We Were Happy Once

“Write… we were happy once.” In the Little Women BBC miniseries, Mr. March tenderly looks into Jo’s eyes, those eyes filled with pain and despair and tears. How do I go on? those eyes plead, searching her father’s face for wisdom, guidance, help of any kind.

We were happy once. These words echo in my heart. Last week, during a warm autumn evening, I carried a tray of food outside to our veranda. At the step, I paused at the scene: my family, all five of them, around the table; sounds of laugher, of teasing, of shouting with childish freedom; the lights hanging, twinkling; the dusky view of the valley below, to this city that has become home. I so desperately wanted, in that moment, to feel fully happy; and I mostly was. But even on the most joyous of days, mundane or special, there will always be a part of me that is grief.

Thirteen months after the loss of my nephew, and I cannot fathom a time when I will be truly, full of uninhibited joy this side of heaven. Could I before his death? I can’t remember. It was not that my life had been easy before, necessarily; but the difficulties and griefs that I had experienced were not of the same magnitude. The eyes of my heart were opened to a brokenness, a personal grief, deeper than I had know before. There is something about the death of a child that is so desperately, inherently wrong; there is much about this broken world that is so desperately, inherently wrong.

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A friend recently asked me, in preparation for a meaningful time with her grandmother, “if there was something, anything you could ask your grandmother, what would it be?” There are many things I wish I could chat to her about; my mom’s mother, one of my closest friends until her death, left earth and entered heaven the year I was expecting my first child. While we had lived much of my short life together, talking about everything under the sun for those twentysome years, I had not asked her much about motherhood; some, but not all the deep questions I now have. Even more than those pressing ones, however, I want to ask her… how do you deal with the compounding brokenness of the world, both personal and cosmic, over the course of a life? How do you live joyfully to the full in the midst of so much sadness? And heaven knows she had seen sadness; more death and war and desperation than most of my American generation could imagine.

But when I imagine sitting with her, at her small apartment table in the little home she made for herself after my grandpa died, I see her shaking her head and saying, “I don’t know, Beth. We just did, one day at a time. It’s all we could do, you know?” And I imagine finding so much wisdom in those words; not a clear path forward, but a perspective of resilience, of perseverance, of faith.

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Could there be meaning in this darkness? Is there safety in the truth of God’s sovereignty? I believe there is, but I wrestle still. Francis Fernandez wrote, “everything that happens each day in the little universe of our work and our family, in the circle of our friends and acquaintances, can and must help us find God’s providence. Fulfillment of the divine will and the knowledge that it is being done is a source of serenity and gratitude.” I remembered a dear friend who walked through the dark valley of losing her baby daughter, and her words that God’s sovereignty was her safe place. Without the theological conviction that God has willed and ordered this world and our lives, all can feel desperately meaningless. I most certainly will never know the mind of God, but I know enough of his heart to know that he is trustworthy, even in the brokenness of the world. And even in our loss, he had given my nephew the gift of heaven. It was our loss, truly, not his.

In the end, our happiness is not the goal, is it? I may never feel fully happy again on this earth, and truthfully, I am at peace with that. I have seen too much, I have known too much, I have lost too much. I can join arms with many others who have suffered, who have known deep grief, who have experienced and lived in brokenness. I can share my story of God’s faithfulness in the midst of deep waters, and my hope of heaven.

No, happiness is not the goal; faithfulness is. And faithfulness looks like this: gratitude for what God has given, contentment with what he has not; perseverance in the midst of hardship; hope in the shadows. For we know, the shadows will one day pass, and we who are in Christ will experience joy uninhibited, finally and forever.

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