Why Are Our Happiest Moments Tinged with Sadness?

I think the first time I felt it I was staring up at the sky.

As the sun went down a few stars came out, then a few more, then the sky split open. On a moonless night, the milky way stretched from one edge of the horizon to other. As the astronomers walked us through the constellations their voices faded until I felt it.

It came over me as dizziness, then joy, then loss, then longing. It was so beautiful that I felt…almost…sad.

I felt it again standing on a beach holding my wife’s hand with my parents playing with my two boys nearby as the sun was setting. I took a picture and looked at the picture and the world felt like it slowed down to a heartbeat. It was a perfect moment but sorrowful because it was fleeting.

I felt it as I turned the last page of the last book in the series. The evil vanquished, the good prevailing. After so much loss the characters said goodbye. It had been a better book than I’d dared to dream and yet I felt like a hole was ripped open in my heart. Because the world was closed and I couldn’t go back.

Why is it that so many of our happiest moments are tinged with sadness?

At first I thought it was just me. Then I found out that C.S. Lewis felt it too. He writes in The Weight of Glory:

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

In moments of great overwhelming beauty sometimes we cannot help but feel both a great joy and a great sadness. Why? Because it’s as if in that moment our hearts are awakened and we finally feel the full longing we push down deep within ourselves. The longing bursts out because it sees a glimmer and glimpse of what we long for, only to find it not yet fully fulfilled.

Ecclesiastes says cryptically, that God “has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end’ (Ecc 3:11). While there’s always a lot going on in each line of Ecclesiastes we at least can clearly see the preacher put his finger on this longing we have and the reason for it. We long deeply because God has put eternity in our hearts.

There’s something in us saying “This can’t be all there is. There can’t.”

On normal days we settle for a few minutes of quiet before our phone starts pinging alerts, a decent meal, a decent distraction after work. But moments of sublime beauty remind us that we long for far more. We long for a return to the Garden before sin entered the world and it was all wrecked and broken. We long, as Graeme Goldsworthy would say, to be in God’s presence in God’s place under God’s rule–with all the unending beauty that entails.

Recently my wife and I saw La La Land. I loved it because I guess I’m just one of those old-fashioned suckers for a wonderful soundtrack, great acting, beautiful cinematography, big dreams, and a good old-fashioned love story. (That, and it’s the only movie that could turn L.A. traffic into something worth singing and dancing about.) I won’t spoil the end of the movie but it’s bittersweet. The choices the characters make lead them to have much of what they longed for….but not all of it.

I won’t spoil the end of the movie but it’s bittersweet. The choices the characters make lead them to have much of what they longed for….but not all of it.

Yet in the epilogue there’s this perfect moment where they imagine what it would have been like to get everything. Their whole life spins backward and forwards as all the bad things are rewritten into good. It’s a beautiful moment. Then, it passes.

I hated that moment at the same time I loved it. It was telling us that you can’t have “all of it.” And I hated it because it reminded me that the world was just like this.

But later I saw it differently. I think it captured for us the longing we all feel to have “all of it”–all good, all unending. But then I saw the ending differently. I saw it with hope. Because the very thing the characters long for, and we long for, will not be a dream one day.

In this world, we glimpse so much of God’s goodness and we should thank God for it. And yet the best Christmas is tinged with sadness for the family member who recently passed away. The best vacation is tinged with sadness because we know it will end. We know that we can’t have it all. The problem is that deep down we were made for it all.  

I’m trying to learn to embrace the fact that my happiest moments of life may only make me long for more. That’s okay. I was made for more. One day, everything from our relationships to our past to our future will be renewed. And the moment we imagine true happiness will be eclipsed by the weight of something truer and better than we can dream today.

So I’ll keep searching for drops of this everywhere I can find it, and I’ll keep longing with C.S. Lewis:

“And with that plunge back into my past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country.” (Surprised by Joy)

I'm the Lead Pastor at Cross of Grace Church in El Paso, TX . I love my wife Jenn, my two boys, and my city. Sometimes I write. Other times I just think about writing and listen to a lot of podcasts instead.