Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Origin of "Lighten Up"

"The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention." ~~ Sharon Salzberg

Recently, I found myself in the middle of a deep conversation with someone I trust completely.  As I complained about all the "negatives" in my life (or at least in my week), I began to hear myself from the outside - so intent on maintaining my cynicism, so sure I was correct in my assessment that everything, and I mean everything, was bad, unacceptable, insurmountable, incorrect, or simply wrong.  That was my unshakable belief about life at that moment, and I wasn't in the mood to change perspective.

And I was half right.

I was right about the whole "bad, unacceptable, insurmountable, incorrect, or simply wrong" feeling, but wrong about the "was" part.  Because nothing "was" wrong.  Nothing "was" bad.  I was (no shock here) confusing my feelings, my reality, with actual reality.  I was feeling crappy.  But that didn't mean life was crappy.  It just meant I found it easier to rewrite life to suit me, so I wouldn't have to change moods or, heaven forbid, admit that my mood was less than ideal.  After all (and be honest here - no one is judging), is your first reaction to someone's "I feel awful today" typically "Hey, let's  hang out!"? 

Yeah, I didn't think so. 

But rewrite that to suit the group mentality. Now, I bet you respond a lot differently to someone's "Man, life really sucks big time." Right?  I mean, who isn't shoving to the front of the line to get in on that conversation?  Who isn't prompted to shuffle through his/her mental rolodex of "Reasons why life sucks big time" conversation starters?  And honestly, who doesn't want to WIN that one, with the ultimate "Here's why life sucks worse for me than it does for you!!" argument?

As I sat listening to myself spit out how wrong the world was that day, and lamenting how helpless I was to change anything about my life, the person on the receiving end of my rant made an unexpected recommendation.

"Heather," she said, in her calm, gentle tone.  "I'm going to encourage you to lighten up a little."

What?  Me?  Lighten up?  I was light?  I was ... UP?  Everyone I knew thought I was funny.  And I was smack dab in the middle of a comdey writing course, for goodness sakes. And I was doing really well, writing jokes and punchlines and sitcom scripts. Granted, I wasn't ripe for a stand up act at that precise moment, but I could appreciate the light side of life.  Couldn't I?  I was all about humor!  (Wasn't I?)

And then, reality landed.  She was right.  This smart, compassionate, concerned woman sitting across from me, holding my words up like a mirror.  I looked at myself through her eyes and wondered when life had stopped being funny.  And then I realized, life hadn't done anything.  Life was the same.

 I was different.
 I had changed. 

And I found that oddly comforting for two reasons. First, no matter what, I could count on life to simply be there, unwavering, constant, consistent.  And second, if it was true that I had changed, that my feelings and my perspective had tipped at such a negative angle, then it was also true that I could shift them back into balance.  Or something like it.  Misery was merely an option, and happiness was just as available if I chose it for myself.

So, the lightening up process began.  Or at least began to take root.  What a relief to think that life is not bad, or unacceptable, or insurmountable, or incorrect, or simply wrong.  And what a relief to think that, as Sharon Salzberg suggests, "The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention."

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