Great Expectations and the Decay of Happiness

“Happiness equals reality minus expectations.”

That phrase, which I read in John Mark Comer’s Garden City (although he accredits it to sociologists Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarim from their book Engineering Happiness), has been rolling around in my mind for a day now.

“Happiness equals reality minus expectations.”

Huh.

When Levi and I were going through pre-marital counseling, there was a whole chapter on expectations. Our homework was to write down twenty expectations we had for our marriage in addition to ten expectations we imagined each other to have. We were then meant to share, compare, and otherwise work through our delusions.

I suppose the point of the exercise was to save us from future unhappiness (see happiness equation above), but concocting that many expectations for the sake of comparison felt like a sure way to guarantee my unhappiness in the moment. I managed to come up with a whole eight expectations before I called it quits.

I know it’s still early, but despite flunking marriage counseling, we are blissfully, deliriously happy. I’ve either kept my expectations simple, or I learned to shape them around the person I know Levi to be rather than a “perfect” ideal I might conjure. (Because let’s face it, in a perfect world, my husband would cook and clean and somehow still manage to make enough money that I’m not holding my breath when I tally up our expenses each month.)

But it works. My expectations do not outweigh my reality. I’m truly happy with the simple life we’ve chosen to pursue.

When I look at the world around me, it is obvious that most people cannot say the same. There is an epidemic of discontent sweeping through the nation. Despite the overwhelming amount of privilege to be found in America, we are desperately grasping for more.

And I wonder if these people will be happy when they “arrive” or if their expectations will have left them empty. Will they ever be content with enough when there is always more to be had for the taking?

Would I be happy just to sell a novel if I’m fantasizing about it landing on the New York Times Bestseller List? Would I be delighted by a simple review from a reader if I was hoping to be critically acclaimed?

It’s worth pondering. Is it possible that our great expectations are sabotaging our ability to be happy?

There is a lot of tension in America right now, everyone constantly refreshing their phones to see if the votes have been counted. The next four years of political decisions hinge on the outcome… but your happiness doesn’t have to.

People will tell me that is a privileged point of view. But is it? Is it a privilege to be happy despite the state of the political world or is it simply a choice? A choice to choose hope instead of despair. A choice to choose love over hate.

I am a firm believer that your mindset shapes your reality. That’s why the placebo effect works. Belief has the power to heal and uplift, but it likewise has the power to drown and destroy. So really, you can’t afford to walk into the day with anything other than a positive outlook. Your literal health depends on it.

Politics take place in government circles, but happiness… that starts here. With you. With me. With the choices we make daily.

And stuff like that? Hope and love and joy and peace… it’s contagious. That is what is going to change the world. Not a couple of guys sitting at a desk in their big, white house.

We have ascribed too much worth to outward circumstances. We have given too much power to politicians. It is time to take back our lives. To reshape our expectations and the disillusionment that comes with them. It’s time to extend a little grace—we’re all only human after all. It’s time to choose to be happy, despite the media telling us that we should despair.

At this point, there is nothing you can do about the election. You did your part, but now it is out of your hands. You can, however, elect for love to reign over hatred in your heart.

I know I want to live in a world where love wins. I hope you’ll choose to create that world with me.

Absence and Other Tangible Things

“Absence has a presence, sometimes, and that was what she felt. Absence like crushed-dead grass where something has been and is no longer. Absence where a thread has been ripped, ragged, from a tapestry, leaving a gap that can never be mended.

“That was all she felt.”

When I first read those words in the midst of Laini Taylor’s Dreams of Gods and Monsters, they jolted me from the story as I realized, yes, this is a thing. A thing I have never heard described so aptly or beautifully.

Absence has a presence, sometimes. I’ve experienced it throughout the course of my life. Dying dreams, crushed hopes, and insufferable loss steal everything and yet leave something with you.

Absence. A great, gaping absence.

Words like these sing to me, making their way into my journals quite often. Maybe I just like the poetry of them, or maybe I have deeper issues that would require years of extensive counseling to unravel, but these are the things that come to mind when the world rocks crazy and I am at a loss. These are the words that resonate when my knees hit the carpet and the floodgates release the tears from my eyes.

But this morning, as the absence started creeping into my soul, something else crept there, too.

“All she felt,” the quote said.

But wait. That doesn’t have to be all.

But wait. There is more than absence like crushed-dead grass and tapestries ripped ragged.

