It catches my eye every time I walk through the kitchen– that poster on my fridge, with the flowers in the border reminding me that we need a new ink cartridge in the printer– and I keep reading it over and over, trying to wrap my brain around words I know are true, but sound as off-kilter as the oddly colored flowers around them. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be…”
Everyone gets to decide? Even the ones that get stuck in situations beyond their control? That’s the hard ceiling on free will, finding out that in so many ways you are not free at all, and have no choice in the matter. And who gets to decide a quantity of happiness, as if it were an opportunity or a favor granted? Isn’t everyone allotted a certain measure of happiness in this life, and some people are just more blessed than others? There is an inequity of circumstances that we all have learned to put up with, ever since we were toddlers and discovered the painful truth that we can’t always have what someone else has. And right about that same time we laid the responsibility of our happiness on the shoulders of circumstance, let it roll on the unpredictable winds of fortune. I see how we often live on that thin knife-edge– balanced between hope that things will go our way, and fear that everything will crash down around our ears; can see how we lean toward worry or toward control, trying to manage it all. And some of us just give it all up and do whatever we can to pretend the tug-of-war doesn’t even exist. The world we live in makes no sense of the first part of that sentence.
But the truth of the second part skewers through the uncertainty of that first bit, anchoring it firmly. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be… because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp) And I know this spiritual sister is speaking truth, even though my heart doesn’t completely get it yet. Because gratitude is precisely what we are free to choose– or not– in response to the circumstances we are given, and the way we respond shows what is in our hearts toward the Giver.
In his letters to the early churches, Paul writes it over and over again, rings out the insistent call: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) He hands out this command boldly, as the standard for believers, regardless of their circumstances. And given the circumstances of his own life, we can surmise that he was no rosy idealist about life; he had no illusions about how hard it could be to hold onto hope or contentment or joy. His answer to the hurting, to the lonely, to the failing and the fallen is the same: Rejoice in the One who loves you and will never leave you.
This happiness is something stronger and braver than we give it credit for: no whim of emotion but the obedience of an unswerving heart. The answer to all the hurts of this world is the Savior who came for us, and because of Him we can always rejoice, can always give thanks for Grace. But it’s a choice and we have to be willing to submit to what He has given this day, open our hands for what He supplies and be content there. Paul’s words stand firm: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)
So maybe happiness is really up to me and I do get to decide, because while the circumstances are not in my control, my response to them is, and gratitude is always a valid option. Choose to see Grace, be willing to acknowledge the Giver’s goodness and provision in the midst of circumstances, and find happiness in His presence? I get to decide.
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
“Life is a battle — and Joy is a kind of courage and a smile slays all kind of dragons.” (Ann VosKamp)