I remember the moment like it was yesterday. The year was 1991. I was sporting my fabulous color block blazer from Express, paired with black stirrup leggings, and authentic cowboy boots. Can you say fashionista? I was seated on the couch across from my therapist. I don’t recall the story I was sharing, but apparently, it wasn’t a happy one (I was in therapy after all), because when I finished she looked at me and said, “You say the saddest things with the biggest smile.” And then she smiled. I took that as a compliment.
You see, as a Catholic, humor is a very serious thing to me. As it says in the amazing book Victorious Secret, “there is nothing more tragic than a humorless Catholic,” and I have to agree with the author. Of course, I am the author, so disagreeing would be weird. But come on. Jesus was funny. Sure, I know, He suffered a lot. A real lot. But don’t reduce Him to only tears. The man was good looking and He laughed, and you know the ladies loved Him. A camel fitting through the eye of a needle? That was funny stuff back then! Like, serious stand-up material. And don’t get me started on the kind of partier He was. After all, He turned water into good wine, not the cheap box kind. He told stories and parables and was the original Twitter with His classic one-line zingers, usually directed at the Pharisees, who I will bet you any amount of money were not funny.
I don’t know why, but I have always seen the funny in all circumstances ever since I was small. The awful singer at my grandmother’s funeral? Funny. The actual dumpster fire we drove by on our way to driving a child in crisis to the hospital? Come on now. Funny. That one time I stayed so long after Mass in such deep personal prayer that I had no idea a funeral had begun, until I opened my eyes and saw the coffin next to me? SUPER funny. (For the record, out of respect, I stayed for the entire funeral. I am certain the talk amongst family and friends at the reception was, “Who the heck was the girl wearing jeans?” Trust me: had I known I was attending a funeral, I would have dressed better. I also would have packed tissues, because it didn’t matter that I had no idea who we were burying, singing Be Not Afraid gets me every time.)
Some think that finding humor in suffering is inappropriate. And I kind of get that. After the tragedy at my children’s school, there was this certain unspoken rule in our hearts about happiness. Basically, if you felt it, you had moved on. And how on earth does anyone move on from the unimaginable? You don’t, unless you are heartless. But since when did cheerfulness mean we are heartless? When did seeing the joy mean we didn’t care? When did setting yourself apart from the screaming and crying to tell a few jokes make you insensitive?
I struggled with this for a long while. Was I missing a gene of compassion? How on earth could I go through all the stuff that I have gone through (and oh, sweet sister, have I gone through stuff) and still find life funny? Is it just a coping mechanism? Am I pushing grief down, masking my true feelings? It was my coming upon a little blurb about Saint Philip Neri in The Magnificat, that made me feel a whole lot better about my love of what’s funny, no matter how dire the circumstance: “To have a sense of humor is to be wise enough to see things in proportion. Saint Philip Neri...[won]...hearts for Christ by the quality of his joy.”
It’s not that I think that suffering is funny. I don’t. It is 100% painful and insanely hard, and I wish it didn’t slap me in the face as often as it does. But what I do know is this: Every painful thing we endure here on earth doesn’t hold a candle to the feast and the joy and the goodie bags and the cake and who knows what else the Lord has planned for us in that big ol’ party in heaven! I hope that, like Saint Philip Neri, I see things in proportion.
As we slowly emerge out of the craziest months of our lives, bracing ourselves in anticipation as we wait for the next disaster, it would be good to ask, What is the quality of my joy? How do I see things? How do I view the world? Am I so focused on the tragedy of it all that I have failed to see the joy? Am I so wrapped up in the bad news and suffering, that I have forgotten the commission to spread the good news? Because truly, it is our confidence in God and dependence on Him that allows us to live out the joy of the Gospel and bring it to others no matter how distressing the circumstances or trials of our life are. We are an Easter people, after all, and “everything stinks!” is so not our song. Alleluia is! I give you permission to shout it. No matter what you’re facing right now. It is okay to be happy. It is not a crime to spread joy.
Proverbs 15:30 tells us, “A cheerful glance brings joy to the heart; good news invigorates the bones.” And I don’t know about you, but I have witnessed some seriously weary looking bones walking around this earth lately. Hearts are heavy and burdened and terribly afraid. The world could use more cheerful glances. The world is in dire need of some good news right about now. And who better to bring it than you?
I’ve just celebrated a milestone birthday—my 50th. As I survey the landscape, it’s looking like pretty fertile ground for gratitude. There are some hard-won interior victories that have allowed me to see progress in areas of my life where old patterns remained for far too long. I lost years of joy by allowing other people’s opinions of me to dictate my sense of self-worth. My mood and self-esteem would fluctuate according to how this or that person saw me and treated me. It was a seesaw life emotionally. But after some deep soul work, I have been tasting freedom in this area. I’ve been better able to live for an audience of One, getting a little closer to being able to say along with St. Thomas More, “I do not care very much what men say of me, provided that God approves of me.”
Some of my favorite things about starting this new decade:
A friend of mine read my list, and asked me to help her brainstorm a list for her. She, too, was celebrating a milestone birthday, but said that, while she wished she could just take my list and run with it, her story was unique. There are challenges she is facing that are different than mine. I suggested the following, with hopes that she’d use the list as a springboard to personalize it, tweak it, and come up with her own ideas:
Getting older brings all sorts of things we don’t want (failing eyesight, colonoscopies, and overall sagging, to name a few), but there are a number of things that are undeniably better if we have been good students of life. Suffering can make us more mature or more bitter; it’s up to us which we become. Gratitude factors in here in a big way. The perspective we choose is critical. If we are continuously on the lookout for disappointments, failed dreams, inadequacies, and times that people and life have let us down, we’ll find ample examples. Focusing on them will feed the heaviness. But if we will do the work of finding the good in our current set of circumstances, if we thank God continually for those things, we’ll start to notice all sorts of other small and surprising blessings.
How about you? Can you make a list of your favorite things (lessons learned, victories achieved) as you head into this new decade? May gratitude serve as a catalyst for happiness in 2020 and beyond for each one of us.