My wife and I married young and spent our first year in an apartment. We worked, saved, and, along with a gracious gift from my in-laws, had just enough money to purchase a small fixer-upper. We got a great deal, remodeled, and in few years, sold it for a fifty percent profit. Using all the money from the sale, we upgraded to a colonial, and then finally, despite the turmoil of my dad being six years into his sentence, we built our dream home.
While under construction, at night after work, I often walked through the unfinished stud-exposed house, with tearful eyes. My dream became reality. It was over four times the size of my boyhood home, costing thirty times more. And the house represented more than that; it was a symbol of my fulfilled childhood dreams, and, perhaps, victory over my dad’s imprisonment.
We promised to share our new home with others and were earnest to follow through with it. We hosted parties and family gatherings: Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthday parties, baby showers, and sport banquets. We even took in family. We tried our best to use our home for good. I was proud to give my children what I didn’t have as a child. It was exciting to raise my kids in such a beautiful neighborhood. It was sublime to picnic on the deck, play in the yard, and ride bicycles. Family memories were quickly accumulated, recorded, and stored away in our hearts. Our home was a true blessing.
After a year, I began to envision what the next house would look like, something even bigger. My desire for more became a turning point. I found that the happiness my house brought did “not sustain me—rather, I had to sustain it.”
The strange thing about new things is that the newness eventually wears off and so does the size. Something good becomes ruined by the cravings for something more. A fulfilled dream was no longer enough for me.
We lose our blessing when the natural cravings for happiness overtake the source of happiness itself. Our blessings are lost by wanting more. What we get today is less than what we want tomorrow. Even something good, when taken to excess, turns into a diversion from true happiness.
I was giving material things too high a position in my life, expecting something from physical objects that they can never provide—happiness. Material things are inanimate; consequently, they can only provide what is inanimate. Happiness is alive and can only come from what is alive. I seemed dead reaching for what was dead.
It was around this time that our family vacationed in a little rustic cabin. The weekend was filled with fun, laughter, conversation and love. We cooked simple food, played games, read and relaxed. We only brought one suitcase and a few groceries bags. It doesn’t cost much to be happy; in fact, it doesn’t cost anything.
The cottage was truly basic: no TV, internet, or video game systems. The furnishings were few, only essential. There were no extras, no luxuries; it really didn’t matter. As Thoreau said, “Man is richest, whose pleasures are cheapest.” That weekend, we lived by this simple saying.
When Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico, was asked why it is that he still lives in such a small home, he said, “When a family lives in a smaller home, they get to be closer and see each other more.” “What does he need with more house? What would he do with it?”
That trip shifted my perception. I returned to a home that was a blessing, a dream, again. It was a blessing because it was a home and not a house. Material things were proportioned correctly again in my life. Things no longer owned me; I owned my things. As the line from The Hobbit goes: “If more people valued home above gold this world would be a merry place.” 4
And yet, this new wisdom was not enough to stop the suffering of my dad’s incarceration and bring true happiness. Just as I discovered that the happiness and healing were not the house, my father was summoned back to court for appeal. In one gasp, all the memories of the first trial came growling back.
We started over again.
The truth only added to my suffering; it set me free—to suffer. We went back to court and relived the nightmare. No longer could I run from the past to the forged solace of material things. This idea is true: “For no one ought to consider anything completely his own, except perhaps that which is false.”
All the memories and the reality of that first year in court came swiveling back. I remembered each session. I went to court every time with my dad. It was a long, grueling, aching process; but I sat in the room as all of the details of the case were clearly presented, presented without caution of terror. They were things a person should not hear, let alone a son.
I remember the drowning dark evil that hovered over me as I listened to gory witness details. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was going to vomit and pass out from mere words. It killed me to attend those sessions, but I went anyway—my heart wouldn’t have it any different.
I can’t tell you what it feels like to see your dad before a judge, yet I have to put these decayed words down, maybe by doing so they will move away from me. Your strong dad, powerful and sure, standing before the mercy, or judgment, of the magistrate—he crumbles, he heels.
It just smashes you.
I can’t tell you what it feels like to see your dad shackled, chains at the feet, dragging at the floor, his gait slowed by the binds. His hands cuffed at the front, orange jumper sleeves dangling at his wrists.
I can’t tell you what it feels like to see him look at the judge, as a school boy before a demanding, harsh, authoritarian. It seems to shrink him. He feels it shrinking him; you see it shrinking him.
His whole life in the balance, the decision to live or to die; he seems helpless, not human, an animal before the slaughter.
I can’t tell you what it feels like to hear witnesses testify about him, the details of horrifying claims seer your gut. You feel like you are going to black out, yet you don’t. How do you remain conscious? You feel like your dreaming; you’re not.
It is like a nightmare, frozen in your childhood bed, afraid to move, no covers to put over your head for hiding. You are motionless, cold.
How these people are saying such things you wonder, you demand. “Is this true?” You are confused. If you watched these scenes on TV, you could barely stomach the words, let alone in your own life. You have never heard, read or imagined such things, never in the worst movie, the darkest book. Reality is always more demanding than imagination.
These images rushed through me as we went to court again. The pain was a tremendous ripping “as if two giant hands” tore me in half and I felt my chest “chopped down and split apart.”
Dad would look back at me. All I could mouth was: “I love you. I’m here for you.” I was absolutely lost, sick. I just wanted it to end. It was excruciating to be there; somehow, I managed to stay and support him.
I wanted to rescue my dad and take him away to safety, to a place like the six towns of ancient Israel, those towns of refuge. I wanted to be that town of protection, but I couldn’t get to him, I couldn’t reach over the walls that separated us.
At every session’s end, I unreasonably hoped that my dad would come home. Instead, officers escorted him through the court’s back door. I watched through the door, until there was just a sliver to see through. He disappeared into the darkness.
I remember the feeling of helplessness that came from not knowing where he was within those walls, what was happening to him. I tried to imagine what he was doing, how he felt. There is nothing I could do. No way to see him. No control.
It was always so hard to go home again, to leave him there, but there was nothing I could do. I had no power to change what was happening. I would linger at the courthouse like there was something more to be done, but there wasn’t.
The sound of the judge’s gavel struck me with fear and trembling. The pounding, pounding, POUNDING, that crushing, reverberating sound is a hellish eternal echo. It punched me in the tenderness of my being.
The verdict came—again.
A wave of darkness passed over me.
I watched as they took my dad out of the court room, never to come back again. 13 years.
The idea that material goods could take the suffering away seemed utterly foolish, sitting in the court room. Watching my dad go back to court, and back to prison, took me into a lower level of hell. The false happiness of material things was absolutely and painfully leached out of me.
This realization pressed everything out of me until only one thing remained. Something, I didn’t know what. But there was a glimpse into the essence of something, the thing I was reaching for, pleading for.
What was left in me? What seemed to be touching me? What made my house seem of such little worth, but made home feel such great worth?
**From the book: Opening Happiness