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  • Jan Flynn

Times Are Dark, So Lighten Up

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?

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?

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