Via Negativa: The Hunger Games / Hunger for Happiness

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent: 

Bring me out of my distress. (Psalm 25:12-20)
The dawn from on high will break upon us. (Luke 1:68-79)
You are the bird of happiness. (Rumi)

Our first song comes from actress and singer Lindsey Haun. She’s best known for her role in the HBO vampire series True Blood. This song comes from the soundtrack of a 2006 movie she starred in called Broken Bridges. The song is called “Broken.”

Wake up to a sunny day, not a cloud up in the sky
And then it starts to rain
My defenses hit the ground and they shatter all around
So open and exposed I found strength in the struggles
Face to face with my troubles
(CHORUS) When you’re broken in a million little pieces
And you’re tryin but you can’t hold on anymore
Every tear falls down for a reason
Don’t you stop believin’ in yourself When you’re broken

About six years ago, I went through a year-long clinical depression triggered by a sudden life-changing event. The depression was so severe that I called it my “Don’t give a bleep depression” – using a different, unpreachable word, of course.

I called it this because I didn’t care one bleep about anything. My house burns down? Don’t give a bleep. Dog dies? Don’t give a bleep. Life threatening illness? Don’t give a bleep. Won the lottery? Don’t give a good dang bleep. Nothing, not the world’s worst news or the world’s best news could lift me from the pit that I was in.

And it was just that – a pit. A deep, dark pit that not only left me mentally lethargic, but physically in pain. My back and shoulders constantly hurt, no matter how many massages or chiropractic visits I made. When those commercials say “depression hurts” they’re not kidding. It really, truly does.

The one thing that made me want to kill people during that time were those who would say to me things like, “Count your blessings,” or, “Things will get better, give it time.” Those who really got my goat though were the ones who said, “Just stop thinking about it and go on with your life.”

Those were the ones I thought were nuts. How do you stop thinking about the worst thing you could ever imagine happening to you? How can you just stop thinking and be happy again? Actually, though, that was the key. The moment I stopped rehearsing the feelings that made me feel bad, those are the moments where the depression began to lift, and my body didn’t hurt so much. It’s not that the event didn’t happen, or that it didn’t wound me deeply. But, by continuing to inflict that pain on myself every single day, I made it impossible to get out of the pit. Instead, rehearsing the pain only made me dig the pit deeper. Once I stopped digging, I realized I could be happy, not despite the pain, but because of it.

There are happiness gurus all over this world telling you, “Don’t worry, be happy,” or “every little thing gonna be alright,” so we try that.

We try to push all the negative thoughts from our minds – to think positively, to banish bad thoughts and feelings. But, when happiness still eludes us we start to berate ourselves for failing so miserably at being happy. Instead of actually finding happiness, we make ourselves unhappy in the pursuit of happiness.

What I realized in the midst of my own dark times is that it is fruitless to banish negative thoughts – because they will always be with you. We can’t satisfy our hunger for happiness by denying unhappy thoughts. Instead, we can only be happy when we work with those negative thoughts. To achieve real, lasting happiness, we must take the via negativa, the negative path that doesn’t take us around our despair, but through it.

This via negativa to happiness does not give us sing-songy affirmations like Stuart Smalley who was famous for his daily affirmation of, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Instead, along this via negativa we find that when we go through our hopelessness, we emerge on the other side as more powerful, more resilient and more beautiful people, because we have encountered and healed our own brokenness.

In Japan, instead of tossing bowls when they crack, they repair them with pure gold, so over time, it is the broken places of the bowl that shimmer and shine. We tend to be ashamed of our broken places and seek to hide our brokenness from the world. This via negativa path to happiness reveals our brokenness to the world, which can be scary until we realize that we are all broken in a million little pieces. But, when we walk this via negativa with the Holy, we find true happiness because we are made whole, and our light shines brightest from our broken places.

Little girl don’t be so blue, I know what you’re goin through
Don’t let it beat you up
Hitting walls and getting scars,
Only makes you who you are
Only makes you who you are
No matter how much your heart is aching
There is beauty in the breaking
(CHORUS) When you’re broken in a million little pieces
And you’re tryin but you can’t hold on anymore
Every tear falls down for a reason
Don’t you stop believin’ in yourself
When you’re broken

This morning’s psalm is a model on how to take the via negativa path to happiness.

“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins. Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me. O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.”

How often are we “lonely and afflicted,” telling ourselves over and over again how much the world hates us or will put us to shame if they knew just how broken and awful we really are?

The structure of this psalm and others are quite similar. Most psalms begin in despair, God has forsaken the psalmist, or God has forsaken the ancient Hebrew children and in their despair they cry out. They plead for the Lord to return and give them happiness and joy again. Late in most of the psalms, the tone turns to one of praise as the Holy returns and restores the psalmist, or the nation, to their original state of happiness.

