Monday, March 31, 2008

Lighten up, Rabbi! ... not

[This week's Haveil Havalim is up!]

Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, 2003-
Lighten up
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.


  1. a joyous celebrant

    Oy. This is such a sterile description.

  2. Nicely stated. As an aside, R Yisrael Salanter was quoted as saying the even one's face is a reshus HaRabim, and we must not bring others down by the sour looks on our faces.

  3. While I agree with you, and think this is a good post, it does seem like someone who is perpetually showing emotions inappropriate to the event at hand needs to stop and think about this.

    Bad Cohen, for one, is often distracted for a long time after programming, to the point where it feels like he's not really there with us, even though he's physically there.

    If you are getting the comment, as a rabbi, it may mean that your congregants are feeling you are not giving them, and the current situation, your full attention.

    Would you keep showing a big grin from a simcha when you show up for a funeral? Of course not. So why are those "down" feelings any more legitimate to carry with you to an event where they are inappropriate?

    Having gone through a depression after having Baby Chalal, I know that I often made people uncomfortable by not being able to "lighten up" at will. Of course it would have been better for me if they had, instead, stopped to ask me how I was, what was wrong, etc., but not everybody can be that sensitive.

    It sounds like the real problem is people on both side wanting to have their own emotions validated.

  4. Neil-

    In this case, I only have one person who has said this, and that person is just, well, that sort o person. I am ordinarily hyperconcerned that I might be wrong, but in this case I really think it's more that person than me.
    As a general response to the issue, though: I think a grin at a funeral is more offensively inappropriate than a wallflower at a party.

  5. Oh, this topic is huge. It's like driving, the speed of traffic thing.

  6. "Lighten Up" is the first cousin of "Why don't you just....?"

    Nothing useful ever follows "Why don't you just....?"

    "Why don't I just....?" or "What if we...?" are honorable citizens of the Phrase World, but "Why don't you just....?" and "Lighten Up" are like offers of someone else's prescription drugs. They may have good or bad intent, but the offer is inappropriate.

    If they have found their way to "lighten up" or a simple solution to a complex problem, then mazal tov to them. If they think their attitude is helpful, then, just as with prescription medication they can mention what worked for them, in the hope that it will provide information to the listener.

    (E.g. "I was in such a bad mood when I got here, thinking about my grandmother's illness, but then I watched the kids in the Purim play, and remembered how much my grandmother loves Purim. What are your favorite Purim memories?" vs. "Lighten up."

    or: "I remember when I chared that event. We couldn't get enough volunteers until we personally called two dozen key people, asking them to each bring a friend. We also put an announcement in ...." vs. "Why don't you just ask the community for more help?")

  7. Oops, typo: "chaired", not "chared"

  8. Another favorite example (heard year-round, but especially at this time of year, preparing for Pesach) when seeing someone extraordinarly busy (or when someone begs forgiveness for not being able to indulge in a long chat or visit)

    "You're so busy. Why don't you just do less?"

  9. Juggling Frogs-
    Exactly - and people find it easier to say "Lighten up," than to work at helping someone.