Enjoy. I was ending a counseling session with a client, and he said to me, with a smile, “I really enjoyed that session today!” I was a bit shocked because I never think about enjoying counseling and often counseling sessions are not enjoyable sessions, not in the way you enjoy eating a seaweed and kale salad (ok, maybe you don’t enjoy that). It reminded me of statements in which someone says that the reason we help people and do good in the world is that it feels good. I’ve thought about it for awhile, and I have participated in debates in which some people say we don’t enjoy such work and some people admit to enjoying it. I know why people disagree about this. It’s because they are speaking about two different things.
If you are helping people superficially or giving money non-relationally, then yes, you might do it because it feels good. If you volunteer in a one-time way or once-off, then maybe it feels good. If you give money to charity and then walk away feeling like you did something good, you might feel good. So I see and understand that.
However, those of us who actually roll up our sleeves and engage in the tough relational work of helping people know often it does NOT feel good. When you make yourself vulnerable and open up your home to people, whom others don’t trust, and they burn you; when you are counseling prostitutes or people riddled with diseases or suffering a loss, it does not feel good as we work through issues. When you work with ex-offenders and ex-convicts (who should not be defined by what happened in the past) and work through recidivistic tendencies as well as dealing with stereotypes people place on them, it does not feel good. When you are working with a woman who has turned against all men including you, it does not feel good. When you push a crippled person around, a person who is bitter at the world, it is not very nice. I could go on, but I think the very act of getting deep with people who need help and dealing with them as people, with all their pain, all their issues, all their expectations, and all of YOUR hurt, it does not feel good at all. It is hard. Often times you fail when you help people. You don’t know if you should start again, you don’t know if it matters. You feel like quitting.
It’s like any relationship really.
It just doesn’t always feel good.
And when you’re in a position of habitual, relational, continual help, working alongside someone as that person seeks to move forward, it’s often not a happy feeling, it’s work. You get frustrated, you cry, you get hurt. You hurt them. They hurt you. You feel like quitting, you see no progress. Where’s the impact?
Then suddenly someone talks about the difference she notices. A step forward is made. The person is in a better, stronger position in life. The person has actually started helping others, slowly but surely. And in that moment, however small, however fleeting, that person finds meaning. And, relationally, you find meaning, too. Meaning was never lost, but sometimes you lose sensitivity to it. So in that small moment, you, once again, feel the meaning or significance that was probably there all along. You experience a bit of satisfaction. You taste a bit of fullness. You begin to understand how you can be sad and fulfilled, simultaneously unhappy and satisfied. The happiness is emotional or circumstantial or superficial, the fulfillment or satisfaction or meaning is deep, very deep, undergirding, untenable, impalpable, and so real.
It’s why I can spend time with people with whom I have difficulty liking even though I don’t enjoy the experience and it doesn’t make me happy. There is meaning there.
It’s exactly why I’ve seen some of my friends shut out close people around them because of harsh treatment but other friends embrace pain-causing people because, as unhappy as those interactions are, they find meaning in continuing to love those people through presence and quality time.
This is exactly why Jesus was often sad, as described by certain writers. It’s why Mother Teresa’s most recently released letters show a deep long-term unhappiness, frustration, and depression, even amidst the meaningful work that she continued to do. It is why MLK was frustration, conflicted, and downtrodden sometimes. It’s why faith can be so important to people in such situations because it can help maintain, sustain, motivate, encourage, and even propel them forward through such long and constant periods of unhappiness, sadness, and unenjoyable times. They do it, we do it because there is meaning there. There, is love.
A lot of people ask me about being happy in life or in a career, and I’ve learned by now, it’s not about being happy. Though language is so imprecise, so often I will incorrectly use those word “happy.” But when I ask if someone is happy, I actually mean to ask if the work is fulfilling or meaningful. If you leave one job because you are unhappy to go to another job, it is rare that you will find happiness there. If it’s an amazing situation and circumstance, then it’s possible. Often, in practice, because it’s so hard to find an amazing situation and circumstance people end up unhappy in the new job. However, if you learn, first, how to be content in any and every situation, that’s a key to the deeper joy. Then, you can make a move to a new job, not from a place of need or negativity (I need to find something that will make me happy; I lack contentment; I hate these people and this place; I gotta get out of this dump). No, you are already content. You are moving to a new job from a place of positivity. You are growing and a new job automatically allows you to grow more and positively impact more people. The new job allows you to increase meaningful work in society and create greater social value. The new job allows you to help fulfill more people. The new job is just a better fit for you such that you are running to a job not away from a job. The new job allows you to express passions more and allows you to work in your love language more and cooking more of your love food.
A great example of life choices involving fulfillment and unhappiness is Viktor Frankl. I often wonder how his life would have been different if he didn’t live and survive a concentration camp during WWII. By age 16, he had started a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and Freud sent a two-page paper Frankl had written to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. And this was before formally studying medicine and practicing clinical psychology. By 1941, Frankl's ideas and work had received international attention. His logotherapy helped people overcome depression and attain well-being through finding unique meaning in life (not happiness). He had also established suicide-prevention centers for teenagers. But it was in the same year he had to decide whether or not to move to America. This is an excerpt from an online Atlantic article about him.
"That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field."
It was a choice between being happy (circumstantially or superficially or temporarily) and feeling dissatisfied and unfulfilled due to his suffering parents or feeling like he was doing meaningful work as it relates to his parents and yet unhappy (because he, too, would probably end up in the concentration camp). To be fair, I have simplified the matter. Obviously, by staying in Vienna, he most probably imperils his wife and future child, and by leaving, he definitely saves them. What I’m differentiating simply is the difference between personal pleasure and temporal happiness from a situation, circumstance, feeling, or moment in time to satisfaction or meaning which can often be more long-term, unrelated to an unpleasant situation, constant in the face of suffering, and focused on others as opposed to self. I’ll let you see how he decided what to do, what he decided, and the implications of that choice in his life and the lives of others today. There’s more to life than being happy.