My mother’s father, Gustavo, wrote many letters to her when she first moved from Ecuador to this country in her late teens. She was having a hard time as a recent immigrant, without legal status, and as a young mother of two, but she kept responding to his letters telling him over and over how happy she was and how wonderful her life was. Finally, after months of correspondence, he wrote back:
No es fácil ser feliz. Hay que haber sufrido mucho para serlo. No es lo mismo ser feliz que estar satisfecho. Aquí el "ser" y el "estar" tienen toda su trascendental diferenciación….Para ser feliz hay que elevar la mente y el corazón, para estar feliz solo se necesita satisfacer las necesidades secundarias o del cuerpo.
You might recall if you’ve studied Spanish (or grew up speaking it), that there are two verbs for our one English verb “to be.” One version, “ser,” is used to imply permanence. The other version, “estar,” is used for temporary states. You can use “ser” for your profession, your being a parent, or your place of birth. But you use “estar” for feeling cold or tired or thirsty--states that you are, but that are changeable. Here, then, is the way I would translate what Gustavo wrote into English:
It’s not easy to be happy. You must have suffered a lot to be happy. Being happy isn’t the same as feeling satisfied. Here the “ser” and the “estar” have all of their transcendental differentiation….For to be happy you have to elevate your mind and heart. To feel happy you only need to satisfy your secondary necessities or those of the body.
He is distinguishing between these two types of happiness, for which we don’t really have succinct language in English. There is the outward happiness, the “estar,” that relates to our experiences of satisfaction, but there is a distinct, internal, permanent happiness, the “ser,” that we cultivate through drawing meaning from our experiences.
Right now, it rarely feels possible to “estar” happy. There is too much suffering and injustice that has become too visible, surrounding us. I would say, almost, drowning us. And no matter how many bars of chocolate I eat, I can’t seem to feel that satisfied, corporeal happiness.
But it is always possible to find the “ser” happiness. The permanent happiness that doesn’t have anything to do with our external reality. The permanent happiness that is quiet and small and more like what we call peace. A peace that can only come from searching for and nurturing a connection to the permanent, infinite, loving presence of God that is our true source of meaning and purpose.
In normal times, our reality appears like a blazing fire, bright and cheery, giving us a sense of safety and warmth from the darkness. But, actually, that fire with its tall flames will one day be all used up. Everything around us that feels so solid, is actually temporary. And all that will be left--what was there all along if we had looked for it--is a glowing ember. The glowing ember that started the fire with which we were so taken and the glowing ember that will remain long after the fire is gone.
Normally we get distracted by this outward fire of happiness, this feeling that everything is completely fine because we can see the brightness and feel the warmth. Or we create an illusory fire for ourselves that isn’t really there to try to wish away the suffering, like my mom did. Normally, it’s easy to miss the glowing ember.
But now the “estar” happiness isn’t there. The flames are gone and we feel the depth and cold of the darkness. It feels so enveloping, like we can’t possibly know happiness anymore. But the flames were always just the outward expression of the ember.
And always then, as always now, the “ser” happiness is there. It is permanent. And, in fact now, when our faith is shaken by the disappearance of the fire, is the best time to see that glowing ember, to seek out and find that permanent peace that comes from God. We do that through crying out to God to help us in prayer and we do that through crying out to and leaning on one another. We are not alone in this darkness.
We can let our eyes and our spirits adjust until we can see it there, this ember, with it’s constant, soft glow. And when we find it, we can know that it is real and constant. And that it is, in fact, the only real thing. And that is something to draw near to through this long night.