Why I Gave Up Pursuing Happiness
But instead, I now look for joy even amidst suffering.
We have all read and heard much about the pursuit of happiness, be it from others around us or on the Internet.
I was no different.
For a great portion of my two decades plus years of existence, I was adamant in pursuing what I felt was happiness for myself.
I worked hard in school without adequately developing enough social and soft skills in other aspects of my personal development, because I wanted to get good grades to experience that euphoria that flooded me if I managed to do well in my examinations.
I fought tooth and nail, sometimes with my parents, to get what I wanted — such as going on that coveted school-trip that was above my budget as a student.
I missed out a few family events in the past on the pretext of ‘learning something useful for school’ or ‘needing to rest at home’ when in fact I found those family events boring.
I managed to get what I wanted — pretty decent grades at school, more than one school trip/personal trip abroad to a few countries (without my family and with much hesitation on their part) as well as more ‘free time for myself’ while missing out on a few family gatherings.
But after the feeling of euphoria and self-satisfaction subsided after some time, I was back to square one and again in my ‘daily grind’ to attain what I wanted — even at the expense of others’ feelings.
Was I happy?
Yes and no.
Yes, I was happy because I felt happy at that particular moment of time because I managed to reach my own ends.
And no, I was not happy after a period of time, because once my initial feelings of satisfaction and exhilaration died down, I had to deal with sullen faces with some of my relatives who were disappointed because I did not show up, a broke budget, and a lot of personal/mental struggles.
In fact, moments of depression, resentment of others and distaste of life, in general, characterized my teenage to early adult years. I felt unsure of myself and always compared myself to others (see more in this post here).
I even suffered from some compulsions to fuel my so-called ‘self-esteem’, such as going on compulsive and impulsive shopping sprees on days when I felt the whole world came crashing down on me or when I felt jealous of the attractive classmate of mine who always caught the attention of everyone wherever she was.
The more problems I faced in my personal and social life, the more I was determined to fight these unwanted setbacks. I hated the problems I was facing and thus wallowed in an abyss of self-pity and resentment against everyone.
It was the world against me and the world was wrong in so many ways.
Or at least I thought so.
I wondered why others were enjoying lives (or at least they seemed like they were doing so) and pangs of envy gripped my jaded heart whenever I looked at social media posts that my friends or random celebrity bloggers put up for all to see.
Why isn’t my strategy to be happy working? I wondered in bemusement.
Could I be doing something wrong? I reflected, feeling more unsure of myself than ever.
Wasn’t I always told in school and in the media that I should take charge of following what I want in life? I mused before a twinge of skepticism hit me.
My questions were endless but it appeared that there was no solution in sight for me for some time. The more problems I faced, the more miserable and hopeless I felt.
One day, someone handed over to me a little booklet titled ‘Joy In Suffering’. This book was about the life of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, a Carmelite nun who lived in the 19th century in France, and who is my patron saint and namesake.
This person who passed this booklet over to me knew my situation and my indulgence in self-love and pity advised me to have a look at the life of my patron saint and perhaps derive some food for thought from it.
I almost could not believe the irony in the title ‘Joy In Suffering’.
How could one suffer and still feel joy?
This defied all the worldly wisdom and self-help books I had encountered until that point of time.
Eventually, I opened the booklet and began to read in order to answer my nagging curiosity at the irony of its title.
The more I read, the more it dawned upon me that St. Therese of the Child Jesus, this Carmelite nun who died at a mere age of twenty-four, was no superhero or genius who managed to do what many twenty-four-year-olds today would and could do — such as attaining a good college degree, going on solo trips around the world, winning Youth Olympic medals or managing a profitable startup.
Rather, St. Therese spent around ten years of her life (from the age of 15) in the Carmelite cloister without even stepping out of the convent grounds!
I personally could not imagine myself in the cloister due to my outgoing and restless nature.
How then, did St. Therese manage to enter the cloister and live within its walls since she was fifteen until her death?
What was I doing at fifteen?
Well, at fifteen, I was at home, arguing with my parents to give me more ‘freedom’ and ‘space’ rather than choosing to enter the cloister of Carmel!
The chapters that followed were all the more jaw-dropping to me.
I learned that St. Therese suffered from terrible physical and spiritual ailments when there were moments when she felt abandoned by everyone such as her fellow nuns in the convent and she even felt deserted by God Himself.
What was worse, she lost her mother whom she dearly loved at the tender age of five, and grew up with a doting father who also had to die while she was in the convent and unable to assist him in his dying moments!
