That Americans will do almost anything to enjoy a happy life here and now is news to very few people. Books, drugs, plastic surgery, therapy, amulets, meditation, exercise, stocks, bonds, clothes, phones, sermons, food, and everything else is consumed by Americans in search of a happy and almost stress free life. We spend half of our yearly income in search of happiness.
The question is, can all this take sorrow away? Will there be a drug of drugs to eradicate the blues of even the bluest? Can a pill and a few life changes, along with some cash, mend a broken heart once for all? Can Western culture win the war on melancholy?
Eric Wilson has written a book on just this topic (called Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy). And this war on melancholy doesn’t excite him.
“I for one am afraid that our American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am wary in the face of this possibility: to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations” (p. 6).
Later, he writes,
“My sense is that most of us have been duped by the American craze for happiness. We might think that we’re leading a truly honest existence, one attuned to vivid realities and blooded hearts, when we’re really just behaving as predictably and artificially as robots, falling easily into the worn ‘happy’ behaviors, into the conventions of contentment, into obvious grins” (p. 9).”
Wilson is dead on here. Throwing medicine or money or moralism at deep sorrow and sadness is like trying to stop a thunderstorm, saying everything is peachy because you’ve closed your eyes and plugged your ears. Christians have to (ironically!) fight against this war on melancholy with every fiber of our broken-but-being-made-new hearts. One basic truth of Christianity that the wind of consumerism tries to blow away is this: in this world you will have sorrow (Jn 16.20). Sorrow and this pilgrim life go hand in hand, like it or not. We have got to resist being duped by the “American craze for happiness.”
One other basic truth of Christianity is this: your sorrow will turn to joy (Jn 16.20). But that joy we only know glimmers of now. Fullness of joy is reserved for the life to come. This is what it means to be conformed to Christ: from suffering to joy, from cross to crown, from mourning to dancing.
[Footnote: the aforementioned book is not written from a Christian perspective, in case you were wondering. However, I strongly recommend it, and I’ll post more on it later.]