This is a model for our own via negativa path to happiness. We all begin in that place of despair, seeking relief from God, begging God to lift the veil of hopelessness, to rescue us from the pit. But, this is where many of us get stuck because we insist on rehearsing our stories of sorrow over and over again. You’ve met the type whose main story of their life is one of sadness, of how badly things have gone for them in their lives, how they feel abandoned by God, by their family and their friends. How long do you spend with people like that? Not long, because if we linger on the via negativa path, we can get stuck in our stories of woe.

The psalms are map through this path. The next step is to turn our despair into joy whether the Holy shows up or not. In today’s psalm, the singer is still waiting.

“May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.”

The Hebrew word here for “integrity” means “completeness.” What preserves us in the via negativa path is the knowledge that this is the path of completion, the path of wholeness, which is the source of true happiness. Trusting that God will heal our brokenness and use those shimmering cracks in our life to heal others is what should turn our sorrow to rejoicing.

We all go through hard times, and there is no doubt that in those times we feel deep despair, but the via negativa path leads ultimately to wholeness, to integrity and uprightness – and that is what gives us the strength to get unstuck from our tale of woe and keep walking the path with the Holy, no matter how rough the road may be.

“May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.”

Breathe deeply.

Better days are gonna find you once again
Every piece will find it’s place
When you’re broken, when you’re broken, mmmm.
(CHORUS) When you’re broken in a million little pieces
And you’re tryin but you can’t hold on anymore
Every tear falls down for a reason
Don’t you stop believin’ in yourself
When you’re broken Oh when your broken
(OUTRO) When your broken, When your broken

I don’t know if I have ever mentioned this, but traffic makes me kind of nuts. My biggest pet peeve are truckers who pass in the left lane, on an uphill. There is one particular uphill section of I-20 that I drive a lot where, inevitably, a trucker will pass another trucker on that hill, slowing us down from the posted speed limit of 70 to often 60 miles-per-hour or slower. It is maddening.

I was sitting behind one of these truckers, fuming, just the other day while listening to a teaching seminar from Buddhist monk Pema Chodron. She was talking about how closely linked suffering and happiness truly are. We suffer because of what she called our “propensities” – or things that bother us. If we can work to diminish our propensities, Chodron said, we can reduce our suffering, and increase our happiness.

I had to laugh at myself in this moment, because I realized I was allowing my propensity to be irritated with this trucker ruin my happiness in the moment. Then, I looked a bit closer at what propensity was really in play. I first thought that perhaps the propensity bothering me was one of consideration. Truckers know they can’t go fast up a hill, so passing on a hill is inconsiderate of those behind them.

But, as I thought more on this, I realized that the true, underlying propensity in all of this was not that the truckers were being inconsiderate in general, but that they were being inconsiderate to me! My true propensity causing all this suffering was a propensity for selfishness, which led to my propensity to anger, and then my propensity to frustration. All that needless suffering going on!

How can we overcome our propensities? Recognize them and open to them. Chodron calls this process “Compassionate Abiding.” Open up to the suffering when you encounter it, observe it, breath it in – then breathe it out and release it – no matter how many times you need to. As you breathe in say: “May I be free of this propensity,” then breathe it away.

It took me more than a few breaths to ease my own suffering – and by that time, the truck had moved anyway. Happiness is like that – it really is as simple as breathing deeply – even in the midst of suffering.

Our second song comes from the 1976 debut album of the rock band Boston. The band started in, where else, Boston, Massachusetts, and sold some 31 million albums in the U.S. This song, Peace of Mind, went to #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1977.

[Verse] Now if you’re feelin’ kinda low
’bout the dues you’ve been paying
Future’s coming much too slow
And you wanna run but somehow you just keep on stayin’
Can’t decide on which way to go Yeah, yeah, yeah
[Chorus] I understand about indecision
But I don’t care if I get behind
People livin’ in competition
All I want is to have my peace of mind.

In our Jesus story, like last week, we’re in the time before our boy arrives on the scene. In fact, Jesus’ cousin John is just being born and in this passage his father Zechariah is bragging to his neighbors about what a great man his son will grow up to be.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

John the Baptist enters a world beset by competition – perhaps not people trying to climb the corporate ladder – but in this time, it was a competition to simply stay alive. Throughout their history, the Jewish people either lived in exile or at home under the thumb of one oppressor or another. Most lived in poverty, barely scraping by. Others, because of their skill in trades, did better, but usually by serving those who were occupying their land at the time, or whoever was keeping them out of their land.