Furthermore, the more I read (as well as cross-referred to other works related to St. Therese) about this French Carmelite nun, the more I marveled at her serenity and patience in bearing all the trials she had to undergo, rather than fight and wail for all the convent to hear.
One major point that struck me from this booklet was how, amidst all the terrible tribulations St. Therese had to endure alone (both physically, spiritually and mentally), she did not make life difficult or unpleasant for her fellow nuns at the convent.
Instead, she continued her daily duties (with heroic strength despite the grief and desolation that pierced her tender soul with the death of her father, or when she was suffering from scruples if she was doing the right thing for God, etc.
It was not rocket science, but simply LOVE.
Love was the motivating factor of St. Therese’s patient endurance in her numerous afflictions. It was this love of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as love for her neighbors (her fellow nuns, priests, etc) by which St. Therese sought to live her life out, rather than dwelling in her own internal struggles.
Furthermore, St. Therese’s inconveniences were multiplied when even the nuns in the convent where St. Therese lived and prayed were imperfect; they had their imperfections and defects. Yet, St. Therese, burning with love of God and her neighbor, bore the flaws of her fellow nuns with admirable tranquility and even strove to be even nicer to those particular nuns who got on her nerves unintentionally. As she herself put it:
“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, thereby a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
And in another of her writings during her last days on earth, St.Therese admitted:
“It’s true, I suffer a great deal — but do I suffer well? That is the question.”
It was this aforementioned statement right above that etched itself in my heart. Rather than scoff at it, I was suddenly filled with guilt and shame for my own behavior when I had to suffer or when things did not go my way.
There I was, back then, a college graduate and enjoying life as much as I could — even at the expense of others’ feelings and neglecting my own character development.
And there was St. Therese, suffering terrible ailments like tuberculosis, unable to step beyond the walls of the convent even to see her dying father, having to bear with the daily annoyances some of her fellow nuns gave her, dealing with mental turmoil due to scruples and uncertainties about her salvation, etc.
And then I continued to read on, even though I was feeling the weight of my past actions the more I progressed with the booklet.
At the same time, the more I read on, the more St. Therese’s simple words of her journal reflections touched my heart. For example, she remarked:
“I learned from experience that joy does not reside in the things about us, but in the very depths of the soul, that one can have it in the gloom of a dungeon as well as in the palace of a king.”
What I learned from this recent remark was that one can be suffering from the worst calamities ever due to circumstances beyond our control (such as even mental illnesses or loss of loved ones), but yet remain peaceful and joyful when one chooses to bear the “cross of suffering” peacefully and with love.
Again, the more I began to understand St. Therese’s writings, the more I learned that she was not talking about natural feelings of joy, but a spiritual joy that was beyond the natural human realm of emotions.
Indeed, St. Therese was talking about her love for her Divine Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. As she was consecrated as a nun, she was dedicated to Jesus Christ and therefore the sole goal of her life and vocation as a nun was to grow in love of Him Who died for all.
Therefore, because St. Therese strove to increase her love of Jesus Christ Whom she already loved at the beginning of her novitiate in the convent, she sought to imitate her Beloved God as she grew in love for Him. Another famous saint from an earlier era, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, wisely summed up St.Therese’s attitude in the following:
“What we love we shall grow to resemble.”
Such was the case when St.Therese strove to resemble her Beloved God as she loved Him more and more each day.
Similarly, Our Lord Jesus Christ grants sufferings to all whom He loves (which is why none of us on this planet can escape problems, inconveniences, and trials), and He in His mysterious Divine Wisdom grants more trials and sufferings to those whom He loves very dearly, in order to enable them to become more like Himself — because who is our God but a God of suffering?
Even He did not spare His Beloved Mother (the ever Blessed Virgin Mary) from immense and inconsolable grief throughout her life and especially during the Passion and Death of Her Divine Son on the Cross, and when She had to part with the lifeless body of Jesus at the sepulcher!
After I completed the booklet full of newfound awe and inspiration, I did some additional reading by other authors, including the materials produced by St. Louis Marie de Monfort in his Letter To Friends Of The Cross, where he wrote:
“When you suffer in the right way, the cross will become a yoke that is easy and light, since Christ himself will carry it with you. It will give you wings, as it were, to lift you to heaven; it will become your ship’s mast, bringing you smoothly and easily to the harbor of salvation.
Carry your cross patiently, and it will be a light in your spiritual darkness, for the one who has never suffered trials is ignorant.
