“It was really good to see you out there dancing,” my friend told me with a gentle smile. We’d been at a party a few nights before and in a rare occurrence of carefree abandonment, I’d danced the night away like a total goof. Usually I’m too afraid of looking like a fool to get out on the dance floor. My friend knew this, which was why he’d been so struck by the sight and thought it worth mentioning.
His comment made me stop and think. There’s no question that I have a serious personality. I approach life in a melodramatic fashion. I quickly get angry at myself when I fail or do something bad, I avoid any situation where I risk looking silly or ridiculous. It’s just a part of my personality, I used to tell myself. I can’t help it. And in some respects, it’s true that I can’t totally control this. I’ll never be a life-of-the-party kind of person, and I’m at peace with that.
The Question of Seriousness
But after talking with my friend, and after struggling with a lot of sadness and discouragement about my own faults recently, I decided to delve a little deeper into this question of seriousness.
It turns out that the Saints have a lot to say about taking yourself too seriously! Especially St. Philip Neri—the patron saint of laughter and joy—and St. Francis de Sales, who wrote extensively about anxiety, peace, and being gentle with oneself. I began to realize that, as much as I hated to admit it, excessive seriousness can actually be a form of pride.
While I’ll always have a more reserved nature, there were certainly many aspects of my life where I could and had to lighten up.
Reliance on Self, or God?
I saw that a lot of it sprang from my reliance on myself instead of God.
I didn’t want to give Him control, I was afraid to trust Him, and I wasn’t confident that His love sustains and holds me even when I stumble. I’d forgotten what it means to be a true daughter of the Heavenly Father. What it means to be a little child who leaves everything in her parent’s hands and lives in the present.
I suspect I’m not the only one who struggles with this. So what’s a serious person to do?
How to Lighten Up
The main thing is to break free of the cycle of always thinking and worrying about ourselves. To let go of our own sense of self-importance. As C.S. Lewis put it, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself: it is thinking of yourself less.”
This sort of humility leads to freedom and joy.
Cultivating a Sense of Wonder
Most of us lose our sense of wonder when we become adults, and yet it’s key to living a rich, deep life. When we admit that we don’t have all the answers and allow ourselves to be caught up in the incredible beauty, power, and mystery of the reality around us, it helps us lose ourselves in a good way. We realize how small we are in the grand scheme of things, and frankly, it’s a relief. I’m reminded of a passage at the end of The Hobbit, when Bilbo and Gandalf have the following exchange:
[Gandalf said] “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.
There are many ways to stoke our sense of wonder. From taking a slow walk outside and drinking in nature to listening to a beautiful piece of music and letting our imaginations wander. Whatever it is, space and quiet time to contemplate are essential.
Responding Gently to Your Own Weakness
While we should obviously have genuine sorrow for our sins and strive to grow in virtue, we also have to be humble enough to recognize our innate weakness. “Fits of anger, vexation, and bitterness against ourselves,” says St. Francis de Sales, “tend to pride and they spring from no other source than self-love, which is disturbed and upset at seeing that it is imperfect.”
God knows how much we need Him and how we can’t do anything without Him. He works slowly, gently, and patiently on our particular wounds and weak spots. If the God Who is Love and Goodness itself is kind with us in spite of our littleness, then how much more so should we be patient and kind with ourselves.
Instead of becoming angry when we fail yet again, we can practice throwing ourselves into God’s arms and asking Him for help. Even when we feel like we don’t deserve it. It’s all He asks of us. It’s as simple as that.
Filling Your Life with Moments of Joy
When you’re truly laughing, you’re completely immersed in the moment. It’s impossible to think of yourself. While I’m not advocating for incessant giggling, intentionally making space in our lives for things and people that bring us laughter is a must. And we should laugh at ourselves, too!
One thing that I realized and am still trying to adjust to is giving myself permission to simply cut loose and be goofy. I think a lot about that wonderful scene in The Passion of the Christ where Jesus throws water at His mother, chases her, and they both dissolve in a fit of laughter.
Find activities that engage your entire mind and body and pull you out of your introspection (for me, it’s dancing ballet). Cliche as it sounds, find someone to serve, whether it’s a family member, roommate, or someone less fortunate than you. And, as much as I didn’t really believe this at first, smiling more really makes a difference. It opens you up to others and in some mysterious way opens you up to God’s joy and love too.
The Joy of the Lord
There’s no question we’re involved in spiritual warfare and that life can be hard. But now I strive to keep these words close to my heart: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33)
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Maria Bonvissuto lives in Washington, DC, and works in marketing and communications for an all-girls Catholic school. She spends way too many hours on planes flying off to new places and adventures. In the rest of her spare time she reads voraciously, plays classical guitar, shamelessly rewatches episodes of The Office, and spends hours discussing the good, true, and beautiful with her friends.