Sunday, October 4, 2009

Happiness – Sometimes a Gift, Usually a Choice

Occasionally I will wake from a dream that has a certain familiarity. I may be in a place I have never seen before, but usually this doesn’t occur to me during the dream. Instead my attention is focused on how beautiful the setting feels. I don’t see all the detail, but I feel it, and I comprehend its richness. In these particular dreams, I am able to move freely, to explore and soak in the feeling. I will often encounter a friend or relation in such places. Like the rich detail of the setting, little is said, but the conversation is deep and meaningful. The common theme in each of these dreams is peace and contentment. My happiness is full.

Without success, I resist waking. Not always, but usually, the happiness of the experience spills out into the rest of my day and I am left to marvel at the power of that brief moment. Once I am awake, I can choose to think about it again and again, or I can leave it behind. Many are the dreams that I no longer remember, but there are also dreams that I will likely never forget. Such dreams are gifts to me – evidence of a happiness once experienced. They are memories I can carry in my pocket.

If you have had such dreams, you have probably also experienced a “rude awakening” at some point. In this case, the awakening takes place some time after you have awoken from the dream. For me, it has been at a moment when a problem, and often one that I thought had been solved, reintroduces itself with the intent to become reacquainted. Suddenly, the happiness I felt is gone and the unwelcomed intruder is despised for robbing me of my peace.

My life seems to be full of these moments – episodes of happiness and disappointment. The contrast can be quite stark. Whether I like it or not, this alternating current is part of Father’s Plan of Happiness.

I remember one occasion as a little boy when I was bored. My parents were busy watching a session of General Conference on the television, and it wasn’t nearly enough to hold my attention. Thinking of a solution to my problem, I remembered a small cardboard box that Dad kept some items to make small electrical repairs. I retrieved the box and went into the kitchen.

In the box were a variety of electrical parts and pieces. I recognized some cylindrical fuses (if you are old enough you may recall the fuse boxes that were used in homes before circuit breakers.) Dad used these to replace old fuses in the wall. There was also a small power cord that had been removed from some appliance, and some electrical tape. I’m sure there were other items, but like my dreams, I don’t remember all the details.

Not knowing exactly what these pieces did, I figured my curiosity would teach me what I needed to know. First I took several fuses and arranged them in a circle. I didn’t know what circuit meant back then, but a circle seemed like a good thing to try. Then I carefully placed some small uncoated wire around the tops of the fuses and secured them with the electrical tape. The crowning moment was when I connected the wire to the scrap of power cord in the box and plugged my new invention into the wall. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was full of anticipation. At that moment I realized a couple things. First, no one was interested in General Conference anymore. And, secondly, I discovered that I didn’t know much about electricity.

The sparks that suddenly appeared were accompanied by a very loud noise. That part was pretty exciting. The commotion was enough to get my parents away from the TV and in front of my invention. Success! Or so I thought. I think they had a rude awakening of sorts. I didn’t receive any harm from the power outlet, just a serious reprimand from my Dad; and that was fortunate on both counts. It didn’t take a scientist to tell me that my invention was going nowhere. I may have had the right parts, but I didn’t have the understanding of what to do with them.

Sometimes I wonder if I understand happiness any better than dreams or alternating current. I have had many failed attempts at finding the peace of my dreams. Sometimes I have the right elements, but I flounder as if I don’t know what to do with them. Unfortunately, this is where I am mistaken. I have been taught the parts and pieces to lasting happiness. However, it is as though I still have some childhood boredom and I try to invent some new path to happiness.

I often watch my children fall into a slump of unhappiness when something doesn’t go their way. Usually they experience their own rude awakening when a sibling teases or says something mean or hurtful. Perhaps they were hoping for one more helping of apple pie, only to find out that it is all gone. Quite often they are unhappy about a homework assignment that seems to get in the way of their Game Cube time in front of the television. Each of those examples provides understandable reasons for being sad. The hard part is helping them understand how to sort out the pieces and plug them in the right places so they don’t let their sadness overwhelm them. As often as I have told them, “Don’t let that get you down. Cheer up. You can choose to be happy.” I find myself making the same choices. We are not so very different from our children. The only difference is the sophisticated garb that we surround our desires for happiness with.

