What's Tony Thinking

It’s Okay; You Don’t Have To be Happy, Happy, Happy


One of the tyrannies of our culture is its demand that you be happy, happy, happy . . . and if you’re not, it’s your own damn fault.

Many years ago now, I came home from my first semester of college. I went by our church to visit my minister, John Wightman, who passed away just this year.

To John, I conveyed some ambivalence about college. Some good, some not so much, some deeply weird. John said something that was profoundly comforting. “I’m kind of glad to hear you say it’s not all just  wonderful. So many kids, when they come home, say college is just so fantastic, terrific. But when I go a little deeper, that’s seldom the whole story.”

John gave me permission to not pretend.

I came across a new book (new to me) the other day, that seems to extend the same grace to those of us who don’t manage 14 “Awesomes” before breakfast.

It is a collection of essays by Heather Havrilesky titled, “What If This Were Enough?” 

Here’s a bit from her essay, “The Smile Factory.”

“What’s odd about American culture–and now pop culture at large –is how fervently it insists on keeping us all in a frothy state of upbeat enthusiasm and childlike wonder for the entire stretch of our lives, from birth to death.

“Even after we mature into adults, even after we experience heartbreak and nagging doubts and disappointments untold, life is still supposed to be dominated by sunshine and big hugs and warm smiles, lathered up into a bubbly storm of upbeat nothingness. Everything must be improving.

“If things are bad, they are always about to get better. Reluctance to see it that way will be encountered as willful misery. You must be living life to its fullest, always.

“Yet this chirpy insistence on positivity has a strange way of enhancing the dread and anxiety and melancholy that lie just beneath the surface of things . . .”

“We are all — in our public lives, in our professional lives, and even in our personal lives — urged to grin along obediently like contestants on The Bachelor, hoping against hope that we win some mysterious coveted prize that we can’t see clearly. Smiling along like you’re already happy is what leads you to your own Happily Ever After. Refusing to smile, refusing to agree, refusing to comply: These things mean that you are difficult and you want to unhappy. These things mean that you will make trouble for everyone. These things mean that you will lose and keep losing.”

As noted in earlier epistles, one of the most basic reasons I am a Christian is that there is a cross, with a guy on it — not just any guy, God’s own Son — at the center of this thing. That is to say, there is place here for suffering, disappointment and failure.

This is a faith that tells the truth, except when it doesn’t. Which is when it joins the “Smile Factory” culture (see Joel Osteen) to convey that if you just have enough faith, of the right kind, everything will be hunky-dory. That’s culture trumping gospel.

So, here’s the word of grace. If you experience life as, at least at times, hard and disappointing, if you scratch your head about a lot of what goes on in our society, and if you scratch your head at some of your own choices and decisions, you’re not alone.

If you can’t smile constantly, it doesn’t mean you are a failure. It may mean you are real.



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