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Thomas C. Reeves on the Unbearable Gravity of Being a Curmudgeon
Throughout my rather long life I have never been attracted to cheery people. Especially those who read the evening news, sell cars or insurance, and work as college administrators or preachers. I have usually dismissed the cheerfulness of such people as either mindless or insincere.
Often, of course, it is both. The inevitably perky, young, and physically attractive woman who smiles through a televised account of world horror called “the news,” evokes growls from this professor. The sight of Pat Robertson’s smile can send me out of a room sputtering fulminations. The works of Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale have always struck me as the worst sort of hypocrisy, sweet talk designed for people making business contacts at Kiwanis meetings.
I wanted to be the exact opposite, someone who was “realistic,” “honest,” and “truthful.” Knowing that the globe is coming apart at the seams (it always is), I thought it appropriate to be serious to the point of being grave. (Some of us are naturally better than others at this. The degree of my gravity depended in part on which political party was currently in power. It was wise to avoid me during the Carter and Clinton years.) Add to that somber mindset a dollop of sarcasm, a touch of irony, and a putdown or two, and there before your very eyes is a knowledgeable and sophisticated person.
I went a short step further, becoming something of a curmudgeon, one of a small legion about whom Jon Winokur has written admiringly, “Their weapons are irony, satire, sarcasm, ridicule. Their targets are pretense, pomposity, conformity, incompetence.” To be otherwise, I thought, was to be a Stepford Wife, an innocent, a Pollyanna, or (to quote Bugs Bunny) a maroon.
I’m now convinced that this scorn of cheerfulness and of the deliberate effort to be positive, an attitude not uncommon among intellectuals, is wholly wrong and destructive. I have been blind for decades to a simple truth: There is no inherent virtue in being glum, hypercritical, and cynical.
In fact, the “realistic” attitude toward life reveals little or nothing about knowledge, wisdom, or sophistication. Indeed, it is pompous, self-serving, and destructive. It assumes the personal possession of a preponderance of truth, highly doubtful in itself, but doubly dangerous because it elevates the self.
Just as poisonous is the fact that this negative cast of mind discourages rather than helps others get through life in a healthy, happy, and productive way. Of course, it clashes strongly with the Christian faith, a religion of love and hope.
Another simple truth: Cheerfulness, however forced, can generate both of these virtues. The New Testament is full of exhortations urging the faithful to rejoice, for the Lord has paid the price for our sins, the values of the world have been overcome, and the blessings described in the Sermon on the Mount are forthcoming and will last forever. I acknowledged this basic teaching intellectually, but it never seemed to seep down into the heart, where the decisions of life are usually made.
The error of my ways became most acutely felt when I read Furrow, one volume of the famed trilogy written by St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. (I am an admirer and supporter of this organization, not a member.) The chapter on Cheerfulness forced me to reconsider at length a lifetime of behavior.
Four brief excerpts:
• “A piece of advice on which I have insisted repeatedly: be cheerful, always cheerful. It is for those to be sad who do not consider themselves to be sons of God.”
• “May no one read sadness or sorrow in your face, when you spread in the world around you the sweet smell of your sacrifice: the children of God should always be sowers of peace and joy.”
• “The cheerfulness of a man of God, or a woman of God, has to overflow: it has to be calm, contagious, attractive . . . in a few words, it has to be so supernatural, and natural, so infectious that it may bring others to follow Christian ways.”
• “There are men who have no faith, who are sad and hesitant because of the emptiness of their existence, and exposed like weathercocks to ‘changeable’ circumstances. How different that is from our trusting life as Christians, which is cheerful, firm, and solid, because we know and are absolutely convinced of our supernatural destiny!”
This would not mean much or anything to our secular friends, but everyone (even they) should consider yet another of St. Josemaria’s bits of advice: “A sincere resolution: to make the way lovable for others and easy, since life brings enough bitterness with it already.” Cheerfulness just for the sake of others. No matter how hard you have to work at it. That is surely a virtue under any standard of values.
Thomas C. Reeves is a retired history professor who lives with his wife Kathleen in the Wisconsin countryside. Among his numerous books are biographies of John F. Kennedy and Fulton J. Sheen. His latest book is Distinguished Service: The Life and Times of Wisconsin Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. (Marquette University Press).