Regardless of whether or not it’s as a result of a global pandemic, everybody sometimes hurts.
And for some the sadness is too much.
For some all hope of happiness has gone.
I sit with another desperately unhappy patient with low self-esteem and a catalogue of problems which I am powerless to do anything about. I want to help but what can I say that might be even remotely comforting in the face of such unhappiness. Perhaps it’d be better to say nothing at all, to simply listen and try and understanding what has happened to make the person feel the way they do. ‘All I only ever wanted was to be happy’, they say.
The desire to be happy is universal. At least, Blaise Pascal thought so. He wrote:
‘All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. This is the motive of every action of every man, even if those who hang themselves.’
If Pascal was right, the question then becomes ‘But what will make us happy?’ In the medical setting you might expect the answer to be ‘health’ but, although the conversations I have occur largely in the context of a GP’s surgery, they rarely have much to do with the physical aspects of wellbeing. Many seek happiness in their families but, whilst many do find it there, all too often it is the trials of family life that have led to the sadness I hear about..
Many then seek happiness through an assurance that they are ‘O.K.’ Some strive for that assurance through the acclaim of others as a result of success and status, whilst others, when the admiration of others isn’t forthcoming, try self affirmation, rewarding themselves with such things as food, alcohol, sex, holidays, possessions and all manner of other minor pleasures, each of which is used to stroke egos, affirm worth, and boost self-esteem by allowing them to gently whisper, ‘You’re worth it, you’re somebody’.
But the effect is always short lived and before long another shot of appreciation is required.
A while back I saw a T-shirt. Emblazoned across it were the words: ‘Don’t forget to be awesome’. Such advice is dangerous for a number of reasons. Firstly it puts an onerous burden upon us and requires us to be so much better than we really know ourselves to be. It encourages us to pretend to be something we know inside we are not and it forces us to compare ourselves unfavourably to others who are seemingly so much more awesome than we are. Secondly, if we genuinely believe ourselves to have achieved a degree of awesomeness, we will inevitably arrogantly imagine ourselves to be far more important than we really are, so much better than others. We may even be foolish enough to consider that what we think, do and say has intrinsic worth simply because it is we, the allegedly awesome, who have thought, done or said it. After all awesome is, as awesome does.
And thirdly it will make us unhappy.
If we are looking for happiness within ourselves we are looking for it in the wrong place – our obsession with self-esteem is counterproductive since real happiness is found outside of ourselves. Consider this. Have you ever climbed a mountain and admired the view or gazed at the beauty of a sunset? Have you ever looked up into the night sky and been amazed by the stars, or stood on the coast as the waves crash against the rocks? If you have, have you ever you thought to yourself “I could stay here and enjoy that view forever”?. Most people I ask this readily agree that they have. At that moment they have felt happy, satisfied, not because of who they are or what they have, but because of what they are seeing. They are standing on the edge of greatness and are satisfied simply by witnessing that greatness. John Piper asks:
‘Do people go to the Grand Canyon to increase their self-esteem? Probably not. This is, at least, a hint that the deepest joys in life come not from savouring the self, but from seeing splendour.’
We go to the Grand Canyon not to boost our self-esteem, but to go ‘Wow!’.
CS Lewis, in his essay ‘The Weight of Glory’ commented that our desires are:
‘… not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’
So what should I say to my unhappy patient? Of course listen and empathise. Of course provide them with any help I can, or direct them to those better positioned to do so. But should I try to boost their self-esteem? Whilst it is undoubtedly true that some folk have an unhelpfully low view of themselves, it is equally true that many, myself included, have far too great a need to feel good about themselves. Could it be then, that to give yet one more fix of ‘You’re OK’ to such a person would serve only to deepen their addiction to self still further?
We must first do no harm. Since feeling good about oneself is not the ultimate source of happiness that many have been led to believe , might it not be better to encourage people to look outside of themselves and search for that which is truly great? Of course my patient wants to be happy. I want them to be happy, infinitely and eternally happy. For that they don’t need high self-esteem but to esteem highly the infinitely and eternally great – that which is genuinely awesome.
I am not awesome. And striving to be so or pretending that I am, would be nothing more than a distraction, drawing my attention away from that which is. From God who is.
There is more happiness to be found in knowing that one is held in the everlasting arms of a Heavenly Father who loves us unconditionally than comes from dragging oneself up onto a pedestal in the misplaced hope of being admired by a stranger who doesn’t.
I am ordinary – God is awesome. There is more satisfaction to be had in admiring God’s glory than imagining my own. ‘In [his] presence there is fullness of joy; at [his] right hand are pleasures forevermore.’ [Psalm 16:11]
Some reading this may imagine then that my advice to the broken hearted is a facile ‘Smile, Jesus loves you’. This is not the case. I am not so naive as to imagine that the pain and sorrow that some people experience can be swept away by such an insensitive platitude. Christian believers know just as much as anyone what it is to experience pain and sorrow. Jesus himself was described as ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ I don’t doubt He cried out in agony as the nails were driven into his hands and feet. His crucifixion was no less painful for knowing he’d rise from the dead three days later. And Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. His tears were no less anguished for knowing that he would shortly bring Lazarus back from the dead.
The pain and sadness experienced by Christians is no less extreme than those who aren’t. Everybody hurts. And as for non–Christians, so for some Christians, the sadness is too much. The difference is that in the pain and in the sadness, the Christian does not grieve as those who have no hope. John Piper gives a helpful illustration. Imagine you are walking through a hospital and you hear screams of agony. How you feel about those screams will depend on whether you are on an oncology ward or a labour ward. The pain of childbirth may be no less severe than the pain of the patient suffering with terminal cancer but labour pains are accompanied with the hope of new life rather than the inevitability of death.
Right here, right now, pain and suffering abounds – your best life is not now. But there is hope that God will one day make all things well. The psalmist knew this. In Psalm 42 he writes:
‘My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”… I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”… Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?’.
But in his despair, he holds on to hope.
‘My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you… By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life… Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.’
Sometimes God does not act the way we ask him to, the way we would like. Leonard Cohen captures this wonderfully with his line describing ‘A million candles burning for the help that never came’. But when God disappoints us it is not because of a deficiency on his part. The truth is that just ‘as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than [our] ways’ [Isaiah 55:9]. God really does work in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. Sometimes, what might look like foolishness to us is, in reality, a manifestation of God’s infinite wisdom. Take the cross for example. To the world the cross was nothing but defeat – the reality though was very different: Jesus was being glorified as he was lifted up on the cross.
We must then resist the temptation to take things at face value. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith trusts that in all the incomprehensibleness of life, all its sadness and turmoil, God really does know best. Furthermore faith continues to believe that he will keep his promises – promises that assure us that though weeping may tarry for the night, joy comes with the morning.
So take heart if you’re hurting today – everybody hurts sometimes. But nobody is ever ever alone.
‘The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.’ [Psalm 34:18-19]