The Cure for Unhappiness

Sadness and unhappiness are different things. The first is instructive, the second destructive. (I have pondered on this opposition.) A good Christian who has lost a mate, a parent, a child, a close friend, could be described as “unhappy,” but that would be glib. Were he only so, he would not be grieving, nor lamenting the good that has been taken away. He would instead be feeling sorry for himself.

Over the last weekend, I was in Ottawa, to attend the obsequies for a dear friend, the wife of a good buddy, mother of three remarkable children, grandmother to a dozen more, and beloved by so many that the pews in the large Basilica of Saint Patrick, downtown, were filled. Each I met counted Mary as some kind of “best friend.”

We don’t do eulogies in church, at least we’re not supposed to, but we can do them in magazine articles. Mine will be restricted to three points. Mary was truly selfless, utterly devoted, and totally sane. This last may seem a joke, coming on the heels of the other two. But it’s not. Full sanity isn’t widespread today.

She was often dealing with circumstances that would test anyone’s strength of mind, and no one remembers her ever having failed. Her Catholicism was rock solid, immovable. Yet her gentle empathy and humor kept her attuned to the limitations in people. She looked on everything plainly. She pushed people, sometimes, but never farther than they could move; nor knowingly in a comfortless direction.

I am bringing the issue of sanity to the fore, in order to explore this notion of “happiness.” Again, Mary Scheer is the example currently in my mind, for she was the embodiment of a happy person, and I would say willfully so. She looked for, and found, the good in people, including persons who required quite a search, and she fed on any happiness she found in them. But she was no grinning fool.

These are things all Catholics are instructed to do – always supposing they have received any instruction – but they must be hard, for the qualities are so rare.

Holy Women at the Tomb by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, c. 1900 [private collection]

Others struggle, and I admire their efforts. They are fighting against a world gone half-mad. Or perhaps the world was always so, I am acquainted with five generations at most. Through them all, however, I’ve been observing a slide, in which the norms of Christian civilization have been going quite demonstrably down the chute.

And it seems all contentment has been going with it; that the ability to take what is given has been forfeited; that unhappiness has been spreading as a cancer.

Sadness – the sadness of personal loss – was well known to my grandparents’ generation, along with pain, and privation, tyranny and stress. Yet these misfortunes could not impinge so deeply on an underlying faith in family and friendship, in received religion. In youth I saw this almost everywhere in my travels, far beyond old Christian realms: faith in a natural order of things in which all (or most) could recognize a divine providence and order, as the background condition for all human life.

Notwithstanding, the horrors of the twentieth century were inscribed in those returning from a “total war,” and re-inscribed in the generation of my parents when they passed through another. The avoidance of reality itself was written into my own “baby boom” generation, and a strange Gnosticism was becoming normative in the consumerism and escapism of a media culture, accented by drugs – filling surfaces that had become opaque to human depth. Men were becoming flat, chestless (see C. S. Lewis).

Beneath us, something has been gnawing, not explicable by passing events. The politicians tell us we are “angry,” because of unemployment or stagnant economic growth; because we don’t get what we want. Compare, if you will, the response to the Depression with our response to much lighter burdens.

The unhappiness of which I write runs deeper than any plausible material cause; and even at the surface I would think the noise, ugliness, and impersonality of our surroundings has more effect on us than any shortfall in production.

In her “mission,” as nurse then housewife, mother and interventionist whenever she was called, Mary Scheer found herself holding little parts of the world together. For her as for so many others, life was a constant rearguard action against so much falling apart; flying (often literally) to where she was most immediately needed. She was under no illusions.

Through the clarity of her own essential happiness in life, she discerned things hardly apparent to others. Willful, as I have said, in her happiness, she could see that most unhappiness was willful, too. It was breaking up marriages, turning the generations against each other, pitting friend against friend, invariably with reference to external “issues,” when the causes were within.

Our resentful demands for “equality” and the like are not as they appear. They lie behind concepts such as “no fault divorce” when the faults are glaring. We have such demonic phenomena as the unhappy spouse, who reduces his (or her!) mate to misery – not even to the end of “getting even,” but as a means to furthering one’s own misery. For the deracinated turn finally against themselves.

I give this example as something extremely common, and all but undiagnosed. I would guess by now a large proportion in North American society are unmarriageable and unplacatable; that any relation they enter (through lust) will certainly fail. Often this may be true for both parties, and the hellgates are opened on any children. Society disintegrates around them. The resentments build upon each other, and the grace of God is indignantly pushed away.

Mary once gave me a clinical description of this terrible disease burning through us, that is beyond selfishness; and also of its only possible cure. In good faith, one must “choose happiness.” It is an idea almost indistinguishable from, “choose life.”

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: