get the impression people want me to be…because otherwise is super uncomfortable). Celebrate OK – allow terrible days, because life is full of challenges and trials and sometimes (even with the knowledge of the gospel) it SUCKS!
I agree with you that we need to take judgement away from feelings. We have to let go of our expectations for ourselves as well as others and know that we might not react the way we expect to grief or crisis and that it won’t be one reaction, our emotions and how we deal with them will change. It doesn’t mean one feeling or coping mechanism was “wrong”, maybe just that it’s time for a different one.
I have a friend who lost her 20 yr old son to very unexpected cancer. Thru the funeral I wondered how she could possibly stay so positive and “happy”, but thru the years since I’ve come to understand that is her, she’s not pretending. She misses her son ALL the time and expresses it personally and publicly all the time, but in a way that is always so positive. It’s how she keeps moving.
When I went thru my very short first marriage and divorce I dealt with my emotions completely privately. I don’t think anyone knew I was in crisis. Eventually I did open up, but in the moment I needed everyone to believe I was fine. I just couldn’t deal with it more than I had to. It was how I kept moving.
I think the hard part for all of us is to allow ourselves and others to experience things in their own way without judgement. It’s especially hard when we want to help and don’t know how. Some of us can share our grief and it makes our burden lighter, some of us hide it deep in our hearts just to be able to continue living. Your point is so important because in that moment the last thing anybody needs is to try to meet someone else’s expectations.
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