The more experience I get, and the more successful experience I have with happiness, the more I recognize that happiness is sometimes a gift but is usually a choice. Here are a few parts and pieces that I have figured out how to plug in the right places.

The prophet Lehi taught his son, Jacob, important truths about happiness in 2 Nephi 2:11. “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one….”

Being a compound in one implies that you cannot have happiness without sadness. It is the depth of contrast between the two that gives such rich meaning and appreciation. Focusing on one without acknowledgement of the other limits both the happiness we can enjoy and the sadness we can endure. Difficult experiences lead us to treasure moments of happiness and place greater value on peace. Similarly, treasured experiences provide the hope to endure periods of sadness and discouragement for desires that are not yet realized.

Happiness and sadness are like a pair of shoes in a foot race. You need both to sustain a long journey. (My wife pointed out to me the absurdity of hopping along in one shoe.) Each shoe takes a step forward, allowing the other to propel forward in turn. Sadness defines greater happiness when it is experienced, and happiness provides the power to endure. Sometimes we are tempted to search for happiness without sorrow. We may also be tempted to dwell too much on our present sadness which keeps us from taking the next step towards being happy again. Both have a proper place.

Lehi continues with another empowering key in verses 14, 16, and 26. “And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon. ... Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other. ... And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.”

Lehi teaches us that God has created things to act and things to be acted upon. God has also given us agency that we should act for ourselves. This means, as he states, we are to act, and not be acted upon.

I don’t believe this means we will not feel outside pressures that appear to be acting upon us. Rather, we are to learn that these outside influences cannot control us as much as we think they do. They are merely creations that were intended for us to act upon. They are the object lesson for our benefit. This subtle difference places greater focus and priority on God’s children and less emphasis on either the difficult or pleasurable experience that we respond to. Father wants us to be happy, and He has created things through His Only Begotten that allow us that opportunity.

Agency is choice. And choice is a God-given right that cannot be taken away. We may find ourselves compelled to action by outside forces or constraints, but we can choose our actions. If we choose to align our actions with outside demands, such as a need to provide for a family, or an obligation to help a friend or family member in a difficult circumstance, we can still choose how we feel about it and which way we will orient our heart.

Lehi further reminds Jacob, “But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:24-25) I trust in Father, who knows all things, that this combination of sadness and joy is the path to eternal happiness. It is just what we need to learn to be like our Father. This is His Plan of Happiness.

The most important key for our happiness comes in the next few verses of scripture from Lehi to Jacob. In 2 Nephi 2:27-29 we read, “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit; And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.”

Father has given us everything we need to succeed. We are free to act and not be acted upon. Circumstances that may seem otherwise are illusions, like a veil, that allow us to have faith in our Father – faith that the only way to His happiness is by obedience to His commandments. Failure to follow His precise directions will cause us to fall in places that make it difficult to get up. I think that is when I am most miserable.

The prophet Alma taught his son, Corianton, “Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10) While we may not be guaranteed happiness without sadness, choosing to be happy is synonymous to choosing to be holy. Looking for happiness in the wrong places is no different than plugging a misconstructed circuit of parts and pieces into a power outlet, hoping that something extraordinary will happen. Well… something might happen, but there are better ways of using powerful motivations to secure the peace we want. Happiness doesn’t always just happen. Happiness can be a deliberate choice in spite of the circumstances around us.

I am grateful for examples of strength such as Joshua, or Enoch, who say with solid resolve, “choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

So much of my happiness is dependent upon my expectations. If I expect to find happiness where there isn’t any, I will always be disappointed. Like C.S. Lewis said, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing." If I am not content with what I have, I will always be searching to satisfy an insatiable appetite. But if I learn to rely upon the Lord, day by day, I know He will not lead me astray. Father keeps His promises.

There is a relationship between dreams and actions that is very much akin to faith and works. In those moments when we dream and there is nothing to harm nor hinder that moment, we are given a taste of what we can experience in reality when we awake. But this depends upon our choices.

This last year has been the happiest in my entire life, and it truly has been a gift. I think the greatest part of the gift has been an understanding of what will truly make me happy and then having the strength to do it.

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