Monday, May 3, 2010

Peace, Joy, and Happiness

I’ve been pondering a lot about happiness and the gospel of Jesus Christ lately. I will admit that such reflection is due in part to a number of conversations here on North Star, but the topic has been on my mind for some time thanks to the circumstances of my personal life. I have experienced a number of insights that I would like to share. I do so hesitantly. For some, my words may seem harsh or unfeeling. For others, they may come across as weak. Nevertheless, I truly believe that someone might benefit from the thoughts and feelings I have had. That possibility is enough to move me to risk. I am extending myself and being vulnerable.

I am motivated by a deep love for my Savior, Jesus Christ, and a burning desire to help my brothers feel of the peace, love, and joy that He offers regardless of their individual life circumstances. It is my hope that the rest of my post would be read and felt with that spirit. I know that I don’t have the eloquence or ability to convince anyone of anything. All I can do is share my own experiences and the thoughts that have come to my mind. So, please don’t “trifle with the words which I shall write.” (Mosiah 2:9) Instead, I would ask that you open your hearts to the influence of the Holy Ghost and sincerely seek to learn from Him how my words might apply to your life.

“Men are that they might have joy.” Happiness and it’s deeper, longer lasting cousin, Joy, are what all of us are really after in this life as well as the next. I really believe that. Everything we do is an attempt to gain or increase our happiness. Sometimes we choose temporary pleasures that bring painful consequences later. Sometimes we choose something difficult because we believe that it will bring us happiness in the future. Sometimes (maybe often) we don’t really understand how our actions are related to the search for happiness.

The Church talks about happiness a lot. The usual “recipe” for happiness typically includes keeping the commandments and understanding the Plan of Salvation. That used to really annoy me. I was keeping the commandments, and I knew the Plan of Salvation. Yet I still wasn’t happy. The recipe simply wasn’t working. I heard a bunch of Molly Mormons and Peter Priesthoods talking about how wonderful life was, and I hated it. It made me furious that they had never had any problems in their lives. Because, I was sure, the only way that a person could believe that keeping the commandments somehow equaled being happy was is they’d never really had any life experience.

However, the harder I tried to “un-believe” everything about keeping the commandments and God’s plan, the more I knew I couldn’t. I felt like Laman and Lemuel. They chose to go into the wilderness with Lehi. They could have stayed home or turned back at any time. But despite all their complaining and threatening, they never did. It was as though they couldn’t let go of what they knew, but it wasn’t bringing them the happiness they were looking for. So they followed along, resentful that they couldn’t just abandon their beliefs, complaining cynically at every opportunity.

Nephi had asked the Lord to help him believe and understand. The Lord answered his prayers. But Laman and Lemuel reported that “the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” That’s how I felt. I mean, I wasn’t perfect. I was pretty much addicted to porn and masturbation. Time after time, I tried to stop. I plead for forgiveness and for help in overcoming. I begged for some little mercy, just a taste to know that God was there, that he loved me. I got nothing. I worked so hard to be perfect in every other area of my life. Still, I was far from happy. Nothing I did could fill the aching void inside me. I started to believe that the only way I could find happiness—the only thing I hadn’t tried—was to find a relationship with another man.

But I was trapped. I wanted to turn back to Jerusalem, to leave the traditions of my fathers. But I couldn’t just ignore what I knew. I tried to find some way to justify or rationalize a romantic/sexual relationship without totally abandoning my beliefs. I got really good at it. I got picky and choosy about what I would believe and not believe. And I found a level of happiness. It worked—sort of. I was moving farther and farther from what I used to know. For the first time in my life, the void was being filled. But I was still missing something. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I did my best to push all thoughts of the missing piece far from my mind.

I’m sure many men find effective ways of keeping the feeling of missing something at bay. Some are able to ignore or repress that longing through a variety of different ways. Some build a reactive anger toward anything that reminds them of the feeling. Some become very good at distracting themselves. Some manage it until they die. They focus on the limited happiness available to them and try not to think about the missing piece. Others aren’t so lucky. They can’t seem to ignore the longing they feel and the conflicting desires just become too much. They try to escape the conflict by escaping life.

