This article was originally printed on March 19, 2018 in Area of Effect magazine. It is reprinted here with permission. If you enjoy this article, we recommend you check out Never Split the Party: (and Other Wisdom from Geek Culture that Changed My Life) and Always Look Up: (and Other Wisdom from Geek Culture that Changed My Life), two anthologies birthed from Area of Effect, containing pieces similar to this one and many more written by a cacophony of wonderful (and nerdy) writers.
The first two rights in the Declaration of Independence, life and liberty, have always been givens for me. But the last, the pursuit of happiness, is something that requires striving for. As a child, I did everything I could to attain it, playing video games, spending time with friends, and of course, always searching for sweets. As an adult, I haven’t changed much. I’m still pursuing happiness, even if candy isn’t what elicits that feeling (well, not always).
But happiness isn’t the ultimate goal for everyone, and maybe I focus on it too much. In The Ancient Magus Bride, a moody but absorbing anime about a teenager thrust into the world of magic and fairies, none of the main characters are particularly happy, but neither are they actively reaching for that goal. For them, happiness is rather an occasional by-product of more foundational pursuits. And considering the fleeting nature of happiness, I think these characters have it right.
As the series begins, an abandoned and defeated Chise, the eponymous bride, has given herself to slave traders who sell her at a magical auction. Elias, a refined but fearsome figure (he has what appears to be an animal skull for a head incised with glowing red eyes), purchases her and tells her that she will become his bride and pupil, learning how to become a magician like him. After he rescues Chise, she quickly grows to care for Elias, though outward expressions of delight are seldom seen between them.
Other members of their household find similar contentment. Silky, a banshee who lost the loved ones she previously haunted to a house fire, finds quiet satisfaction in acting as their housekeeper. Ruth, Chise’s familiar, lost his previous master, a young woman, to a tragic death, and now dutifully guards his keeper in a most serious manner, rarely with a smile.
But this doesn’t mean that the household is gloomy. Chise frequently shows a modest smile when speaking with others. Silky cheerfully prepares meals and sweeps the home. And Elias—well it’s hard to tell through his skull what his expression is, but there are certainly times he demonstrates strong feelings of longing for Chise.
Happiness is not what defines each of these characters. It’s not what they seek for nor what they center their lives upon. In fact, each seems to have found meaning in something more foundational. Ruth, usually in the guise of a shaggy black dog, time and time again expresses a self-sacrificial loyalty associated with the animal. Silky longs to simply be around her magical family and pours out her devotion to them through caring for the household. Chise encounters all sorts of beings—both human and magical—and expresses kindness toward them, often by helping them even though it endangers her own life. Elias is often simply trying to understand this foundational quality that all the rest are expressing: love.
I often equate love with happiness, but my experiences tell me that it isn’t always so. I find delight when spending time with my family, but there are daily occasions where I have to grind through difficulties and challenges, responding to family members who push too hard, children who refuse to listen, friends and church members who make choices that bring them suffering (and pain to me as well). Love is so much more complex than the emotion of happiness; it takes energy and work and endurance, with happiness sometimes merely being a result of loving others.
I’ve come to realize that more important to me than being in a continuous state of happiness—which isn’t possible, by the way, at least not if I’m going to engage imperfect people in relationship with my imperfect self—is to have joy, which is having the heart to “love anyway” through the ups and downs, to be able to bounce back when I’m hurt, and to find a measure of satisfaction and contentment even when things go awry. I’m able to push through that way because of love, both that which I believe has been poured onto me according to my faith, and which I try to give to others as I care for them.
The pursuit of joy, then, is what I aim for. It’s so much more foundational than happiness, and it doesn’t come and go with the wind based on possessions, experiences, and chemical reactions. And in a world that may not be magical like that in The Ancient Magus Bride, but in which pain and suffering are ever-present, the ability to endure and even thrive when life isn’t cheerful is a strength I desire to have, and one that is worth pursuing.
Featured illustration by Pickerrrr (reprinted w/permission)