Carry your cross cheerfully, and you will be filled with divine love; for only in suffering can we dwell in the pure love of Christ.”
In another part of the letter, St. Louis also added:
“The love you are told to have for the Cross is not sensible love, for this would be impossible to human nature.
It is important to note the three kinds of love: sensible love, rational love and love that is faithful and supreme; in other words, the love that springs from the lower part of man, the flesh; the love that springs from the superior part, his reason; and the love that springs from the supreme part of man, from the summit of his soul, which is the intellect enlightened by faith.
God does not ask you to love the Cross with the will of the flesh. Since the flesh is the subject of evil and corruption, all that proceeds from it is evil and it cannot, of itself, submit to the will of God and His crucifying law. It was this aspect of His human nature which Our Lord referred to when He cried out, in the Garden of Olives: “Father, . . . not My will but Thine be done.” (Luke 22, 42). If the lower powers of Our Lord’s human nature, though holy, could not love the Cross without interruption, then, with still greater reason will our human nature, which is very much vitiated, repel it. At times like many of the saints, we too may experience a feeling of even sensible joy in our sufferings, but that joy does not come from the flesh though it is in the flesh. It flows from our superior powers, so completely filled with the divine joy of the Holy Ghost, that it spreads to our lower powers. Thus a person who is undergoing the most unbearable torture is able to say: “My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God” (Ps. 83, 3).
There is another love for the Cross which I call rational, since it springs from the higher part of man, his reason. This love is wholly spiritual. Since it arises from the knowledge of the happiness there is in suffering for God, it can be and really is perceived by the soul. It also gives the soul inward strength and joy. Though this rational and perceptible joy is beneficial, even very beneficial, it is not an indispensable part of joyous, divine suffering.
This is why there is another love, which the masters of the spiritual life call the love of the summit and highest point of the soul and which the philosophers call the love of the intellect. When we possess this love, even though we experience no sensible joy or rational pleasure, we love and relish, in the light of pure faith, the cross we must bear, even though the lower part of our nature may often be in a state of warfare and alarm and may moan and groan, weep and sigh for relief; and thus we repeat with Jesus Christ: “Father . . . not My will but Thine be done” (Luke 22, 42), or with the Blessed Virgin: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to Thy word” (Luke 1, 38).
It is with one of these two higher loves that we should accept and love our cross.
. Be resolved then, dear Friends of the Cross, to suffer every kind of cross without excepting or choosing any: all poverty, all injustice, all temporal loss, all illness, all humiliation, all contradiction all calumny, all spiritual dryness, all desolation, all interior and exterior trials. Keep saying: “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready” (Ps. 56, 8). Be ready to be forsaken by men and angels and, seemingly, by God Himself. Be ready to be persecuted, envied, betrayed, calumniated, discredited and forsaken by everyone. Be ready to undergo hunger, thirst, poverty, nakedness, exile, imprisonment, the gallows and all kinds of torture, even though you are innocent of everything with which you may be charged. What if you were cast out of your own home like Job and Saint Elizabeth of Hungary; thrown, like this saint, into the mire; or dragged upon a manure pile like Job, malodorous and covered with ulcers, without anyone to bandage your wounds, without a morsel of bread, never refused to a horse or a dog? Add to these dreadful misfortunes all the temptations with which God allows the devil to prey upon you, without pouring into your soul the least feeling of consolation.”
Even though a person may feel bad, and even though a person is still plagued by faults and failings, I found to my wonder the treasure trove of Catholic teachings on suffering and trials. Little did I realize that the happiness I was pursuing doggedly in the past was a mere feeling I wanted to encounter for selfish reasons.
This feeling rested in external circumstances that triggered such “happy feelings” and thus I was left empty whenever these feelings passed. The writings of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and St. Louis Marie de Monfort have displayed to me how to live each moment such that my life is immensely fruitful and I can attain interior, supernatural joy in the soul, which no one can take away from me in this life, and in the next.
Even in the most painful situations of life, ‘Joy in Suffering’ catalyzed my learning and contemplation on the mystery of suffering and how I gradually and finally found solid peace and joy of the soul in the Catholic Faith even in the most painful situations of life.
I realized that I can now, with God’s grace through the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dispensatrix of All graces from God, transform what sufferings I have now and will have in the future into the interior and supernatural joy that lasts, or even seek suffering in itself for Love of God and His Mother Mary. With my newfound “joy in suffering”, I will then also not make life hell for others around me.