THE JOYFUL CHRISTIAN LIFE #5
From the book
THE GIFTS OF IMPERFECTION
Cultivating Laughter; Song, and Dance
LETTING GO OF BEING COOL AND "ALWAYS IN CONTROL"
Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. Love like you ve never been hurt and live like it's heaven on Earth.
Throughout human history, we've relied on laughter, song, and dance to express ourselves, to communicate our stories and emotions, to celebrate and mourn, and to nurture community. While most people would tell you that a life without laughter, music, and dance would be unbearable, it's easy to take these experiences for granted.
Laughter, song, and dance are so woven into the fabric of our everyday life that we can forget how much we value the people who can make us laugh, the songs that inspire us to roll down the car window and sing at the top of our lungs, and the total freedom we feel when we "dance like no one is watching."
In her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich draws on history and anthropology to document the importance of engaging in what she refers to as "collective ecstasy." Ehrenreich concludes that we are "innately social beings, impelled almost instinctively to share our joy."' I absolutely believe she is right. I also love the idea of collective ecstasy—especially now, when we seem to be stuck in a state of collective fear and anxiety.
As I sifted through my data, I asked myself two questions:
Why are laughter, song, and dance so important to us?
Is there some transformational element that they have in common?
These were complicated questions to answer because, yes, we yearn to laugh and sing and dance when we feel joy, but we also turn to these forms of expression when we feel lonely, sad, excited, in love, heartbroken, afraid, ashamed, confident, certain, doubtful, brave, grief, and ecstasy (just to name a few). I'm convinced that there's a song, a dance, and a path to laughter for every human emotion.
After a couple of years of analyzing my data, here's what I learned:
Laughter, song, and dance create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: We are not alone.
Ironically, I learned the most about laughter during the eight years that I was studying shame. Shame resilience requires laughter. In I Thought It Was Just Me, I refer to the kind of laughter that helps us heal as knowing laughter. Laughter is a spiritual form of communing; without words we can say to one another, "I'm with you. I get it."
True laughter is not the use of humor as self-deprecation or deflection; it's not the kind of painful laughter we sometimes hide behind. Knowing laughter embodies the relief and connection we experience when we realize the power of sharing our stories—we're not laughing at each other but with each other.
One of my favorite definitions of laughter comes from writer Anne Lamott, whom I once heard say, "Laughter is a bubbly, effervescent form of holiness." Amen!
From the eight-track tapes my parents played in our station wagon to my stack of vinyl records from the 1970s to my mix-tapes from the '80s and '90s to the iTunes playlists on my new computer, my life has a soundtrack. And the songs from that soundtrack can stir memories and provoke emotion in me like nothing else.
I realize that not everyone shares the same passion for music, but the one thing that is universal about song is its ability to move us emotionally—sometimes in ways we don't even think about. For example, I was recently watching the director's cut of a movie. It showed a very dramatic scene from the film with music and then without music. I couldn't believe the difference.
The first time I watched the film, I didn't even notice that music was playing. I was just on the edge of my seat waiting and hoping that things would turn out the way I wanted them to. When I watched it without music, the scene was flat. There wasn't the same level of anticipation. Without music it felt factual, not emotional.
Whether it's a hymn at church, the national anthem, a college fight song, a song on the radio, or the carefully scored soundtrack to a movie, music reaches out and offers us connection—something we really can't live without.
I measure the spiritual health of our family by how much dancing is happening in our kitchen. Seriously. Charlie's favorite dance song is "Kung Fu Fighting" and Ellen likes Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby"! We're music and dance lovers, not snobs. We're not above kicking it old-school with "The Twist" or "The Macarena." We don't have a big kitchen so when the four of us are in there, sock-footed and sliding around, it looks more like a mosh pit than a sock hop. It's messy, but it's always fun.
It didn't take me long to learn that dance is a tough issue for many people. Laughing hysterically can make us feel a little out of control, and singing out loud can make some of us feel self-conscious. But for many of us, there is no form of self-expression that makes us feel more vulnerable than dancing. It's literally full-body vulnerability. The only other full-body vulnerability that I can think of is being naked, and I don't have to tell you how vulnerable that makes most of us feel.
