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  • Writer's picturesarahfishburnrober

Chasing butterflies

This painting by Gainsborough depicts his daughters trying to catch a butterfly. They probably won’t manage it; the butterfly is pretty but elusive, close by, yet ephemeral. The symbolism might be too obvious for some people, but surely this image speaks of the transient nature of happiness and even its unattainability. Sometimes, clients come to therapy saying that they “just want to be happy.” The trouble is that phrases like this rarely stand up to scrutiny. What constitutes happiness? How do we be happy when life will inevitably present us with challenges? (I even find the word ‘challenge’ slightly euphemistic – what life will actually present us with, whether we like it or not, is brokenness, death, uncertainty – and those are just the things that are inevitable!) In the end, I think the word ‘meaning’ makes more sense than ‘happiness.’ After some time in therapy, happiness starts to feel more like the butterfly, whereas meaning starts to feel more like solid ground. It is not so much what we must do to be happy, and where we must go and or what we must do to find this happiness, but what we are required to do by life. As Victor Frankl pointed out, we are questioned by life, not the other way round. If you can ask of a painful loss, or a broken relationship, or of life itself, what does this mean? then you have started, paradoxically, on a path to greater happiness. Meaning is the goal, happiness might, or might not, be a by-product.

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