I think cheerfulness is an under-rated virtue. To make others happy or light-hearted (which is what cheerfulness does) is indeed to strengthen them (which is what virtue does). But being cheerful is slightly different from cheerfulness itself. It implies something more lasting than a passing feeling, a transient mood; something that goes deeper than the smile on the face or the merry quip on the lips. It implies, I think, that one has acquired that stained-glass quality of letting the light shine through. To do that, one must first let the Light (note the capital letter) in. These lovely sunny days we are enjoying at the moment lift the mood but only the Light within can transform lives. Being cheerful has much to commend it.
I am myself feeling quite cheerful, but I notice some others aren’t. ‘It is a wet and windy Saturday, don’t we have a right to our gloom?’ they ask. I know that whatever I answer will be wrong, so I’ll simply make a few observations addressed to no one in particular.
English has a wonderful repertoire of phrases to describe everything from a mild lowering of spirits to clinical depression: feeling glum, feeling blue, a bit down, a fit of the blues, a touch of black dog, down in the dumps, in the doldrums, an attack of the glooms, and so on and so forth. The only antonym given in my Thesaurus is ‘cheerful’, yet when we are feeling glum, the last thing likely to cheer us is someone who is cheerful. We feel their optimism as a personal slur on our despondency, their brightness as an insult to our gloom. The truth is, apart from those who suffer from depression (which is a real and terrible illness), most of us are quite content to be glum sometimes. We wear our dejection as a badge of honour. See how I suffer, how wretched I am, how awful life is to me! Things can’t possibly improve. It is all dark, dark, dark!
Alternatively, we might say, ‘Look at me, me, me’ . . . and there, unless I am very much mistaken, is the clue to understanding why glumness can be so attractive. It puts the spotlight on ourselves, makes us the object of our own pity and safely insulates us from those horribly cheerful people who whistle and sing through all life’s little mishaps. It is an uncomfortable contrast, isn’t it? If you are feeling down this morning, it will probably make you feel worse. I apologize (sort of), but there’s just a chance it may make you feel better. I hope so.
I know that if I say we are at the end not just of a year but of the first decade of the twenty-first century someone will correct me. For bloggers, correction is both a blessing and a bane. It is a blessing when it puts right an error, advances an argument, or throws light on something previously obscure (Digitalnun would add, when it makes us smile as well). It’s a bane when it it is simply the outpouring of rudeness or venom which does nothing constructive. I can’t help feeling we’ve seen an awful lot of negative correction during the past ten years, not just in the blogosphere but also in the world at large.
Here in Britain I think many people have been dismayed to find how much corruption simmers beneath the surface of our public life and in the shock of that discovery have exaggerated the effects. Some MPs fiddled their expenses so now we are cynical about all politicians; some bankers behaved greedily and irresponsibly so now bank-bashing is a legitimate blood sport. Religion is not exempt. Some clergy abused children and young people so now all Catholics are the spawn of Satan; some Islamist extremists murdered so now all Muslims are terrorists. Even the weather attracts our ire. We’ve had two harsh winters in succession and it’s highlighted the inadequacy of some of our preparations, so we castigate our local authorities for not doing more. Now ‘flu is spreading and our misery knows no bounds. At the year’s end, with budget cuts and job cuts and VAT rises to look forward to, we are not at our most cheery.
Cheeriness, however, is not a virtue; cheerfulness is, though I fear you will not find it listed in any textbook of moral theology, more’s the pity. Cheeriness is merely the state of being happy and optimistic and is limited to self; cheerfulness is causing happiness and optimism in others and knows no bounds. If iBenedictines has a wish for its readers at the end of 2010 it is simply this: be cheerful. There’s more true religion in that than you might think, but correct me if I’m wrong.