The Search for Happiness

A Rhode Island native, Erin is a graduate of URI with a BA in English and a BFA in Theatre who works in the technology industry. She is also a writer, Ghost Tour guide, a Revolutionary War living history reenactor, and an active member of this congregation. She leads the First U chapter of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.

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Sermon Text

Why is happiness important? We live in a world where it is easy to become cynical, to isolate ourselves, and not to let anyone in. All you need to do is turn on the news or open up social media and you will be inundated with kudzu vines of negativity that snuff out not only the good news but the cutest of baby animal pictures. I believe that today we need happiness more than ever. Now is the perfect time to invite people in, to put more joy out into the world, to embrace the little things that make us happy. We need to nurture happiness, help it grow into a force that can withstand the encroaching invasive species of negativity that have taken over our lives when we weren’t looking.

So, what is happiness? For me, I hear the word “happiness,” and a song starts playing. In the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Charlie sings “FOR HAPPINESS IS ANYONE AND ANYTHING AT ALL / THAT’S LOVED BY YOU.” I think he is pretty spot on.

Why am I up here? In April of 2013 I was in Boston on Patriot’s Day. My Dad and I had gone to the Red Sox game. We were fighting though the post-game crowd towards Boylston Street to cheer on the average-joe marathoners, the ones who aren’t breaking any records except perhaps a personal best. We were crammed in front of Lord and Taylor when the first bomb went off. It thundered though my chest like a hundred fireworks, but there were no pretty colors. There was, however, a giant plume of white smoke.

You don’t know what you are going to do in an emergency. You can say you will do this or that, but you don’t know, not for sure. I can now tell you that in an emergency I have great flight response.

I dragged my dad through Boston, single minded in my determination. We got safely back to South Station, then onto the Red Line to Quincy, and then back home. We were fine.

I went in to work the next day, stopped by my manager’s office to tell them, “Hey, so, I was in Boston yesterday, I’m fine, but if I’m a little jumpy that is what is up,” and somehow that resulted in me sobbing inconsolably and hyperventilating as I relived every moment.

I wasn’t hurt. Not really. There were no physical injuries. In fact I never saw anyone else hurt either—I never turned my head left to look. This didn’t stop me from feeling broken, as though those bomb blasts that I felt in my chest had rearranged fundamental pieces of me.

Maybe they did, leaving behind a sticky residue of panic and dusting everything with anxiety.

There is a particular Dumbledore quote from the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie that reminds me of that time. ”Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

Turning the light on is hard. It isn’t something you can always do alone. Sometimes you need someone else to light the match, hand you a flashlight, or toggle the switch on the wall when they hear you stumbling around in the dark.

After the Marathon bombings, the world for me was somehow muffled, like the volume had been turned down on life. Within weeks I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and I went to just enough therapy to function on a day-to-day basis. Function but not really live. I wanted to put it behind me but I wasn’t ready to do the work to really be able to do so. I made compromises. I changed roles at work. I stayed in more than ever, rather than going out. I cursed every person who set off a firework illegally through my tears because my summer nights were filled with anxiety and panic attacks. I stopped going to concerts and listening to loud music.

The bright spots I remember from those first two weeks were a walk with my friend Margaret and her one-year-old son Max and the addition of my fish, Scarlet, into my life. In retrospect, both of these memories stand out for similar reasons. Max was a little boy, easily amused with a big smile and an adorable laugh. Scarlet was a curious fish, always excited to see me (though that was probably because I fed him) and always attentive to me when I was around. Neither of them asked anything of me. They just were, and it took so little from me to make them happy. I didn’t have much to give, but what I was able to put out into the world they both radiated it back to me. They made me smile, and for a little while I didn’t feel so guilty.

I wanted or perhaps needed to isolate myself—outside was a dangerous place but my house was a safe haven. This crossed over into my digital world. After that first day, when I consumed the same information over and over again ad nauseam, I didn’t watch the news. I changed my homepage on my web browser to something other than BBC News. Facebook? That was a minefield. I never knew what would show up in my news feed to trigger my anxiety. I unfollowed newspapers and bloggers and friends. When I wanted news I would go look for it if and when I was in the right emotional headspace to do so. I started following cute animal sites, nature photographers, and stories about hope. If you didn’t bring joy into my newsfeed I didn’t want you there. I couldn’t have you there. I was on high alert constantly and I was barely hanging on by a thread, the place I went to to distract me from the world was the last place I wanted to be shown the worst of humanity.

