The Brazilian musical Orfeu Negro, a capoeira-filled retelling of the Orpheus story, contains a beautiful and haunting stanza penned by Antonio Carlos Jobim and sung to a heartbreaking tune: Tristeza nÃ£o tem fim, felicidade sim. Happiness ends, but sadness lasts forever. (Literally: Sadness doesn’t have an end; happiness does.)
Ultimately, each of us experiences good and bad in our lives, happiness and sadness, joy and pain. Which of these emotions will last, and which will fade away? As Orpheus mourns his lost Eurydice, his own answer seems clear.
Recent conversations I’ve (repeatedly) had with my children have suggested another answer.
A regular complaint around these parts goes along the lines of “my brother is doing such-and-such (making noise, not sharing, teasing — you name it), and that makes me sad.” I’ve typically dealt with this kind of complaint by breaking up squabbles, separating participants, and so forth.
Some months ago, my wife adopted a new strategy. When our son complains “my brother is making noise and that makes me sad,” she replies, “your brother can’t make you unhappy. Only you can make you unhappy.” It’s an approach that may actually work. It’s been quite a task so far, because our son is a champion grudge-holder. (He had one meltdown over a relatively minor event that had happened three months earlier — and he could quote the exact date of the offense. It was really hard not to laugh when he explained, very seriously, that he was mad about something he was told in the middle of June.)
And so we tell our son: “You choose what to think about. You choose what to remember. You choose whether to be happy or unhappy. You choose whether to focus on the good or the bad. You can’t control others’ actions, but you can control your own reaction.”
(And of course, this idea relates to a recent post, by
Lord Voldemort you-kn0w-who, over at the Blog that Must Not be Named. Comments then suggested that people do choose what they remember, and that at least a few bloggernacle readers choose to remember their insistence that a certain blogger be sent to Azkhaban, forthwith.)
These recent pepeated conversations with my son have left me pondering the truth of these assertions. Is it really the case that we choose whether or not to be happy? Do we truly choose our reactions? The idea seems false to some degree; our initial feelings and reactions often seem out of our conscious control. But in a broader sense, the idea of choice is accurate. We may not control initial feelings, but we do choose how to process these feelings, what to do in reaction to them, and how they fit into our lives.
Second Nephi, Chapter Two, contains two remarkable assertions in almost immediate succession. “Men are that they might have joy” is immediately followed by “wherefore men are free” and the elaboration, “free to choose.” I don’t believe that the combination is coincidence. We exist to have joy, and we are free to choose; therefore, we ought to choose to have joy.
We make this larger choice in the context a thousand smaller choices: What we choose to do, how we choose to react to others — and often, Voldemort, in what we choose to remember. As agents free to choose, we can choose to remember evils that have befallen us, or to remember the joys that we’ve experienced. This choice is our own and no one else’s. The good news is that the Devil will not make us unhappy; the bad news is that neither will God make us happy. Only we can make ourselves happy.
And there are going to be exceptions to the application of this general rule, of course. Our ability to control our reaction will diminish with the intensity of events we experience. It is probably difficult to choose happiness when one is being physically tortured, for example; only someone truly Divine can say “Forgive them, Father” while in the act of being slain.
But for most of us, the choice between choosing sadness and choosing joy is simpler and easier. We all suffer everyday pains and heartaches, but we also feel joy. It is within our power to prioritize our memories, to focus on the joy. We can remember the good, and let the bad float away.
Choosing joy is not an approach that I’m always good at putting into practice. I’m sure that I indulge in anger or self-pity as much as the next person, and I can be particularly susceptible to the soft, seductive blue hues of melancholy. But as I repeat injunctions to my son, I find myself thinking about how they apply in my own life. If I’m unhappy, I have only myself to blame. It’s within my power to choose my happiness.
There is enough beauty everywhere to sustain us. It is found in the wonder of nature, the radiance of human creativity, and the miracle of everyday interactions with other people. We stand at the controls, and we decide to focus on the beauty or the ugliness, to be happy or sad, to rejoice or mourn. We exist to find and experience joy; the gospel, at its best, is a catalyst that helps us remember that purpose, and to remind of of our power to choose joy.