Something really miraculous happened when I was at Grove City a week or so ago (see previous post). At least, I see it as miraculous, because I know how long I can hold a grudge. The theme of the conference this year was Joy in the Journey, and there were various joy-themed verses for reflection every day, and a lot of the sermons and workshops incorporated the theme to a greater or lesser extent. One of the mottoes that got repeated a lot all week was “Choose Joy” (in various contexts and permutations).
I knew, going into the conference, that I had a joy problem. Have been having a joy problem for more than a year now.
My problem, which came to light during wedding planning craziness last year, took this shape: I really hate where I live. And try as I might, it’s very hard for me to not resent my husband for being in circumstances that force us (me) to live here.
Now, for the sake of full disclosure, let me say that when people who know our neighborhood and/or our specific apartment find out that I hate where I live, they are inevitably politely baffled. It’s a nice neighborhood. Many people who are not me aspire to live in this neighborhood. And it’s a great apartment. From an objective point of view, the apartment is ridonkulous. We have sooooo much space. We have southern and eastern light. We have a view. Etc.
But when people who know the neighborhood and the apartment and who also know me very well hear that I hate where I live, what I get is, “Yeah, I could see how that’s not your optimal environment.” Sometimes they don’t even need to be told – I’ve had more than one person say, “You know, I never pictured you ever living in a place like this.” It’s a very nice place, just not for me. Like living underwater – it’s a lovely fairyland, and I’m sure the fish love it, but I don’t really want to do more than visit, thanks.
Why do I hate it? Let me count the ways. Or not. There’s too many, and I have made a commitment to myself and to Ben to minimize my griping for the duration of my imprisonment here. (Did I say imprisonment? Melodramatic, yes, but more in a moment). Suffice to say that there’s nothing to do (except shop, and I loathe shopping), and no one to see (all my friends live more than an hour away by public transit), and it’s soul-deadeningly upper middle class suburban.
I’ve been really unhappy. Which is really confusing as a newlywed, because I love my husband and I love being married, and I love being on sabbatical, and I have so much to be ecstatically delighted about, and I’ve still been carrying around this dragging weight of unhappiness.
And I’m aware that that’s a problem. In fact, I’m so aware that I shouldn’t be unhappy, that I haven’t properly been able to just be unhappy. Always on my shoulder is the voice saying, “You’re so ungrateful. Happiness isn’t dependent on circumstances. You need to make the best of it. You need to find the beauty in the place, find the things that you love, find the parts of this living situation that give you joy.”
And that, right there, that last bit, has been the problem. What Grove City cleared up for me is that I don’t need to find the beauty in the place, or find things to like about it, or pretend in any way that I like my neighborhood more than I do. I’ve been trying for more than a year, and failing extravagantly. It never really worked to tell myself to find things to love, because it always felt inauthentic – the kind of pablum you try to soothe a five-year-old with, and it doesn’t work because young children have fully functioning BS meters and they know you’re full of it. I didn’t believe my own efforts.
But I’ve been going about it backwards. You don’t go searching for the tiny external factors in the situation that can offset the overall effect, because joy really isn’t dependent on circumstances. All this time I’d been thinking that I had to stop viewing this place as a well-appointed prison before I could make peace with it, but that’s not true at all – because Paul and Silas sang hymns to God in prison. I don’t have to change my opinion of any of the external factors of my situation – I can continue to think of this place as my own personal purgatory, I just have to decide to praise God in the middle of it. During it. In spite of it.
And joy follows.
I can’t believe it took me this long to figure that out.