I was talking with a man last week and he started complaining about his neighbor. He said, “I know it’s wrong, but I hate them.”
“Oh, surely you don’t hate them,” I said. “They probably just annoy you.”
“No, I pretty much hate them,” he said.
It reminded me of something G.K. Chesterton, the English writer and philosopher, said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
I can’t identify with that, because Joan and I have been very fortunate, neighbor-wise. We had a new family move in next door to us not long ago. He’s a police detective in Avon and she’s a school nurse in Danville. They have twin daughters who are eight years old and such a joy, just so fun. They attend a Baptist church, but I’m doing my best to turn them into Quakers.
We had our family over for supper not long ago and invited our neighbors to join us. There were 14 of us, four of whom were little kids, wound up tighter than ticks. Our downstairs rooms are connected, so off they went, running in circles through the dining room, into the front hallway and the living room, through the kitchen, and back into the dining room. It was chaotic, but also very joyful. I started chasing them, and got them more excited, which made me tired, so I went upstairs and took a nap while Joan finished entertaining our guests and cleaning up the kitchen. It was a wonderful evening.
I remember when I was a kid at family Thanksgiving dinners at my grandmother Gulley’s house in Vincennes. We had to sit quietly at the dinner table and not speak unless spoken to, because my grandmother Gulley was a puritanical, stern woman. H.L. Mencken once described Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” That was my grandmother. For her, misery was a spiritual discipline, a virtue to be cultivated. She and my grandfather were hard-shell Baptists and divorce was unheard of, so he made his escape by dying young.
What I found so interesting was how her unhappiness and religion were interwoven, each one fortifying the other. Grandma saw sin wherever she looked. In 1974, my sister wore blue jeans to church, and might as well have walked into the sanctuary drinking a gin and tonic and smoking a cigarette. Years later my grandmother would tell my sister, “You are no kind of granddaughter,” and it all went back to those blue jeans in 1974. Though Jesus said, “Take no thought for what ye shall wear…,” all my grandmother thought about was what ye should wear, and if she didn’t approve of it, she told you so. Looking back, I think she was one of those persons who should have avoided religion. She believed if she didn’t like something, God didn’t either. What she appeared to dislike most of all was joy. She died when I was 28, and I can never remember her laughing. I can only recall the occasional pained smile, as if it were costing her money, as if the meter were running.
I was talking with a pastor friend this week who had just returned from a conference on childhood trauma. We know, of course, that if a child is persistently exposed to chaos, neglect, abuse, and unkindness, it effects their mental and emotional well-being. Consequently, they’re more likely to be disobedient, uncooperative, and combative. Or sometimes they can be withdrawn and depressed. When they act out, we are likely to ask that child, “Why do you act like that? What’s wrong with you?” But the proper question to ask is, “What happened to you?”
If my grandmother were alive, I could ask her what happened to her. I suspect she spent her childhood marinating in guilt and fear, that it sprung from her religion, and she never overcame it. For some churches, guilt and fear are their stock in trade.
I’ve been depressed this past year, missing my mom, and worrying about my father, hating that Sam lives so far away. So I went to see Laura, our resident therapist. I mean, think about it, she went through all that training, then all that effort to get her practice established in our meetinghouse, it would have been rude of me not to have a mental health crisis to discuss with her. Plus, I noticed that whenever I’ve been sad, I’ve tended to pull back from others and isolate myself. Maybe you do that too. I suspect that’s a common human experience. So this time, instead of pulling back, I reached out.
Around the same time I started meeting with Laura, I also began reading through the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and noticing how often they mention Jesus going off by himself to a quiet place. It makes me wonder if maybe Jesus suffered from depression too, and needed a Laura to talk to. But who do you talk to when you’re the son of God?
So I started meeting with Laura because I wanted my joy back, and it’s been very helpful. I wish my grandmother had been able to talk with someone. I think of her a great deal every Thanksgiving. It’s such an odd holiday, Thanksgiving. Of all the holidays we celebrate, it is the only one that demands we feel a certain feeling. We’re expected to feel grateful and happy and thankful, which can sometimes be a tall order. I used to tell people to “just be happy,” but I don’t do that any longer. When someone is depressed, telling them to just be happy is like telling an amputee to just grow back his leg.
The Apostle Paul lists the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness and self-control. We called them the benchmarks we measure our lives against.
Of all these nine virtues, joy is the most elusive. At least it has been for me. We can’t be happy and joyful on command. What we can do is surround ourselves with people who love us and help us grow. We can reach out instead of pulling back. We can give careful thought to the circles we run in, reminding ourselves that someone somewhere may be happy, and if we can find them, it might help us be happy too.