The main character in the novel Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag, experiences a journey from ignorance to enlightenment. Montag leaves the cave of disillusionment and false reality and proceeds to enter a grander Reality, or actual Truth. In order to escape ignorance and be enlightened, he must first acknowledge his own unhappiness. He attempts to explain to his wife—a woman who flees her own unhappiness with sleeping pills, reality TV, and driving mindlessly in her car– that: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? `About something important—something real?”
This is the latest persistent whisper of my Spirit-Conscience: Allow yourself to actually be unhappy. For despair is the well-spring of joy, emptiness is the bedrock of substance, and silence is the origin of Truth.
Paul Tillich clarifies what Guy Montag ultimately experiences in Fahrenheit 451: “It is reality that gives us joy, and reality alone. The Bible speaks so often of joy because it is the most realistic of all books. Rejoice! That means: Penetrate from what seems to be real that which is really real.” And sometimes pain is what is “really real.” Sometimes despair is what is “really real.” We must embrace all of our lives—even the pain of our lives—in order to actually experience them as opposed to escape them.
Have you noticed how this is difficult—actually allowing ourselves to be unhappy? Our culture provides us with innumerable escape routes, countless ways to mask our loneliness and flee from our despair. I escape loneliness by “connecting” with hundreds of friends online; I run from emptiness by adding more events to my calendar; I elude anger by watching half-hour sitcoms; and I ditch despair by thinking about my to-do list before bed instead of the questions that really scare me.
I am not a sociologist or a psychologist, but I am a person who desires to be deeply observant of her world. I have observed more and more people who appear to be struggling with anxiety and depression, more and more people who feel compelled to wear masks, more and more people who desire to escape a messy Reality in preference for a tidy Ignorance.
Richard Rohr writes, “Before the truth [can] set you free, it tends to make you miserable.” Coming to terms with our own emptiness and despair is not a pleasurable experience, but it is a necessary one. Rohr goes on to say that “Early contemplation is necessary suffering….. of choosing to understimulate yourself, so you can experience your experiences.”
Because here is one beautiful thing about God- he can transform those very same “escape routes” that helped us elude joy into our means of attaining it. The very same things that prevented us from experiencing reality (by masking our discontentedness) can become our routes to Joy. My time spent online, the events on my calendar, the comedies I watch, the tasks I perform— these can all be sources of Connection as opposed to Isolation, of Authenticity as opposed to Superficiality.
So let yourself be unhappy. Let yourself be empty. Let yourself be silent.
Because it is only in our unhappiness that we discover we cannot make ourselves content on our own, and it is only in emptiness that we can ask to be filled.