Einstein once said that the most important question we could ask of ourselves is the following, “Is the universe a friendly place?” Our answer helps us to decide how we live our lives. Do we spend our energies protecting ourselves against enemies real or imagined, or do we help make our universe friendly through collaboration, compassion and empathy?
Unfortunately, of late, the news has been filled with acts of violence that are often unimaginable. You would hope that history would not repeat itself, but it often feels that we are re-entering the dark ages.
It certainly feels that fear has become one of the constants in our society. The more we fear the less we trust ourselves and others. Yes, it makes sense to be aware of possible dangers that could impact our lives, but it also makes sense to not let go of what makes life worthwhile. We need to feel hopeful about life and what it has to offer, otherwise we can become anxious or depressed.
You might be thinking, “How do I do that when I’m surrounded with bad news and people who love to share it?” Well, it’s not easy, but it is possible. I have some people who can spend an entire conversation inundating me with how many things are wrong with the government, the economy, the neighbors, their weight and their relationships. By the time I get off the phone I want to jump off a bridge. Thank God, they are few and far between, but I am making a conscious effort this year to avoid them as much as possible. It’s not easy if it’s your parents or mate, or someone very close to you. But they will get tired of their lamenting if you simply don’t show a lot of interest. My ex-husband was a verbal vampire. When you finished a conversation with him, you knew you needed a transfusion. My mother had her Ph.D in pessimism. I finally figured out that if I simply countered with “Oh well, what can you do”? , they got tired of trying to rope me into their den of negativity.
It also makes sense to have people in your life that love good news or who are actively involved in altruistic activities. Spend some time with family or friends sharing those things that are going right in your life or the lives of others. Research has shown that even watching someone help a disadvantaged person influences our mood and our immune system. Gandhi made the following statement often “ You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. I think if we could embrace this philosophy our lives would be so much better.
Whenever I give a workshop or a lecture, I never fail to encourage participants to read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl. He was a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps during World War II and who developed a form of psychotherapy called Logotherapy as a result. His book profoundly shows how individuals can survive the most horrific situations through grace, dignity, and humor.
In the preface of the book, Gordon Allport writes: “Hunger, humiliation, fear, and deep anger at injustice are rendered tolerable by closely guarded images of beloved persons, by religion, by a grim sense of humor, and even by glimpses of the healing beauties of nature—a tree or a sunset.” I’ve heard many accounts of how this type of humor, called “gallows humor,” has helped many people in difficult jobs, particularly health-care professionals. Anyone overhearing some of the conversation between nurses or doctors might be deeply offended, but for them it becomes a way to get relief from the horrors they witness. One of the most popular shows on television was “Mash” which was the quintessential example for “gallows humor”.
The great humanitarian psychologist Abraham Maslow once said “we must laugh at what we hold sacred and still hold it sacred”. This is often difficult for individuals who are heavily invested in thinking that their way is the way. Not being able to take the position of “the witness to your thinking patterns can lead you down the path to fanaticism. When we are fanatical about how we must live our lives and how others must also follow suit we are embarking on trying to become the leader of a cult.
I have listened to thousands of people describe situations that they deplore but cannot find a way out due to their inability to explore options. Their story becomes like an old TV series that plays over and over and they can’t seem to change the channel. What always fascinates me is that they lack a healthy sense of humor. Humor helps us to see the light and when you become fanatical the light is very dim or essentially non-existent.
I was very fortunate to be brought up in an irreverent family. As a child, I was dragged to many an Italian funeral, which often resembled a Frederico Fellini movie. There was high drama as a plethora of black clad women showed up to wail and moan. Then there would be bursts of laughter as people recalled stories about the dearly beloved. And, of course there was the inevitable discussion about the food that was to follow.
In today’s world we must all try to maintain the ability to laugh at what we hold sacred and to still hold it sacred. It will not only help maintain our sanity by also our ability to tolerate one another.