Luckily for me, the Lord had a different plan for me. My life unraveled extremely quickly. I hit the end of my rope. I could no longer ignore the war being waged inside my soul. It was killing me. I was desperate for something to change. I had to either stop living or figure something out. I am grateful that the Lord had arranged my life so that I had a real motivation to figure things out rather than end my life. He also led me to a solution to my problem.

I remembered learning some principles from this book by Elder Richard G. Scott called Finding Peace, Joy, and Happiness. He said that happiness was what God had created us for that "It can and should be the general background in which life is lived." But in order for us to be able to actually feel that happiness, we first had to have peace. Peace is an elusive little thing.

It comes in two forms. The first is peace of mind. It means that we are free from forces which would cause us unhappiness or pain. The second is peace of conscience. Peace of conscience is a natural consequence of living a life that is in harmony with keeping the commandments of God and repenting when we fall short. It is function of the Light of Christ that influences every man and woman on the earth. Without peace of conscience there can be no peace of mind. Without both forms of peace, we are not able to feel the happiness that is our nature.

Restoring peace of mind is not always easy. Sometimes, we can take relatively simple steps to resolve the conditions that interfere with our peace. Other times the process is more complex. Peace of conscience on the other hand cannot be obtained by any means other than righteous living and repentance. The discomfort caused by a lack of peace of conscience can be eased in other ways. I became very good at using rationalization to reduce the tension between my behavior and my beliefs. I also used another powerful tool: pornography. Others have used alcohol, drugs, or compulsive sex. These behaviors distract us from our lack of peace of conscience. They also have disastrous consequences.

Every time we sin and fail to fully repent, we are forced to change. The incongruity between belief and behavior creates an unbearable tension. We either have to change the behavior or change the belief. Even when I refused to completely abandon my belief (which some have successfully done), I was still having to rationalize how what I was doing could fit into my beliefs. This process did ease the tension, but it was not able to fully erase it. I still lacked a peace of conscience, because no matter how effective I was at changing my thoughts or beliefs, I could not change my spiritual sensitivity to the Light of Christ. I could ignore it, but ignoring it doesn’t bring peace of conscience. The peace can only be felt by being in harmony with God’s laws. Since none of us are able to always live in such harmony, the merciful opportunity of repentance allows us to return to a state of peace.

But even peace of conscience isn’t enough to make us feel happiness. I can have perfect peace of conscience and still be miserable. I have to also restore peace of mind. This can be very tricky. In order to resolve the issues that are interrupting peace of mind, a person needs to understand the cause of those issues. Only by getting to the root of what is behind our “un-peace of mind” are we able to figure out what we need to do to restore our peace of mind.

I had reached the point where my mind was so far from peace that I couldn’t stand it any longer. I needed peace of conscience. I was led to read Alma 31:34. Harden not their hearts. Was my heart hard? How else could I explain the failure of the Plan of Redemption—the Plan of Happiness—to take effect in my life? I had to truly repent, to come unto Christ and soften my heart. It took a lot for me to realize how stubborn I had been. I was so prideful and hard-hearted. I knew that what I had been doing hadn’t worked—hadn’t brought me the happiness I so desperately wanted. The problem I couldn’t see was that I wasn’t allowing God into my heart. I was so determined to make it on my own that I wasn’t willing to submit to His influence. Mosiah 3:19 came to mind.

I feel a deep gratitude that the Lord blessed my fist effort to truly humble myself and open my heart to Him. I was flooded with a profound sense of His love and, for the first time that I could remember, a peace of conscience. It was unlike anything I could imagine. It was a taste of happiness. The more I sought to open my heart and develop humility—the more I learned to just let go and turn control over to the Lord—the more that peace grew. I realized quickly that half-hearted efforts were not sufficient. I couldn’t expect the Lord to bless me with the peace I wanted, unless I was willing to completely let go of my selfish desires and surrender everything to Him. That humility and submission were the key to unlocking my peace.

The happiness I experienced, however, didn’t last. It couldn’t. I had finally obtained a peace of conscience, but without a peace of mind, I couldn’t hold onto happiness. I had to do something about my peace of mind. I know that my feelings of SSA seriously got in the way of my peace of mind. I needed the help of a competent therapist who helped me understand the root issues. However, the therapist could not give me the solutions I wanted. He didn’t know what steps I needed to take to restore my peace of mind. I sure as hell didn’t know what those steps were. If I did, I’d have taken them long ago.

