Guest columnist Allen Woods: Remaining cheerful in a grim world

By ALLEN WOODS

Published: 08-24-2023 8:15 PM

As I was stumbling and grousing through a seemingly endless series of rainy days recently, I happened upon the cover of a book titled “Cheerfulness.” It features a blue sky and a young woman with a cluster of multicolored balloons in the foreground.

My first guess would be that it was written by a blissful but vacuous California New Age thinker eager for my self-improvement. My knee-jerk response, straight from my dark, New England heart and East Coast urban reactions, might be, “Yeah, well … cheerful this,” accompanied by near-obscene gesture.

But the author’s name on the cover leads me down a different path. I consider Garrison Keillor an American treasure, on a par with Bob Dylan as a voice of several generations. He is a consummate storyteller whose lyric wisdom includes both the simplicity of a fictional small town in the Midwest and the beauties and inanities of urban and youthful pop cultures. Today, he expresses the complexities of a brilliant and voracious mind fully engaged in a spiritual search.

He is a poet himself, and a strong proponent of poetry, and speaks on radio, podcasts and onstage with complete mastery of the cadence and rhythms of the syllables and words he reads. Dylan wrote and performed hundreds of original songs; Keillor has written more than 20 books on a variety of subjects, performed on countless stages across America, and helped create and produce thousands of hours of droll audio humor and unique music on the radio in “A Prairie Home Companion” for 40 years.

Keillor is no starry-eyed optimist or head-in-the-sand navel gazer. He can be a harsh judge: Taylor Swift is a “middle-aged 14-year-old” who takes “self-absorption deeper than ever before in human history.” Many elected officials today are people who “couldn’t have been elected county weed inspectors” 30 years ago. But regardless of his humorously dour upbringing in fictional Lake Wobegon, he now takes a resolutely positive approach to much of the harsh world around him.

He extols the virtues of cheerfulness for nearly 300 pages, and answers a phantom reader early on who suspects he is using the term “cheerfulness” ironically. After all, urging people to be cheerful “flies in the face of reality.” But he is wholeheartedly behind the approach, with no ironic, or other leaden adjectives, attached.

In a helpful “glossary,” he lists many types of positive feelings, like a thesaurus entry, but also notes their shortcomings: “happiness” is circumstantial, “bliss” is brief, “delight” is inexplicable, “contentment” is lovely but easily broken, etc., etc. In contrast, he states, cheerfulness is a simple option that can be put into practice every day, even by those (like me, and Keillor himself) who can make a long list of “evils and perils and injustices in the world.”

He even faces down the effects of weather and climate, stating that they should have no effect on a cheerful approach. Remarkably, he suggests that catastrophic weather events can actually promote cheerfulness! A tornado or flood focuses people on the here and now, and encourages us to help those in dire need by opening our homes and wallets to assist them.

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In times of crisis there are only a couple of choices, and Keillor doesn’t believe in self-pity or searching for reasons why we have been singled out (since we haven’t been). He believes that “one can only do so much, and one should do that much, and do it cheerfully.” He quotes Mark Twain in advising, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer someone else up.”

Keillor made his mark in the world, very successfully, and is ready to move on at 80 years old, fully (but not bitterly) realizing that he is “Mr. Yesterday, a leftover from the generation that sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ but did not.” He marvels at both the intelligence and skills of young people, while at the same time lecturing them on “the importance of good manners.” He contends that it’s too tiring for older people to spread the communicable disease of dread, and that anguish is for younger people.

Is it possible to remain cheerful on a personal level, while remaining angry (or appalled or enraged or displeased or … ) about the systems that contribute to the “evils and perils and injustices in the world?” It’s a worthy goal, one I’ll work at, even if I need repeated viewings of the blue sky, young woman, and colored balloons on his book’s cover.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at awoods2846@gmail.com.

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