He said, “Now we won’t be sober any more. We’ll look beyond the years–to the time when the war will be over and Jem and Jerry and I will come marching home and we’ll all be happy again.”
“We won’t be–happy–in the same way,” said Rilla.
“No, not in the same way. Nobody whom this war has touched will ever be happy again in quite the same way. But it will be a better happiness, I think, little sister–a happiness we’ve earned. We were very happy before the war, weren’t we? With a home like Ingleside, and a father and mother like ours we couldn’t help being happy. But that happiness was a gift from life and love; it wasn’t really ours–life could take it back at any time. It can never take away the happiness we win for ourselves in the way of duty. – L.M. Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside
Something someone said to me a while back has made me wonder a little about the choices I’ve made — the choices that we all make — that lead us to consequences and circumstances we could not have foreseen, and perhaps would have avoided if we could.
It took some of us awhile, but after high school, my friends and I scattered far and wide. One of my closest friends lives in Australia and one just moved to Holland. My best friend lives in Malaysia and I live here in Beijing, and every day I feel her absence like a phantom ache. My favorite cousin, the one I am closest to, lives in a country so far away that, as Leon Uris put it, if the earth were flat, would have fallen off it a long time ago. And it will only get worse as time passes. I look into the future and see a world map dotted all over with the blinking lights of friends and loved ones flung across the continents. I blame globalization. I blame the yearnings of adventurous hearts. I blame long distance relationships. I blame Air Asia.
Which is all to say that when that someone suggested, casually and probably unthinkingly, that we might all have been happier if we had just stayed in Malaysia and never left, it was like a tiny mouse had crept up a tower somewhere and sounded the warning bell which began to toll deep inside me. Because it’s something which I have wondered from time to time, and which I daresay most people have as well: Would I have been happier if I had stayed where I was?
There were many reasons to stay in Malaysia, and still now, there are many reasons to return. But every time I go home and look around and ask myself if I’m ready, something whispers in me, “Not yet.”
Because here’s the thing: I don’t actually believe I would have been happier if I had stayed. Or, at least, it would not have been the kind of happy that I sought when I left, and in so many ways am still seeking, exiling myself from home to look for what I have recently come to realize is not happiness at all, but meaning.
Meaning is what Walter Blythe was talking about when he said that being happy after the war would be a better happiness, one that was fought for and hard won. No one who has been through a war — and in a way, haven’t we all been through our own personal wars? — could ever be truly, perfectly, gloriously happy again. That part of you is gone. People who have known true pain carry the shadow of it throughout their lives. It runs like a ghost thread through all the rest of their days, and even if they regain the happiness which they seek, they remember.
Happiness is all well and good, but the ability to find meaning in whatever circumstances that life sees fit to hand to you is what will sustain you through the bad times. Happiness is like that honeymoon stage of love, when everything is lightness and joy and sweet, sweet hope. Meaning is when you realize the honeymoon is over and the real work has just begun — and that the real work is where most of us will live most of our lives.
Everything in life has to be paid for. This is something that I truly believe. And while every choice has a cost, perhaps we can make it through life by ensuring as best as we can that the cost of the choices we make pay for a more meaningful happiness.