“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh
Among my circle of friends, there's an ongoing inside joke: to quote song lyrics that give terrible advice. Among them are, “Don’t cry out loud. Hold it inside; learn how to hide your feelings.” Another is, “Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it’s breaking.”
In our Eurocentric American culture, outward displays of emotions other than happiness are taboo. Women, especially, are taught that anger is unacceptable or unladylike. Just listen to how country singer Miranda Lambert sings about her mother’s rebuffed advice:
Go and fix your makeup girl it’s just a break up run an’ / Hide your crazy and start actin' like a lady 'cause I / Raised you better, gotta keep it together even when you fall apart / But this ain't my mama's broken heart.
Of course, it's not just women who feel the pressure to control their “difficult” emotions. Men are pressured to be “manly” about how they express theirs, too: there are definitively acceptable and unacceptable means of expressing sadness, anger, frustration, or any other emotion that’s deemed unpleasant. When our emotions boil the lid off of those repressed feelings, we risk behaving in regrettable ways with the people we love most.
There exists, however, a growing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence that it’s possible to “fake it ‘til we make it” on our way to happiness — and that such “faking” doesn’t necessarily deny the full range of our human emotional experience. Studies tell us there’s a connection between the upward movement of the corners of the mouth (i.e., smiling) and the production of serotonin in the brain. Maybe this is why, nowadays, my therapist ends most sessions by telling me the same thing my mom used to shout at us whiny, bored kids on long summer days: “Go play!”
To play is to pretend… and honestly, sometimes the world seems too heavy to leave the house, let alone inspire moments of joy. But the more I watch the news these days, the more I'm coming to view playing — intentionally seeking joy — as a means of radical resistance. And I’ll continue to laugh with my friends at songs that deliver terrible emotional advice.
Divine Mystery, you are present in my joy and in my sorrow, anger, and fear. Guide me to create joy in my life and in the lives of others, that despair finds no permanent home within my soul. Amen.