As I found myself on my knees, in the beginning stages of grieving a gap that can never be mended, I remembered something…

God is, and always has been, the God who gives and takes away. He is, and always will be, good. And if He is good, then every single detail He has orchestrated in our lives is designed to bring good. Every joy. Every sorrow. Every tragedy that rips the very breath from our lungs.

The absence is intimidating. Its presence is strong. But is it all I feel?

Sometimes it is. Sometimes I find myself wanting only to sink down into the depths of it and never resurface. Sometimes it tries to swallow me up forever.

But it is not all there is.

When I turn my face toward the heavens, I find there is peace. There is grace, and joy, and hope.

And the absence? It’s a lie.

Crushed-dead grass can be renewed by the breath of the Creator. Tapestries can be remade by the hand of the Master Weaver.

Absence is not the only thing that has a presence. Not the only thing that can be felt.

Hope has a presence just as strong. Joy is a tangible thing. And grace is always there for the grasping.

Even in this. Yes, even in this.

like crushed-dead grass

 

What a Fairy Tale Is

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’ve been championing fairy tales all my life. While I find the expression “Disney gave me unrealistic expectations of men/hair/whatever” to be somewhat humorous, I’m also upset that it becomes our focus and we miss the real point of the story. Because most of us don’t know what a fairy tale actually is.

Think of the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where Captain Jack is explaining to Elizabeth what a ship is. “There’s not just a keel and a haul and a deck and sails; that’s what a ship needs,” he says. “But what a ship is—what the Black Pearl really is—is freedom.”

And then Elizabeth changes the subject because she doesn’t get Jack’s philosophical answer. Poor Jack. I can relate, because that’s basically how I feel about fairy tales.

Once upon a time and happily ever after are what a fairy tale needs, but what a fairy tale is… Well, that’s different. And when I searched for other people who hold the same opinion, this is what I found:

“Fairy tales since the beginning of recorded time, or perhaps even earlier, have been a means to conquer the terrors of mankind through metaphor.” ~Jack Zipes

“The more one knows fairy tales the less fantastical they appear; they can be vehicles of the grimmest realism, expressing hope against all the odds with gritted teeth.” ~Marina Warner

A means to conquer the terrors… Hope against the odds… That’s what a fairy tale really is. Not Prince Charming. Not happily ever after. It’s just that uplifting hope that life can be bigger and brighter and grander than it is right now.

Too many of us have lost sight of that hope. Too many of us have succumbed to the bitterness that blooms from seeds of disappointment. We’ve lost the ability to find joy amidst the sorrow and laughter among the tears. That’s the real tragedy in our world. Not that life doesn’t work out according to the fairy tales, but that we’ve stopped believing in the good of our world.

Because we need that joy and laughter and hope in the midst of impossible times. We need to see the good in every situation or our lives will be consumed by darkness. The fairy tale magic is something we cannot afford to lose.

So it’s time to conquer the terrors and hope against all the odds with gritted teeth.

It’s time you start believing in fairy tales again.

It's time you start believing in fairy tales again.

Relearning the Song

My dad grew up pretty close to the tracks. To this day, he doesn’t register the sound of a train whistle.

There are sounds we can tune out. Sounds to which we can grow deaf. We do this mostly to protect ourselves. Rather than allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by constant background noises, we simply choose what we want to hear.

But what happens when we stop hearing altogether? What happens when we accidentally start tuning out the important things in life?

I fell in love with Jesus through the analogy of dance (Thank you, Shannon Kubiak).

Jesus and I have “a song.” That song has been the background music of my entire life—always present and always beckoning me to join the dance of a lifetime. Sometimes I can close my eyes, hear that song, and imagine myself twirling in Jesus’ arms. But other times, I stop hearing the song altogether. Because, like everything else in my life, I’ve become accustomed to tuning it out.

I’ve grown so used to doing my own thing. I’ve allowed myself to become distracted by all the other noises vying for my attention, and I’ve forgotten the one song that truly matters. It has been lost somewhere amidst the many background noises in my life.

But guess what?

My dad can hear a train if he chooses. If the sound is observed by someone else, he will often stop to listen. And you’ll see it register in his eyes when that train whistle blows.

That gives me hope.

Because if my dad can hear a sound he has been blocking out all his life in the name of a good night’s sleep, then surely I can recapture the melody that has eluded me in recent days.

