This post is part of a series on happiness. Read the first post here.
I don’t know what word is best to describe my teenage years as a Christian. Wholehearted? Strident? Zealous in the best way a zealot can be?
I wore the t-shirts. I read the Bible everyday. I went to Church four times a week. I went on mission trips. I had hundreds of hours of Christian CDs in my car, and I rolled through my small town singing harmony to them with the windows down.
I found so much purpose in my church. So many Christian values and practices changed me, made me more of the person I dreamed I could be. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That one worked beautifully. The more I loved my friends, my community, my family, my neighbors, the more I loved myself. It worked so well, and I still try to practice that one today.
But happiness – the kind of happiness that hits you deep in the gut, the happiness that you feel before you name it like the way you feel the floor shake before you can say ‘Earthquake’ – that happiness was hard for me to find, to recognize and name.
I read a lot about it. “…when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” the Bible said, “so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Then again, “Givegenerously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.”
I read. I listened to preachers and DC Talk. I looked for signs. I started to put together a divine equation: Work + belief + sacrifice = a reward, blessings, happiness. I tried following this equation I came up with. Happiness was something given to you after you do some heavy lifting. My purpose in life then was to do that heavy lifting because I really, really wanted to be happy.
I was gay the whole time. Super gay. And oh, how I wanted to sacrifice it. I was ready to tie my gay heart to an altar, and for years my knife was in the air like the one Abraham, at god’s command, held above his son. With my knife in the air, I secretly sacrificed the gay part of my soul. This, among many acts, was the heavy lifting I imagined would get me the divine reward. I wanted to be happy.
Twelve years after I was baptized in the Christian church, I experienced a less celebrated resurrection – I came out. When I decided not to be a Christian, I untied my gay heart and walked out into the world to take my first breaths, born again.
That transition continues to be one that defines me, one that I’m still trying to understand. But during those first breaths as a post-Christian gay fledgling in the ashes, I asked myself, “What am I doing here? What is my purpose? What do I do now?”
A few weeks ago, Oprah and a drag queen sat together and said something about happiness.
Oprah usually wraps up her Super Soul Sunday conversations with some quick-fire questions like this: “What do you think your true purpose on earth is?”
RuPaul, nearing 60 with work that has landed him in the middle of the pop culture spotlight said, “I think it starts with me… For me to experience this life and to enjoy it.”
Experience this life. Enjoy it.
And my mom, a person who sees my past and present and future so often with such clarity said to me two weeks ago, “You’re so concerned about making it all work. You need to find a way to enjoy your life.”
Could it be? Is the purpose of my life to enjoy it? Doesn’t that sound SO SELFISH?
And then I think of this – a video I watched right before heading to South Sudan.
At 21 years old, Christopher was diagnosed with a cancer that would take his life. He had 6 months to 2 years left to live. His perspective is so beautifully illuminated in this video, and it has stayed with me. I wrote his words down on a Post-It note and put it above my computer for years until my recent move. Christopher traveled around the world in the last months of his life. He got matching tattoos with his sister. He jumped two stories into a swimming pool. He flew in a tiny car held in the air by a parachute. He held hands with his mom.
Christopher died a year and a half after this video was released. I remember his words:
“The decision to be positive is not one that disregards or belittles the sadness that exists. It is rather a conscious choice to focus on the good and to cultivate happiness.”
To cultivate happiness…
Right after watching that video I went to South Sudan, weeks before civil war broke out again in a conflict that has continued to this day, almost five years later. When I was there I met emaciated mothers afraid to give birth. I met humanitarians holding medical supplies afraid to drive their armed escorts hours into the bush. And in the far out towns along the border I was never out of eyesight of an AK-47. Teens carried them. Shop owners carried them. Moms carried them as they walked in the market laughing with each other.
At the dusty strip they used as an airport, I met two boys playing mancala in the dirt. They tossed little stones into the holes in the ground, and I asked my friend Yugi about the mounds of stones I saw around them.
“They are graves,” Yugi said. “When people fell during the war, they placed stones around them to protect them.”
I thought of Christopher. “The decision to be positive is not one that disregards or belittles the sadness that exists,” Christopher said. “It is rather a conscious choice to focus on the good and to cultivate happiness.”
Could my purpose on earth be to enjoy it? To cultivate happiness?
Christopher added, “When we devote our energy and time to trivial matters and choose to stress over things that are ultimately insignificant, from that point we perpetuate our own sadness and we lose sight of the things that make us happy. And [then we] rationalize our way out of doing amazing things.”
RuPaul didn’t stop when he said that his purpose on earth is, “for me to experience this life and to enjoy it.”
He then said, “I think if I enjoy it, I could possibly share with other people how to do it.”
Cultivate happiness. Enjoy life and share how you are doing it.
That sounds like a pretty great purpose after all.
For the rest of the week, I’m going to write about Happiness. What is it? How do people get happy? What is it made of? Do you find happiness? Does it find you?
Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know what I find. And in the meantime, ring a bell.
Watch all of Christopher’s beautiful words in Soul Pancake’s video here.
PS. If you or someone you know is happy, would you tell me about it? Leave a comment and share a memory that comes to mind when you think of happiness.