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Missing Happiness By a Hair

July 21, 2016


Walking along out in the desert last week, my thoughts turned to happiness. I thought about how with Christ, things take on a whole different order. He invites us into a whole different dimension of seeing. Now I have never claimed to be a scientist, but gazing out over the horizon, I suddenly thought, “Isn’t true north a couple of degrees off ‘actual’ north?”

That, in turn, led me to reflect that Christ is counter, but he’s never counter in the sense of 180 degrees. He’s counter two degrees. He takes our desire for happiness; our notions of justice, mercy, finance, romance, politics, and he tweaks them two degrees and the result is infinitely more radical than if the turn were 180. He doesn’t take our desire for happiness and say, “You need to make that into a desire for misery.” He doesn’t take our desire for security and say, “You need to be something other than human and no longer care in any way about security.” He says you’re going to look at happiness in a different way. You’re going to see security as something else than you see it now.

I thought of my friend Fr. Terry’s observation about the ever-receding promise, for the alcoholic, of booze: “Drinking never made me happy, but it made me feel like I was going to be happy in fifteen minutes.” Nothing wrong with shooting for happiness; it’s just that happiness is going to be found a hair right, or left, of center. Your gaze is going to be trained just slightly to the side, and upward.

I thought of a short story I once wrote called “Happy Hour,” about the bottomless existential torment, again, for the alkie, of five o’clock at the bar: the searing loneliness, the faux hilarity.

Back from my walk, just before Mass, Sr. Mary Fidelis stopped by my pew and whispered, “Holy Hour today is from 10 to 11.”

All during Mass, I thought about Happy Hour, and Holy Hour, and true north. I thought about how I once described a morning at the dive bar in Boston’s North Station where I used to drink, my companions washed-up cab drivers and broken-down racetrack touts:

“It was like coming together each morning for the administration of a communal anaesthetic. Our fingers shook with the effort of lighting cigarettes. Our hands shook as we raised the glasses to our lips. Our heads shook when we lowered them to sip. We drank silently, methodically, the pace as steady as an IV drip. I was almost always the only woman at the bar, not that it mattered: we Sullivan’s regulars were way past sex. We were like monks or eunuchs, our lives stripped down to a single all-consuming, self-annihilating passion, our focus on the bartender mixing our morning drinks as pure as the gaze of the faithful as the priest raises the consecrated Host.”

Gazing at the monstrance later—at the actual consecrated Host—I thought about how to miss by a hair is still to miss completely. I thought about how for years I didn’t want to see the extent of my wounds. I didn’t want to be a freak. I wanted to be able to choose the ways in which I died to the world. Now I see we don’t get to choose our wounds, and that my wounds have shaped me for Christ. Does that make me “happy?” I don’t know. Can you be happy as you weep? I don’t know. I only know that my focus was slightly off center and upward. I only know that my eyes, for the moment, were trained on True North.