Oh yes, when I just close my eyes, take a deep breath, and really listen, I can hear the soft refrains echoing through the caverns of my soul.

And I find that my feet cannot help but dance.

sitting on train tracks

Undone

A friend of mine was recently talking about his strained relationship with his mother. He laughed because some of the things she said were so ridiculous. Absolutely and utterly horrible, but completely ridiculous. And I was glad he could laugh. Truly. Because sometimes the laughter is the only thing that keeps us from tears.

There are too many broken families in this world. Too many children who don’t know what it is to have both a mother and a father. Too many kids who don’t know what it is to love and be loved in return.

In a world like this, sometimes I find it hard to hold onto hope. I find it hard to believe that happy endings could ever come from the ashes of these relationships. Sometimes I set the fairytales aside and allow my heart to become a little cynical. To stop believing that hope makes its own magic and that we can walk through trials and pain and be better off for it when we finally reach the other side.

The word that echoes in my mind is “Undone.” When I think of love and heartache, a quote from Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution  pounds in my brain:

“I am not afraid of beatings or blood anymore. I’m not afraid of guards or guillotines.
“There is only one thing I fear now—love.
“For I have seen it and I have felt it and I know that it is love, not death, that undoes us.”

And when I read that quote, I can’t help but think that maybe it is best to be undone. Maybe it’s best to love and receive nothing in response than to allow our hearts to be clouded by hatred, or worse yet, that cold sense of unfeeling.

Maybe it’s best to learn the same lesson that Jennifer Donnelly’s character learns. When confronted with how her actions have led to nothing but her own demise—when reminded that the world has not changed for the better on account of her sacrifice—she responds:

“The world goes on stupid and brutal, but I do not. Can’t you see. I do not.”

Though my world goes on, stupid and brutal as before, I do not. I choose love. I choose to be undone.

Because I’ve always had a penchant for fairytales. I’ve always been fascinated by words like “hope” and “love” and “wonder.” I still choose to believe in beauty from ashes. I think my friend does, too.

And while it breaks my heart to think of how his mother’s words must hurt him, the person I feel most sorry for is his mom. Because she doesn’t know what she’s missing. She can’t know. Or she never would have told him goodbye. She’s the one who is suffering. She’s the one who goes on stupid and brutal. But my friend… he does not. Can’t you see? He does not.

And I hope, when it comes down to it, you would choose to be undone. You would choose not to be stupid and brutal as the world would have you.Becoming Undone

I hope you’ll find that love is always worth it.
And that hope will ring true.
Because we all need something to believe in.
And we all need to be believed in.
And on this day that I come undone…
I choose to believe in you.

The Way I Was

About a month ago, my best friend handed me fifteen pages documenting the last year of her life–the year she was diagnosed with primary lymphedema. It was everything I thought a year in the life of Katie should be. I laughed, I cried, and I walked away with a burning to desire to tell the story of a courageous young woman who dared to embrace the life God handed her. She graciously gave me permission to share these words with you…

Strange how I thought I was in control of my life. I thought that I was in control of my dreams. Like when I was ten and knew, in the very depths of me, that I would be married at seventeen. Well, seventeen came and went.

I thought I was in control of my time. But I realized that time is slipping through my fingers. Time reminds me of the sand I would grasp as a child. I tried so hard to hold onto it. But grain by grain it would be stolen away by the wind, the waves, of the desire to let go and build a castle instead.

I thought I was in control of my body. HA! That sneaky little twit proved me wrong with all the grace and quiet of an avalanche.

Most of the time the reality of my situation seems unreal. But there are days when it hits me. When I feel like one more stair to climb is too much to ask. When someone looks at me in disappointment because I have no energy to “come with” or “hang out” or “chill.”

I’m so glad that I haven’t gone off the deep end because trouble came my way. Without God’s grace I would have. I’m so thankful that I turned to Him. So many of my friends aren’t turning to Him in their trouble… no wonder they feel so hopeless.

I hate when people say, “you’re gonna get better.” Are they God? How do they know that? People have this strange idea that you want them to make you FEEL better or FEEL hopeful, when really all you want is for them to stand by you in the suffering. It’s like those parents who make promises to their children when they’re not really sure. They pacify the need while offering no solution to the need. Why? I feel like God is so honest and open. Sure, He is Great and Mysterious but He’s not out to get me by some form of trickery. He is so crystal clear in His love for me. He doesn’t pacify with promises of “I’m going to heal you, Katie.” But He does promise to never leave me or forsake me.

