In the film, Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall plays a washed-up, alcoholic country singer named Mac Sledge who finds recovery and redemption through sobriety, marriage to a widowed woman (Tess Harper), and his adoption of her young son. Toward the film’s end, Duvall is working in the family garden behind their house. Much has happened to him since sobriety, marriage, and new parenthood especially the recent tragic car-accident death of his 18-year old daughter by a previous marriage.
As he’s working in the garden trying to understand his grief, Harper’s character comes out to check on him to see how he’s doing. He tells her he doesn’t understand why all this has happened. He, by all rights, should be dead for all the stuff he’s done. And yet, he’s alive and his daughter is dead. He doesn’t understand why his life is now redeemed and whole. He sees it as somehow not being right. He ends by saying to Harper: “You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.”
To me, those are the most powerful words in a film full of amazing writing, because Mac Sledge, even in his overwhelming grief, has a “soul wellness” that’s beyond and more vital than what might be called “happiness.” He’s received grace upon grace by his new wife, his new son, and his new friends. The film ends with the simple act of Mac tossing a football back and forth with his adopted son. The look on Mac’s face says it all. His grief isn’t gone. His past isn’t forgotten. But there’s a “soul wellness” with him as he tosses the football back and forth with his adopted son.
This is the “soul wellness” that I’m still learning how to live out in my own life. And I’ve come to understand that it’s not reached through my “pursuit of happiness.” Yet we live in a culture where that pursuit is expected of us all. Thomas Jefferson wrote the following to a friend in 1763: “Perfect happiness I believe was never intended by the deity to be the lot of any one of his creatures in this world; but that he has very much put in our power the nearness of our approaches to it, is what I as steadfastly believe.”
Jefferson thought that if we’d just worked hard enough at it, we’d have the power to get near to “perfect happiness.” This has become a central part of our cultural mythos. It’s deeply ingrained in us early in the life. It then functions in our life like a form of the “law” (about which St. Paul wrote in contrast to the “Gospel”). The pursuit of happiness becomes a law-like imperative for us and when we fail to achieve the cultural ideal of happiness (and we always will fall short of it), then we experience an unbearable judgment on ourselves from both inside and out. “Happiness” becomes just another contest to see who can get the most of it.
“Soul wellness” for Christians, however, isn’t achieved by the impossible pursuit of happiness. It’s reached through accepting God’s gracious acceptance of us in Christ and then living into our identity and purpose as forgiven and loved sinners. The Gospel of Jesus makes it clear that in resting in God’s “tender mercies” we find meaning for our lives and thus we learn the destiny to which we’re called.