Thursday, March 4, 2010

Should We Not Always Want Others to Put On a Happy Face? Misplaced Optimism as a Denial of the Cross

It is a good thing to want to encourage others to have a positive outlook about life. But sometimes this desire can be used in an inappropriate way. Sometimes there is no escaping the bitter pill of suffering. Consider the situation of when a close family member or friend is going through very real, serious suffering (such as the death of a child or terminal cancer). Sometimes we Americans are too eager to urge others to "put on a happy face," when we should do no such thing. Such efforts may inappropriately remove an opportunity to engage in genuine compassion--a beautiful virtue.

I wonder if a tendency to overemphasize putting on a happy face is yet another way that American culture rejects the cross. By encouraging others to smile through their troubles no matter what, we conveniently escape having to “suffer-with” those who are afflicted. And we thereby deny those in pain the blessing of traveling the road of hardship with someone who loves them at their side.

Do we, perhaps, reject a cross that we are called to take up—the cross of compassion (suffering-with)—by removing the suffering face of others from our midst? If we always and indiscriminately get our afflicted loved ones to put on a happy-face those signs of grief which would otherwise beckon us to leave our comfort zones, put our arms around their shoulders and provide help and companionship as they endure a cross they have no choice but to bear remain hidden; consequently, we do not have to respond to the face of suffering. It is far easier and more convenient for us to respond to a fake smile than to respond to genuine tears. But if we live this way we are choosing the easier path when we should choose the harder one, and are less human than we could be, than we are called to be by Him who made us.

I have seen this in hospital settings. Visitors, highly averse to pain and suffering, coax a seriously ill loved one to play along and pretend things are OK. Then, after they leave, the patient is left to cry alone. No one to suffer-with him, to share his cross. One wonders who really benefits when a visitor discourages outward signs of grief: the patient, or the visitor who doesn’t want to deal with the full human depth and piercing reality of suffering?

[Thanks to Katie at The Linde]

1 comment:

  1. I've seen this tendency in hospital settings and even at funeral homes. It seems to me to be completely off-target to encourage a grieving person to cheer up (which, in essence, is what is happening). Grief is a normal process, and avoiding it altogether is not a healthy response to loss.

    As Christians, we ought to offer comfort and solace, not false optimism. Certainly there are people who are clinically depressed and who need professional help, but for the most part, grief isn't pathological.


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