There are times when I get discouraged and start to complain to God saying, “Why God? Why can’t I just feel good? Why can’t I just live like a normal person?” It is in these times that I am hit with the realization that I’m not on this earth so I can live in comfort and be perfectly happy. I am on this earth to bring glory to my God. When contemplating the suffering of the Son of God, I realize I’m not entitled to a life of ease. My Friend laid down His life for me because He loved me. I want to love Him that way.

God brought me to the place where I COULD NOT live without His helping me to live. He brought me so low and took away so much, not because He hated me, but because He wanted my blinded, starry eyes to see the truth. The truth that this, all this that surrounds us, is but a shadow of real living. All this means nothing without Him. I’m thankful for the agony because it brought me to my knees… where I should have been all along. And I don’t want to be healed if it means that I, in my humanness, go back to the way I was. You see, I couldn’t be desperate for Him until I was TRULY desperate for Him. Every day I’m asking for His help. And every day, He is right by my side.

Katie Beth sometimes believes in as many as six impossible things before breakfast, which is perhaps why she is one of Rebekah’s nearest and dearest friends. This past year, God has taken her on a whirlwind of a trip where she is learning to disappear and let Jesus shine through her suffering. The full version of her story includes a dragon, a Brazilian dancer, and Frank Sinatra… but it might also involve a murder if I dared to share those details with all of you.

I Had a Dream… Once.

I’m currently obsessed with dreams. Scratch that. I’ve always been obsessed with dreams. I think that’s the root of my fascination with fairytales. But lately my obsession has been a little more pronounced. I’m thinking about dreams on a daily basis. And not just my own dreams. A blogger friend of mine just announced that she quit her day job to pursue a dream and I literally started bouncing up and down in excitement.

That’s how much dreams thrill me.

So, there’s this scene in Tangled (if you haven’t seen it yet, you need to) where Rapunzel asks some rough-looking guys in a tavern if they’ve ever had a dream. And one exceptionally scary-looking guy says, “I had a dream once.” And then, because it’s an animated fairytale, he bursts into song declaring that he always wanted to be a concert pianist. This opens the stage for all of the other guys to start sharing the dreams they never lived until they send Rapunzel off with an encouragement to go live her dream. It’s actually all very inspiring except… Except you realize that they’re still there. In the tavern. Not living their dreams.

So maybe I’m young and naive and yet to face any serious disappointment, but I just can’t imagine doing anything other than what I feel like I was made to do. I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life just getting by while the spark of a dream flickers in my heart. I can’t imagine just letting my dreams die.

That’s why the next book that is churning in my head has everything to do with keeping hope alive. And that’s why I’ve asked a few incredible ladies to share their stories with you in the weeks to come. Because we weren’t made to dream alone.  And sometimes all it takes to keep us pressing onward is a little bit of encouragement from someone who has been there.

So prepare for a month of dreams.

Unfinished Stories

Once upon a time there was a girl who weaved stories in her spare time ~ a girl who dreamed of touching the world in a way that was deep and true, poetic and magical. But this girl was told that she would never touch the world in such a way, that such dreams were made for the fairytales, and that “real life” as we call it doesn’t work that way. “Impossible,” they told her.

And sometimes she believed them.

But then there was Hope ~ a flimsy, fragile creature that alighted on her shoulder and whispered endless possibilities in her ear. And the heroine of this story had to choose between the cold reality the skeptics screamed and the joyous promise Hope offered.

The end.

Because, as Laini Taylor wrote in her book Daughter of Smoke and Bone, “The story is unfinished. The world is still waiting.”

The world still waits for hope and dreams and magical things that flutter around on fairy-like wings. The world still waits for promises kept and tears of compassion that haven’t been wept. The world still waits for someone who will step right over What Hasn’t Been Done and embrace All That They Should Do.

The world is waiting for you.

And while the unfinished story that started this post is entirely mine, you are an unfinished story, too. You’re an unfinished story with intricate details of a plot and a purpose that hasn’t been fully formed. You can write whatever you want on the pages of your life. You can choose to listen to what the skeptics scream or step up and embrace your impossible dream. And while what you should choose sounds so easy in writing, it’s hard to silence the skeptics. It’s hard to hold onto Hope.