I was pretty disappointed that the advice I received from other SSA friends, therapists, and priesthood leaders really didn’t work. I mean, some of it was helpful, but there simply was no formula for resolving the issues I was facing. Well, at least not that any mortal knew. My Father in Heaven knew what I needed to do. He knew the answers. I can only get them from Him. He does use many means of communicating with me: dreams, professionals, friends, priesthood leaders, good books, scriptures, direct revelation. But however He communicates with me, I absolutely have to let Him direct me in the application of the principles I learn. Whenever I try to figure things out on my own, I misapply the lessons I think I’ve learned. I am an individual. I am unique. Only God knows what I need. I only know that I need His wisdom and His guidance to know how to incorporate the things I’m being taught into my life.

As I’ve allowed God into my heart and into my mind, I have felt His guidance. He has led me to resolve the issues that interfere with my peace of mind. New things come up. Old things creep back in. But as I turn to Him, I am given solutions to my problems. If I follow those promptings, I find peace of conscience and of mind. When I have that peace, I am able to feel of the happiness that is who I am. It’s my nature. It’s me.

My heart aches for my brothers and sisters who seek to find happiness outside of Father’s plan for us. I love them. I know that they are likely finding reprieve from the conflicts and longings that have caused so much pain and suffering in their lives. I’m not judging them or condemning them. I’m happy if they feel less pain, less despair. But I am sad for them, because I know that the solutions they have chosen will never lead to lasting peace, true happiness, or full joy. Even worse, those solutions have a way of trapping individuals—of binding them with the chains of hell. Still, though, I am comforted in the knowledge that the power of Jesus Christ is greater than the power of the devil. His Atonement is strong enough to free any caught in the snares of the adversary.

I am so grateful for the Atonement. I’m even more grateful that I have learned how to access its infinite power. I know that my own imperfections and shortcomings would prevent me from finding true, lasting happiness if it weren’t for the Savior’s sacrifice. I know that not everyone who tries to keep the commandments finds happiness. I am all too personally and intimately familiar with that feeling. I am, however, also sure beyond any doubt that it is not possible to experience peace of conscience, peace of mind, or true happiness unless we are living in harmony with the commandments and constantly repenting.

I know that it is the Lord’s plan for each of His children to find peace and joy. He is anxiously waiting for us to return to Him—to allow Him to restore our peace of conscience. He is ready and willing to provide us with the solutions we need to restore our peace of mind. He is aching for us to feel the happiness and joy for which He created us. May we each humble ourselves, open our hearts, sincerely seek His guidance, and faithfully follow His counsel. May we be willing to make the changes that He suggests. I testify that as we do, He will bless us with peace and happiness. I know that this is true.

1 comment:

Ned said...

Thank you for sharing your experience and testimony.

I liked the way you talked about happiness as something fleeting and joy as being a longer lasting cousin. To me they are both somewhat like rainbows involving light and storm, sunshine and rain, clouds and clarity.

There are so many aspects that come to mind when I think about these feelings of well being. Like you I associate them with peace. I also think of confidence, humility, warmth, belief, strength, tenderness, thirst and satisfaction, achievement and discouragement, perspective and paradox, loss and gratitude.

Loss, of course, isn't always negative. It all depends on what you're losing, what the circumstances are, and what you think about it. Weight loss, for example, is sought by many. But weight loss for an infant is not consistent with the need to grow and flourish. It's not something you want to hear about at your child's six week checkup.

In my own journey I suspect that the happiness I've felt in the last few years would not have been possible without the struggles that preceded it. Prior to that I often took my health and well-being for granted. Now I'm more appreciative of fall, spring and summer days, knowing that that winter can be deadly to those without adequate protection, nourishment, warmth and shelter.

Thank you again for sharing and providing me with an opportunity to think about the paths I have walked. Thank you for speaking of peace and for letting your light shine. You have given me an opportunity to reflect on my own blessings, beliefs and sources of calm assurance.