For many people, risking that kind of public vulnerability is too difficult, so they dance at home or only in front of people they care about. For others, the vulnerability is so crushing that they don't dance at all. One woman told me, "Sometimes if I'm watching TV and people are dancing or there's a good song playing, I tap my feet without even noticing it. When I finally catch myself, I feel embarrassed. I have no rhythm."
There's no question that some people are more musically inclined or coordinated than others, but I'm starting to believe that dance is in our DNA.
Not super-hip and cool dancing, or line dancing, or Dancing with the Stars dancing—but a strong pull toward rhythm and movement. You can see this desire to move in children. Until we teach our children that they need to be concerned with how they look and with what other people think, they dance. They even dance naked. Not always gracefully or with the beat, but always with joy and pleasure.
Writer Mary Jo Putney says, "What one loves in childhood stays in the heart forever." If this is true, and I believe it is, then dance stays in our heart, even when our head becomes overly concerned with what people might think.
Being Coo! and "Always in Control"
The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you 're uncool.
~ A QUOTE FROM THE FILM ALMOST FAMOUS. 2000
A good belly laugh, singing at the top of your lungs, and dancing like no one is looking are unquestionably good for the soul.
But as I mentioned, they are also exercises in vulnerability. There are many shame triggers around the vulnerability of laughing, song, and dance. The list includes the fear of being perceived as awkward, goofy, silly, spastic, uncool, out of control, immature, stupid, and foolish. For most of us, this is a pretty scary list. The gremlins are constantly there to make sure that self-expression takes a backseat to self-protection and self-consciousness.
"What will people think?"
"Everyone is watching—calm down!"
"You look ridiculous! Get a hold of yourself."
Women spoke about the dangers of being perceived as "getting too loud" or "out of hand." I can't tell you how many women told me about the painful experience of throwing caution to the wind, only to be patronizingly told, "Whoa . . . settle down."
Men were quick to point out the dangers of being perceived as "out of control." One man told me, "Women say we should let loose and have fun. How attractive will they think we are if we get out on the dance floor and look like assholes in front of other guys—or worse—your girlfriend's friends. It's easier to just hang back and act like you're not interested in dancing. Even if you really want to."
There are many ways in which men and women hustle for worthiness around these issues, but the two that keep us the most quiet and still are hustling to be perceived as "cool" and "in control." Wanting to be perceived as cool isn't about wanting to be "The Fonz"—it's about minimizing vulnerability in order to reduce the risk of being ridiculed or made fun of.
We hustle for our worthiness by slipping on the emotional and behavioral straitjacket of cool and posturing as the tragically hip and the terminally "better than." Being "in control" isn't always about the desire to manipulate situations, but often it's about the need to manage perception. We want to be able to control what other people think about us so that we can feel good enough.
I grew up in a family where being cool and fitting in were highly valued. As an adult, I have to constantly work at allowing myself to be vulnerable and authentic around some of these issues. I could laugh and sing and dance as an adult, as long as I stayed clear of silly, goofy, and awkward. For years, these were major shame triggers for me.
During my 2007 Breakdown Spiritual Awakening, I learned how much I've missed while pretending to be cool. I realized that one of the reasons I'm afraid to try new things (like yoga or the hip-hop exercise class at my gym) is my fear of being perceived as goofy and awkward.
I've spent a lot of time and energy working on this. It's a slow process. I'm still only supersilly and goofy around people I trust, but I think that's okay. I'm also working hard not to pass this down to my kids. It's easy to do when we're not mindful of the gremlins and shame triggers. Here's proof:
Last year, I had to run to Nordstrom to pick up some make-up. I was in one of those "nothing fits and I feel like Jabba the Hutt" moods, so I put on my baggiest sweats, pulled my dirty hair back with a headband, and told Ellen, "We're just running in and running out."
