We won’t get through this if we lose all our joy

I’m not trying to be funny here

Seriously. What I’m after is a sober-sided defense of levity. After taking an afternoon off yesterday from all the awfulness that is America these days — I’ll spare you the list; you know what I’m talking about — I discovered that I’d returned refreshed and restored. And while all the awfulness was still there and still every bit as awful, it was no more so than when I’d embarked on my nano-sabbatical. Yet I felt, dare I say it, hopeful. Even happy.

Thus I realized my mistake. Of late, I’ve been taking myself way too seriously.

Life has taught me I’m not special or unique (any more than we’re all special and unique, okay? Don’t start with me) so if I’ve fallen into this error, I’m confident I’m not alone. And if I needed further evidence, I came across this article by the always-effervescent Roz Warren:I’m a Frivolous Writer in Serious Times, Is There Something Wrong with That?medium.com

She was prompted to write it because some readers of a previous piece she’d written (which had nothing at all to do with politics or pandemic or anything directly connected to the Awfulness) had upbraided her for writing about something light in such dark times.

I read the article (delightful). Then I read the comments and failed to find the scolders among them. I surmise someone did the wet-blanket thing either outside of Medium or right to Ms. Warren’s face. Which, I guess, is better than a semi-anonymous online teardown, but it’s still dispiriting, not to mention a weird waste of time. What is the hoped-for outcome of such criticism?

But I kind of get where the scolding is coming from

Because I do it to myself. People are getting horribly ill and dying in droves from a disease nobody understands yet, and we can’t even agree on what to do about it. Militarized stormtroopers in camo are seizing protesters off the street and shoving them into unmarked minivans. The extra unemployment that’s been keeping many folks afloat is running out. Racism and inequity still abound. And the Current Occupant descends further and further into fearmongering and sadistic strategies (deporting lone children without warning, opposing funding for COVID testing proposed by Republican senators) when he’s not bloviating about remembering five whole words (in order!). Meanwhile, an American passport is now about as useful as a fork is to a goldfish.

When things are this bad, how can I think or talk or write about anything besides how bad things are? Isn’t that self-indulgent escapism, amounting to a refusal to face the situation? If my gas tank were on empty, I wouldn’t just slap a happy-face sticker on the gauge to make myself feel better, instead of taking action. Would I?

Three problems with that thinking

Reason 1: it’s paralyzing. What can most of us, as individuals, do that is of such import that it can end racism or cure COVID or get Americans to trust each other (at least a little) again? It’s too easy to go glum and thereby let ourselves off the hook.

To spend too much time marinating in overwhelm when things are bad — and nowadays, things are legitimately bad — is a sure way to drain the energy you need to take whatever positive action you can. So what, you think, if you become pen pals with your congressional representative or write letters to the editor or head out (peacefully, please) to the protests? What difference will it make?

And yet those are the things that can make a difference, if enough of us do them, and do them in the right way and in the right spirit.

Reason two: it’s egotistical. To imagine that you’ll contribute anything by being unrelentingly solemn is a fantasy. It’s granting yourself powers you don’t have. If you, or any of us, could think the world into shape, we’d all be riding unicorns over the rainbow instead of wondering when it’ll be safe to visit Grandma again.

That “right spirit” that infuses a positive response to tough times depends on humility as much as courage — and I’ve never met anyone who was genuinely humble who didn’t also have a sense of humor.

Reason three: we’re not getting this time back.You may have noticed that life persists in going on, quite without regard for your opinion on the state of things. If you’re waiting for the world to meet your criteria for happiness before you allow yourself (or anyone else, like humor writers) to cheer up, then you’re doomed to a dismal future. And you don’t get an invitation to my socially-distanced, bring-your-own-everything picnic.

I don’t for a moment suggest you ignore the terrible problems we’re currently facing. There is much going on that needs your attention and concern and resolve. Figure out what you can do, however modest it may seem, and do it.

But remember, this is your life right now. Time isn’t standing still, and for some of it you’re going to feel lousy or frightened or even despairing; go ahead and feel those things. But don’t adopt them as a mantle of purity. Don’t allow the gift of any day you’re granted on this earth to pass you by without acknowledgment, and if you can manage it, celebration. When you get a chance, play.

Take a hike, eat a piece of pie, make yourself one perfect martini, laugh. My nano-sabbatical included all of those things. It didn’t fix the whole world, but it did me a world of good. I’m ready to get back in the fray and do what I can to be of use, and I’m nicer to be around.

That last is important. Let’s not add to the world’s woes by being sadsacks. Consider the words of Elie Weisel, no stranger to misfortune himself:

“Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.”

Happy days, my friend. How about some pie?


  1. Write on, Sista! Yesterday was OUR little sabbatical (though we missed the martini and pie part). We drove out to Bodega Bay to get the World’s Best Clam Chowder, slurping it down as we sat in the car overlooking the crashing surf of the Pacific. On the way we passed the “Fresh King Salmon for Sale” sign at one of the docks and I got a whole 16 pounder, quite literally, right off the boat. It was handed up from the water’s edge to a nice young fella who just turned around and plopped it on the scale. Now, I have to cut it up in freezable portions and try to fit it all in our overstuffed freezer. But we will be able to feed off of it for months. As we drove home through the bucolic fields and forests of western Sonoma County we talked about the Gualala vacation rental we still have reserved for New Years 2021, and thought we might still be able to go there and safely share it with just one other couple, and we recalled that you missed it last year… so, we decided to hang onto it for now and maybe, just maybe, we can kiss 2020 goodbye with you and a martini and a soak in the hot tub as the sun sets beautifully over the ocean’s horizon. Keep it in mind, won’t you? Because just the possibility of that makes me smile.

  2. I love all of your reasons to lighten up, Jan, but I am especially drawn to #3. Is that surprising? This is the only time we have. We may as well make the most of it. As one of my favorite writers (Annie Dillard) says, “we are making hay when we should be making whoopie”!

    My sabbatical just happens to be in the mountains of Colorado! No pie or martinis, but birthday cake and some good bubbly abound.

    • Here’s to your Rocky Mountain high spirits, Laurie — hope you’re still having a wondrous time!

  3. Hi Jan – I love this, especially your comment that it’s egotistical to be solemn and think that is helping. The seriousness of our many problems overwhelms me and my only defense is to try to have a little fun too. Because your’e right, we won’t get this time back and we all have relationships and things we can enjoy in the meantime to keep us sane. Great post.

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