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Why you should give yourself permission to be happy

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 09/19/21

The desire for well-being is exactly the desire that God has for us, too.

I have the silly habit of running distances that are entirely too far. I get myself lost in urban neighborhoods and unexpected paths in the woods, wrapped up in the joy of exploring new places.

Eventually I realize how much my legs hurt, how old I am, and how far I’ve wandered from home. I turn around to retrace my steps, only to finally stumble through the front door of our house and declare to my wife that I’m never going to make that mistake again. She laughs at me and doesn’t say a word. She knows I’ll do it again many times.

During the portion of those runs when I’m suffering to get home, dreaming of the food I’m going to eat, I ask myself why I do it. But then I remember that earlier part of the run, the part where I took a random left turn and found a new trail under a cottonwood canopy where the cotton drifted through the air like snow, or found myself in a tunnel of the golden grasses that line the banks of the Mississippi in autumn. It’s a sudden emergence into happiness. Impossible to express; it can only be felt, like a lifting up of the heart to God. That’s the feeling I chase.

This kind of happiness isn’t earned; it’s a gift. It descends with no warning – while watching your son ride a bike over a ramp he built himself, playing hide and seek with your toddler, enjoying long, unhurried dinners with friends, or wrapped in silent prayer with only the tabernacle candle lighting the church.

These unexpected moments are valuable beyond description. They hearken to a deeper, lasting form of happiness, the steady pleasure that we can all take every single day in our family, friends, work, hobbies, and a life well-lived.

For many years, I didn’t think this happiness was something I deserved. I was a runner back then, too, but ran not for joy but to dominate and control my body — like a war I was fighting against myself. Generally, a feeling of well-being — if it ever came my way — confused me. I didn’t know what to do with it. Maybe it’s what I was running away from. In a way, I think I was addicted to despair.

As a young adult, I struggled with depression, which was compounded by a crisis of faith and an intense questioning of who I was and who I was supposed to become. Answers were not forthcoming and I fell into hopelessness. All I could see were questions, no answers. I saw flaws, not solutions.

I didn’t believe I could be happy and fed into a cycle of despair. Eventually, though, because I became tired of the way my life was going and saw the negative effect it had on the people around me, I made an active choice to fight for happiness. It was a struggle. I was so unfamiliar with the experience of happiness that I had to make a definitive choice to be happy whether I felt it or not. My thesis was that if I acted happy and cultivated appreciation and gratitude, eventually my feelings would catch up. It wasn’t easy. Essentially, I was learning to define myself in an entirely new way. The first step was perhaps the most difficult — to actually believe that I could be happy and deserved to be happy.

There are stories we tell ourselves. You can’t do this. You always mess up. You weren’t destined to be happy. Those stories aren’t true, but they can be quite convincing and they end up guiding our decisions. They direct us into a narrow channel and, over time, we learn to think about everything outside of that self-definition as out-of-bounds. Few things limit us more profoundly than our beliefs about who we are and what we deserve. For some mysterious reason, many of us become convinced that happiness is outside of our story. We don’t deserve to be happy, we think, maybe because we have too many flaws or aren’t good enough.

God wants us to be happy and, for me at least, there was a certain selfish willfulness in refusing to do so. I would wallow in my misery because it secretly made me feel special. It made me feel smart. But it was false comfort and couldn’t provide real happiness. On the other hand, it isn’t selfish to want to be truly happy and live your days to the fullest. This desire to flourish is exactly the desire that God has for us, too. It’s the purpose for which he created us.

So I’ll keep running. I’m no longer running away from anything. Now I’m a seeker, a pilgrim, an excited wanderer anticipating divine moments of grace waiting just around every corner. It’s a metaphor for life. We’re all on a journey. No matter what path you take, it can be filled with happiness.

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