In an old Peanuts cartoon, Lucy asks Charlie Brown, “Did you ever know anyone who was really happy?” Before he answers, that effervescent Snoopy dances into the scene—head flung back, ears streaming in the wind, a wide, giddy grin lighting up his face. He vibrates fun and hums silliness. He dances across each frame, while Lucy and Charlie look silently on. In the last frame, Lucy asks again, “Did you ever know anyone who was really happy . . . and was still in his right mind?”
There are a lot of people like Lucy who think that happiness is possible only for those who are a little bit crazy—who are blind to the brokenness and deaf to the groans of pain which are all around them. Gladness can’t stand up under the weight of facts. Rejoicing and realism can’t stay in the same room. Folks like Lucy think that, in a world like ours, only fools laugh and sing, play and dance.
So, for Lucy and her sophisticated friends, one of the most incomprehensible things the Apostle Paul ever said was: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Live in astonished gratitude for the shining wonders of creation. Know deep in your bones how good it is to be alive—how amazing it is to feel cool water on your tongue, to hear a gentle breeze rustle through the trees and have it wash across your exhausted body, and to be restored by the healing touch of kindness and tenderness. Know how astonishing it is to gaze up at the full moon, to watch moon-shadows play on the surface of the river, and to listen to the cooing of the doves, the honking of the geese, the hooting of the owl, and the chirping of the crickets—all calling us to join their joyful songs of praise.
“Again I will say, Rejoice.” Notice the surprises of goodness which sneak into even the worst of circumstances: flowers blooming in a trash-dump; the aroma of fresh bread wafting from the bakery you pass on the way to a hard meeting at work; the kindness of a stranger who stops in to help when you are far from home; the compassion of a nurse who stays with you through a hard night; the child whose smile lights up a room shadowed by seriousness; the note of encouragement which comes just before you throw in the towel; the song that lifts the fog of melancholy; and the friend who keeps showing up even when you’re sullen and sour.
“Rejoice.” Trust that, whatever is wrong with the world, it is still God’s world and lies in God’s compassionate and restoring hands. Because it does, all shall, somehow, someday, be well. Lean into the joyful promise that nothing, not even the hardest things, can separate you from the love of God. “Again I will say, Rejoice.”
Soren Kierkegaard wrestled with melancholy all of his life. It too often won. Like Kierkegaard, there are some of us who find it easy to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, who see the problem in every possibility, who can point out the persistent weaknesses of human nature, and who can predict the high probability of failure of even the best intentions.
But I’ve slowly learned that pessimism is useful only in crop and weather forecasts. In those cases, taking a dim view helps us to prepare for the worst; and, if the worst does not occur, there is no harm done. Melancholy has valuable lessons to teach us, but they are exact a price. Both pessimism and melancholy, unless they are harnessed by faith and disciplined by joy, hold us back from a whole-hearted embrace of life and of God. If they are untamed in us, they cause us to hesitate, hedge, and shrink back.
Kierkegaard learned, as I have been learning, that adventurous trust has power over melancholy, pessimism, and despair. He grew to depend on moments of mystical ecstasy, when he knew beyond knowing that God is near, that God is both mysteriously elusive and mercifully close and that God is Vastness and Nearness. One of those moments of glad and saving clarity came to him on May 19, 1838. Kierkegaard wrote about it in his journal:
May 19, half past ten in the morning. There is an indescribable joy which enkindles in us as inexplicably as the apostle’s outburst comes gratuitously [Philippians 4]: “Rejoice I say unto you and again I say unto you rejoice.” Not a joy over this or that but the soul’s mighty song “with tongue and mouth from the bottom of the heart” . . . a heavenly refrain. . . . a joy which cools and refreshes us like a breath of wind, a wave of air . . .
Inexplicable praise. Indescribable joy.