In essence, I took a three-year detour from life. By the end of three years, something had to give.

Asking for help is ridiculously hard. I had an anxiety attack trying to get up the nerve to call my new therapist to get an appointment to talk about my PTSD, anxiety, and depression. It was a vicious cycle.

I worked hard to get back to who I “used to” be. Honestly, I think I like myself more now than I ever have. I am less scared, more confident. I like work more than I have in years, and I have things outside of work that are precious to me. I could not have done it alone.

We all cary a burden, are plagued with trauma, and I posit that happiness does not have to be anathema to this. Just because there is a dementor breathing down your neck, waiting to reach out and suck the joy from your life, it doesn’t mean you can’t produce a Patronus or that a friend won’t come to your aid. Sometimes you have to stick your wand arm out and trust that there is enough magic in you to bring something wonderful to you.

Actively seeking out happiness, even when you don’t feel able to express it yourself, for me, has often helped. If you fake a smile long enough, you might actually end up smiling because others smile back.

As Unitarian Universalists, there are seven principles that guide and unite us in shared belief. While none of them clearly define happiness as being part of them, I think there are three that are connected to it. The first principle states “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Sometimes it is hard to justify being happy, to imagine going on with life day to day when children are starving in our cities and across the globe, when bombs might fall in Iran, when refugees are denied access to our country, and women’s rights are being violated. How can there be so much suffering in the world and you want me to be happy? Yes, I want you to enjoy the little pleasures in life. I think it is vital that you do so. When you know what it is to be happy, you want to fight for others to be able to do so as well.

Happiness should not come at the expense of another person, especially not yourself. The second UU Principle states “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” This includes having compassion for yourself. Being miserable and unhappy does nothing to help these situations. Feeding your soul, taking care of yourself so you can fight these fights? That is something you can do. Being angry all the time and actively denying happiness does not make you a martyr, It makes you hard to be around; it makes people more likely to avoid you than to listen. Be angry! But don’t stop being happy too. Enjoy that birthday cupcake tonight and be back on the front lines fighting tomorrow. You will burn yourself out if you let that kudzu vine of negativity strangle the happiness and hope right out of you. 

I know some of you are putting every bit of yourself into everything you do—your job, your family, your activism. We are all like sourdough bread though, you need to leave a little behind to create the next loaf. It is okay to protect a part of yourself, to keep it and nurture it so you can keep on doing great work. Having boundaries is healthy and normal.

The seventh principle states “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Perhaps it is my generation, but I hear “web,” and I can’t escape thoughts of the digital one. Social media really has gotten worse; it isn’t just your imagination. It is okay to find a community in real life or on the internet that understands and supports you, but it should never come at the expense of any other group or person. On that note, be what you want to see in your news feed. Live your values. Maybe that means taking a moment, thinking twice about what you are putting out into the world before you post. Maybe that means unfollowing someone or not responding to a troll. I say, surround yourself with positivity; the emotional vampires in your life don’t need all of your time.

We don’t need to wait until we are on our deathbeds to look back on life and think of what might have been, how it could have been better. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Thorin the Dwarf King, on his deathbed, says to Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

We can make this a merrier world.

We can hold a door open for a stranger, let a pedestrian cross the street. Stop and admire that flower. Hug your loved ones. Sing loudly and off key while driving to work. Say thank you to your waiter. Enjoy that massage. Volunteer for a cause you are passionate about. Keep a gratitude journal. Spend time with people who give you strength and encouragement. Laugh with abandon. Re-read your favorite book. Make plans to do something you enjoy. Savor the last bite. Forgive yourself for feeling guilty about taking care of yourself. Live and love.

Whatever it is that you do, don’t forget to make room for happiness. “FOR HAPPINESS IS ANYONE AND ANYTHING AT ALL / THAT’S LOVED BY YOU.”

The Buddhist Metta Loving Kindness Prayer

My heart fills with loving kindness. I love myself. May I be happy. May I be well. May I be peaceful. May I be free.

May all beings in my vicinity be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May all beings in my city be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May all beings in my state be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May all beings in my country be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May all beings on my continent be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May all beings in my hemisphere be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May all beings on planet Earth be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May my parents be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May all my friends be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May all my enemies be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

May all beings in the Universe be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.

If I have hurt anyone, knowingly or unknowingly in thought, word or deed, I ask for their forgiveness.

If anyone has hurt me, knowingly or unknowingly in thought, word or deed, I extend my forgiveness.

May all beings everywhere, whether near or far, whether known to me or unknown, be happy. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.