Is it okay for people who have experienced a disaster to be “happy”?

four children laughing
Kids on Bantayan Island in the Philippines laugh with LWR staff who visited their community.

by
Jun 13, 2014

Lutheran pastor and writer Travis Scholl recently wrote a column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asking, “Is it okay for a Christian to be ‘happy’?” In it, he reflects on Pharrell William’s “irresistibly infectious song, ‘Happy’.”

I sometimes end up being around folks who have a severe mistrust of “happiness.” …At the heart of their mistrust is a certain iconoclastic pragmatism about what constitutes happiness and where happiness can lead. Happiness is fleeting. Happiness deceives. Happiness can come from bad sources. Usually they then juxtapose “happiness” with “joy,” asserting that joy is more certain, more real, more durable.

Scholl goes on to affirm the difference between joy and happiness, but makes the point that “if your joy has more anger in it than happiness, it isn’t joy you’re feeling.”

And this is true even in the midst of sadness and suffering. There is something so irrepressible about true joy that its undercurrents lift up even the worst predicaments of our existence. This is why the Apostle Paul could write, in one of his greatest strings of thought, “Not only that, but we rejoicein our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame…” (Romans 5:3-5a). There is a certain underlying, but nonetheless confident, jubilation in Paul’s voice. I suspect he wrote it with at least a smile on his face.

This column made me think of a YouTube video that made the rounds a few months ago. Visual artist Quentin Musset traveled around areas of the Philippines that had been hit by Typhoon Haiyan. This is what he captured:

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This video of Filipinos who experienced Typhoon Haiyan dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” received mixed reviews.

Some people loved it:

YouTube comments that read "What do you do when you have just survived a disaster? You celebrate amongst the ruins!" "That needs to get more views! Thanks for sharing!" and "Despite all of our hardships, we still find a reason to smile, sing, and dance. One of the coolest things about our people."

But others had a more critical reaction:

While the intention of the video is good, I fear that showcasing "happy" survivors creates this false and complacent feeling that everything is okay or heading towards it. It's not, the government still has much to do and answer for. This "happy" Filipino mentality is what the corrupt politicians take advantage of all the time, with every tragedy we "seem" to bounce back and they never get heat for long.

All People are Human Beings of Dignity and Worth

At Lutheran World Relief, we have always attempted to demonstrate the full dignity of the people with whom we work. We have long avoided using “poverty porn” to raise funds, and believe that “All people are made in the image of God (Imago Dei, Genesis 1:26, James 3:9) and are human beings of dignity and worth.” (LWR’s “Calling” Value.)

I think that dignity means showing the full breadth of human experience, from joy and happiness to sorrow and grief. I happen to enjoy the video above. To me it demonstrates the strength of the human spirit.

It’s something I witnessed firsthand when I visited the Philippines, and is one way people around the world deal with hardship.

That dignity and work is why we introduced you to Leonida, and the work she and others are doing to help their own community.

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What do you think?

We want to know what you think. Is it okay for people who have experienced a disaster to be “happy”?

Does portraying them as “happy” in photos or videos enhance, or detract from, their dignity as human beings?

How do we do at portraying the full dignity and worth of people? How could we do better?

Please leave your comments below!

is Lutheran World Relief’s Interactive Marketing Manager and an ordained pastor in the ELCA.

Categories: Asia, Emergency Response, Philippines, Topics
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