That’s why I determined to let God finish my story. Because while I so often lose sight of the things that are important, God never does. So I promised Him that I would hold the pen if only He would guide my hand. And in light of my dangerous promise, God asked me to do something I had decided I never wanted to do again ~ at least not for a long time.

I’m working up a proposal for another non-fiction book. It’s about hopes and dreams and how God turns nobodies into somebodies, but that’s all I’m going to share for now.

After all, the story is unfinished, so I’ll have to leave you waiting.

In the meantime, go write a story of your own.

“Hope Makes Its Own Magic.”

I’ve admitted before that it’s often hard for me to live the journey. It’s hard for me to find joy in the midst of the mundane. Day after day, I find myself whispering reminders to take back today. But the more I venture into the vulnerability of others’ writings, I’ve come to the conclusion that the fairytale spirit does come somewhat naturally to me.

Because I do believe in happy endings.
I do sing random songs as I’m cleaning the house.
I do let myself get caught in daydreams.
And I do dance with the fireflies on Midsummer’s Eve.

I don’t do all of that because it’s what I think I should do. I do it because it’s who I am.

Some of the stuff I’ve been reading here of late has been really dark. The subject matter is heavy and some of the quotes are capable of ripping my heart out of my chest. I could deal with all of that if it weren’t for the obvious lack of hope. When I read things like, “There’s no going back. It’s too late. What’s done is done,” I experience a range of emotions. First, I hurt for the person who wrote such disparaging words, then I get a little angry. I get angry because I can’t help but think, “How do you know it’s too late to bring beauty from these ashes? Who are you to say that you’re beyond Redemption’s reach?”

I get angry because there are people who try to limit God and destroy Hope.

And I know that some many people have lived far worse lives than I have. And I know there are situations beyond our control that are capable of knocking our feet out from under us. But I can’t comprehend the lack of Hope.

Because even on my darkest days, Hope lingers. And though I’ve written some pretty desperate journal entries and a couple dark poems, one thing differentiates them from the stuff I’ve been reading lately. It always ends with me waiting for rescue and believing that help is on the way. I always leave room for Hope.

Which takes me back to the story of Pandora’s Box.

Pandora. The young woman who released evil into the world and dared to let Hope in along with it. I think that the reason her story resonates with me is because I’m just like Pandora. I would open the box twice. Even after I’ve been burned by all that is evil, I would dare to take a chance on Hope. Maybe that makes me stupid. But at least it gives me Hope…

Today, I’m taking that gift I’ve been given and releasing it to the world. Embrace Hope, my friend, because life is such a cold, lonely place without it.

Remember This Day

Have you ever sneaked a peek at the ending of a book before you declared it readable? I’ve never even been tempted to do that. Honestly, I like surprises too much. I mean, I’m the kind of girl who sets her iTunes on shuffle because the normal playlist is too predictable. But there is one story that I wish I could flip ahead a few pages, and that’s the story of my life. But while I can’t fast-forward to the ending, I can read it backwards ~ which is what I’ve been doing the past couple of nights.

It’s amazing what you can find while reading old journal entries. Life looks so different in hindsight. Take the scene where I’m lamenting that I may be doomed to be a loner for the rest of my life. It was a legitimate concern then, but reading it now makes me laugh because I realize that God seriously must have been shaking His head and saying, “Oh Rebekah, you know those two guys you briefly mentioned in that second paragraph? …Yeah.”

Because what I didn’t know on that desperate day was that I had just made initial contact with two people who would soon become some of my dearest friends. But now, here I am, marking the corners of my journal pages with stars and little notes that say, “Remember this day.”

Why? Because I know that, eventually, I’m going to have more of those moments where I can’t see any good in my present situation. I’m going to have more days when I question the way God is working in my life. There are going to be more journal entries riddled with the same frustration that plagues the pages of my past. And if I can just look back and remember the good that came of those seemingly hopeless days, maybe I’ll find the courage to face the unknowns of tomorrow.

If your mind is full of questions to which you feel you’ll never find the answers, I want to encourage you to write them down. Remember this day. Because one day, you’ll be able to read your story backwards. One day, you’ll be able to look back with new eyes and see the things you missed while consumed with the moment. And one day, you’re going to look back and marvel at the wonder of it all.

Oh yes, you’ll want to remember this day.