[This week's Haveil Havalim is up!]
Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, 2003-
to be less serious about something. People are usually relieved when they're given a chance to lighten up.
Usage notes: often used as an order: When she complained that these people were being treated badly, he told her, “Lighten up.”
To which I would add: A two-word expression which should be abolished from the English language, particularly when used as an order.
"Lighten up" is so presumptuous, so judgmental, so heavy-handed - and often so wrong for the situation.
I will grant that I am particularly sensitive, perhaps hyper-sensitive, on this point; I am, from time to time, on the receiving end of this instruction (or "Rabbi, you're such a misnaged!"). I go to a celebration after seeing a pain-riddled person in the hospital or after sitting with a bereaved family, and if I’m not the life of the party I can generally count on at least one person to try to pull me into the middle of it, and to accuse me of being a ‘party-pooper’ if I hang back.
Now, my case may be somewhat different, because a rabbi is supposed to be able to lighten up:
-First, my role is professional, so that some expect me to be able to compartmentalize.
-Second, my professional role includes celebrating happy occasions with people, not only being a compassionate listener and counselor.
-Third, in my fishbowl role, my joy is supposed to catalyze joy in others. But, in truth, people don’t only do this to me – they do it to everyone, and with a very heavy hand.
I see it at a shul Purim Seudah or during Simchas Torah dancing, with attempts to draw wallflowers into the middle of the action. There are legitimate reasons why many of these people hang back: a close relative in the hospital, a bereavement marked at this time of year, a job concern, physical pain, an issue of alcoholism, a problem with diet. But not everyone thinks of those possibilities; it's easier to simply grab people and try to pull them in.
“Lighten up” has many roots and motivations, among them:
- A well-intentioned religious belief of מצוה גדולה להיות בשמחה, that it’s religiously proper for people to celebrate life with joy.
- The presumption that those who are not celebrating do not have a worthwhile reason for failing to celebrate.
- The reality that Debbie Downer drags down the celebration of others.
- That Cambridge line up top – the pervasive belief that “People are usually relieved when they're given a chance to lighten up.”
But some forethought is worthwhile before approaching someone to try to relieve his mood. Specifically, it might be wise to contemplate two indicators before demanding a jubilant smile:
1) Body language – Does this person seem to want to participate? Is he held back only by a lack of confidence? Is he held back by apathy? Or does he seem more psychologically comfortable remaining on the sidelines?
2) The person’s life circumstances – Do I know anything about why this person might not want to participate? Does this person ever participate? Might this be something I could discuss with him, more thoughtfully, on other occasion?
I do hate to spoil the fun of the Lighteners – but from my own experience, and from the experiences people have reported to me, it would be wise for the self-appointed Lighteners to lighten up their approach, first.