On the way to the mall, Ellen reminded me that the shoes her grandmother had bought her were in the back of the car and asked if we could exchange them for a bigger size while we were at the store. After I bought my makeup, we went upstairs to the kid's shoe department. As soon as we cleared the top of the escalator, I saw a trio of gorgeous women standing in the shoe department. They were tossing their long (clean) hair over their narrow, square shoulders as they perched on their high-heeled, pointed-toe boots, and watched their equally beautiful daughters try on sneakers.
As I tried to avoid crumbling and comparing by focusing on the display shoes, I saw a strange blur of jerky movement out of the corner of my eye. It was Ellen. A pop song was playing in the neighboring children's department, and Ellen, my totally confident eight-year-old, was dancing. Or, to be more specific, she was doing the robot.
At the very moment that Ellen looked up and saw me watching her, I saw the magnificent moms and their matching daughters staring right at Ellen. The mothers looked embarrassed for her, and the daughters, who were a couple of years older than Ellen, were visibly on the edge of doing or saying something mean-spirited. Ellen froze. Still bent over with her arms in rigid formation, she looked up at me with eyes that said, "What do I do, Mom?"
My default response in this scenario is to shoot a diminishing look at Ellen that says, "Geez, man. Don't be so uncool!" Basically, my immediate reaction would be to save myself by betraying Ellen. Thank God I didn't. Some combination of being immersed in this work, having a mother instinct that was louder than my fear, and pure grace told me, "Choose Ellen! Be on her side!"
I glanced up at the other mothers and then looked at Ellen. I reached down into my courage, as far as I go, smiled, and said, "You need to add the scarecrow to your moves." I let my wrist and hand dangle from my extended arm and pretended to bat my forearm around. Ellen smiled. We stood in the middle of the shoe department and practiced our moves until the song was over. I’m not sure how the onlookers responded to our shoe department Soul Train. I didn't take my eyes off Ellen.
END OF STORY
Betrayal is an important word with this guidepost. When we value being cool and in control over granting ourselves the freedom to unleash the passionate, goofy, heartfelt, and soulful expressions of who we are, we betray ourselves. When we consistently betray ourselves, we can expect to do the same to the people we love.
When we don't give ourselves permission to be free, we rarely tolerate that freedom in others. We put them down, make fun of them, ridicule their behaviors, and sometimes shame them. We can do this intentionally or unconsciously. Either way the message is, "Geez, man. Don't be so uncool."
The Hopi Indians have a saying, "To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak."
I know how much courage it takes to let people hear our hearts speak, but life is way too precious to spend it pretending like we're super-cool and totally in control when we could be laughing, singing, and dancing.
Get Deliberate: If we believe that laughter, song, and dance are essential to our soul-care, how do we make sure that we hold space for them in our lives? One thing that we've started doing is turning on music in the kitchen while we do a family cleanup after supper. We dance and sing, which in turn, always leads to a good laugh.
Get Inspired: I love making "them playlists"—groups of songs that I want to listen to when I'm feeling a certain way. I have everything from a playlist called "God on the iPod," to a "Run like you mean it" list. My favorite is my "Authentic Me" list—the songs that make me feel most like myself.
Get Going: Dare to be goofy. Dance every day for five minutes. Make a CD of songs to sing along with in the car. Watch that dumb YouTube video that makes you laugh every time!
How do you DIG Deep?
YES IT IS IMPORTANT TOP HAVE LAUGHTER, SONG, AND DANCE IN YOUR LIVES.
I HAVE SOME OF THOSE GREAT COMIC MOVIES OF THE 1950s - BUD ABBOT AND LOU COSTELLO; THE MARKS BROTHERS; I LOVE LUCY; AND OF COURSE FOR MUSIC, SONGS, AND DANCING, I HAVE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS; GENE KELLY; MICKEY ROONEY AND JUDY GARLAND…….. FOR MY COWBOY HEART I HAVE ROY ROGERS. NOW THAT IS JUST WATCHING BUT IT GETS INTO YOUR HEART AND MIND, IT’S SO ENJOYABLE TO PRETEND YOUR RIGHT THERE WITH THEM, THEN SOMETIME LATER YOU CAN JUST LET THAT LAUGHTER, SONG, AND DANCE, COME OUT……JUST LET IT OUT!