Monday, May 28, 2007

Hollow Happiness: When Plastic Smiles are Part of the Dress Code

I am not an ogre.

I love warm smiles, and moments of joy. I am a big fan of optimism. I consider authentic happiness to be the mission of mankind. But I just can’t stand stupidity.

Speaking of stupidity, why is it that people say the darndest things to mourners? You know, the silly remarks intended to “cheer up” the bereaved. Of course, these ridiculous attempts are miserable failures, causing more pain than comfort. Jess Decourcy Hinds recounts how she resented the attempts made to “cheer her up” after her father’s death:

"After a recent death in my family, I received a number of condolence cards that tried to talk me out of my grief. "You should be happy you have your memories," wrote one friend. "You should feel lucky you got to be with your father in the hospital." Lucky? Happy? You've got to be kidding!

Some cards made little mention of my father's death at all. Instead, they focused on the question of how I was going to distract myself from my grief. "Are you applying to grad school?" one person wrote. "How's your teaching going? Are you still renovating your apartment? Are you keeping busy?"

I was 25 when I lost my father last fall. He was only 58, and his death from bone cancer was slow and excruciating. When I cry for my father, I cry for his suffering; I cry because he worked long, grueling hours to save for a retirement he never got to enjoy. I cry because my mother is alone. I cry because I have so much of my life ahead of me, and my father will miss everything. If I marry, if I have children, he won't be there. My grief is profound: I am mourning the past, present and future. I resent the condolence cards that hurry me through my grief, as if it were a dangerous street at night…...

On the day of my father's funeral, we were greeted by a grinning deacon who shook our hands and chirped, "Isn't it a beautiful day? I'm so glad you have sun for your memorial!" I wanted to shake this woman. Couldn't she invoke a solemn tone for at least five seconds on the darkest morning of my life?"

People say stupid things to mourners because mourning is an annoyance. No one wants the mourners to bring their mood down with all their crying and grief. So of course, friends push the mourners to snap out of it, so they don’t have to feel the mourner’s pain. And, as I have noted over and over again, people love denial. Hearing the mourner talk about loss reminds us of the inconvenient fact that death is a part of every life.

Mourning is also out of fashion. The happiness pursued today is speedy and superficial. There are a multitude of quick fixes for finding happiness; just check the magazines at supermarket checkouts and the self help aisle in the bookstore. In a quick fix culture, a mourner is expected to snap out of bereavement overnight.

Hollow happiness is now the new fashion. 21st century happiness doesn’t depend on living a meaningful life; all you need to do is slap on a plastic smile (from a good plastic surgeon, of course), and think happy thoughts, and voila!…you’re happy. Happy in a superficial way, that is; an empty joy that ends up dulling a person’s soul.

We must abandon this dress code of hollow happiness, and search for authentic expression.

The Jewish tradition takes mourning seriously. As the famous verses in Ecclesiastes says:

…There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…

Sadness is a painful feeling. But it is also the only proper response to loss and injustice. If you truly love someone, can you simply just move on and smile after they die? Mourning is an ethical requirement, and a life without sadness is a fraud.

Real lives have pain and sadness and loss.

The superficial way of handling loss seeks to make pain bearable by burying it under a smile.

The proper way of handling loss seeks to make the pain meaningful by cherishing memories and mourning properly.

And all the quick fixes and plastic smiles in the world cannot compare to the proud soul of an authentic mourner.

1 comment:

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz said...

To those who left comments to this post, I apologize. I pressed the wrong button and deleted them, while trying to delete an ad left in the comment box (it happens).

Thank you for the comments.