The individual pursuit of what we modern day Americans would call “happiness” was probably not their first priority. Happiness was quite simple – enough food to eat, a bed to sleep in and a simple dwelling to surround that bed. This was not happiness based on how much you had or how much wealth you could amass – it was a happiness found in relationships with family, friends, and a sense of still being God’s favored people, even when all the evidence said you were forsaken.

It is that last piece – the feeling of being forgotten or left by God to the tender mercies of invaders and oppressors that produced a keen sense of despair and darkness among the Jewish people.

Zechariah’s proclamation then is one of hope that light will come to those who sit in the darkness of oppression and poverty. His son will prepare the way for this Messiah, this chosen one, who will lead us all down the path of peace.

Hear the good news! We can achieve true happiness, because this true, holy happiness is liberation from darkness. But, before there can be liberation, there must be darkness. Nobody escapes it. John had to go through darkness that ended in his beheading. Jesus went through the darkness before he was arrested and killed. Darkness – and the pain that comes with it – visits all of us. It’s what we do with that darkness and pain that predicts how happy we will ultimately be.

Despite the terrible endings of John and Jesus, and even the terrible endings of our own modern day spiritual heroes like Gandhi or King, I can bet you everything I own that none of them would have had their lives unfold in any other way. They pursued what they were passionate about, knowing that in that pursuit they would encounter trouble, danger, heartache and despair. But, also in that pursuit they all encountered unimaginable joy, elation, triumph and, yes, happiness.

In the end, something else they also enjoyed is immortality, and not just in a bodily resurrection, but in the only kind of resurrection that matters – the resurrection of their spirits that lives on in each of us today because we know their stories. We know about their lives and their sacrifices – and we know that they each died doing what made them happy – even when what made them happy led them to despair and death.

What they achieved in the end is our theme in this second Sunday in Advent: peace. They achieved the peace of mind that only holy happiness can provide. Not a surface, affirmation-riddled happiness, but a deep peace that understands we cannot have true happiness without pain and darkness. But, as the Buddhists tell us: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] Now you’re climbin’ to the top of the company ladder
Hope it doesn’t take too long
Can’t cha see there’ll come a day when it won’t matter
Come a day when you’ll be gone
[Chorus] I understand about indecision
But I don’t care if I get behind
People livin’ in competition
All I want is to have my peace of mind.
[Bridge] Take a look ahead, take a look ahead,
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah… whoa!

“You are the bird of happiness, in the magic of existence,” Rumi wrote so long ago, “what a pity when you let yourself be chained and caged.”

What ultimately rescued me from my deep depression years ago was discovering that I was not alone. I was not the first person in the universe to feel these feelings, and the cure was to stop keeping myself chained and caged by the shame of my despair. This is key to finding that deep, holy happiness that hunger we for – sharing our pain, letting ourselves out of our own cages of despair, and realizing we are, indeed, the bird of happiness in this magic of existence.

In one song, the Indigo Girls sing, “what was once your pain will be your home,” and it’s true. It is through our most painful experiences that we learn new things about ourselves, about our world and about those around us. The only way I made it through that deep, dark time was because I had a community that surrounded me with love and support.

There were days when I didn’t think I could go on when the phone would ring and a friend would invite me to dinner, rescuing me from another night of rehearsing my pain.

We don’t find that holy happiness on our own, Jubilants. True happiness is born in community, where we share our not just our joys, but our sorrows. When we share our pain – when we show one another our deepest wounds – we become what theologian Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers.”

We help one another because we’ve been there. We can heal one another because we have suffered the same, or similar, wounds and we know how to bind up each other with love and mercy.

As Nouwen writes: “Shared pain is no longer paralyzing but mobilizing, when understood as a way to liberation (or happiness). When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.”

In other words, “what was once your pain will be your home.”

We are each a sign of hope, Jubilants, a via negativa to happiness, because of our brokenness, because of our shining, shimmering cracks. Together, Jubilants, we open a path to happiness for us all because our shared pain becomes “an opening for a new vision” as Nouwen says.

I invite you, Jubilants, to pay attention to your propensities – those thoughts and feelings in your life that steal your joy. Work compassionately with those propensities, abide compassionately with yourself, and vow to use your own pain to soothe the pain of others.

Stop living in this world of competition that only brings suffering and pain, and instead step into the light of holy happiness, that peace of mind that assures us that no matter how dark the night, “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

[Verse] Now everybody’s got advice they just keep on givin’
Doesn’t mean too much to me
Lot’s of people out to make-believe they’re livin’
Can’t decide who they should be
[Chorus] I understand about indecision
But I don’t care if I get behind
People livin’ in competition
All I want is to have my peace of mind.
Take a look ahead, take a look ahead. Look ahead.

Oh, Yeah!