Visum Monachae… On Cheerfulness
Sister Edith Bogue
I hesitate to write about cheerfulness. Our days are filled with deadlines, dilemmas and disappointments. The world struggles with war, climate change, and abject poverty. What’s there to be cheerful about?
Many people cringe at the mention of cheerfulness. They are victims of too many over-exuberant salesclerks or waiters. Fake cheerfulness can sap the life out of a conversation or event. We feel sorry for the person who is trying too hard to be sociable. We worry that the bright mood avoids grappling with real problems. Or the blatant phoniness confuses us: how can I respond to this?
Others point to the dark side of cheerfulness. Barbara Ehrnenreich wrote “Bright-Sided” while undergoing cancer treatment. Of course, she appreciated compassionate nurses. The clinic’s resolute cheerfulness isolated people grieving bad news or struggling with their illness. She studied programs for other groups experiencing distress, such as the unemployed. They all made subtle promises that positive thinking would bring about positive results. When someone couldn’t find a job during a recession, she said she should have tried harder. A cancer patient whose tumor did not respond to treatment blamed himself. They should have been more positive.
Despite its bad reputation, the practice of cheerfulness is powerful. Do not dismiss it as an inconsequential virtue. Do not assume that it deals only with appearances and politeness. Deep springs of consideration, courage, and compassion combine to create the sunny persona. We can find cheerfulness at the heart of each of the Benedictine Values.
Cheerfulness begins with concern for the other person. A cheerful person seeks to make each encounter as positive as possible for the other person. She thinks, “What can I do to help make this class interesting and lively?” Another asks, “Why should my headache or frustrating meeting affect you?” Both focus on the other’s needs. If everyone behaves this way, all benefit.
Honest cheerfulness requires courage. When things go wrong, blame and despair contribute nothing. Many miraculous solutions begin with one person who says, “Let’s try this method. If it doesn’t work, we’ll think of another.” He may not be the smartest or most creative. Yet the courage of his cheerfulness is as important as analysis or knowledge.
Cheerfulness is most dynamic when it is least expected. I was recently caught up in a over-heated debate between two courses of action. Someone asked a quiet member of the group for his view. He looked at the intense frowns, smiled, and said: “I am sure the Holy Spirit is guiding us.” His tone surprised everyone. “Let’s take a moment to open our hearts.” After a moment, he highlighted the strong points of each position. Then he said, “In this room, we have what it takes to combine these. We can do it!” He offered no solution, but it was the turning point of the meeting.
“A cheerful heart is good medicine,” says Scripture (Prov 17:22). Cheerfulness is no accident: it requires practice to become skillful. Why not try it? The result may surprise you.
Visum Monachae = A Sister’s View. Sister Edith is Associate Professor of Sociology at the College and Vocation Director at the Monastery. Connect with her at email@example.com.