Lightheartedness is a most suitable virtue for man since he is essentially a lighthearted being. He is a lighthearted being who has fallen from grace and aspires to rise again.

G.K. Chesterton

He is caught between the elemental forces of grace and gravity, struggling to reclaim his lightness and overcome the heaviness of his existence and the world around him. This may be why G.K. Chesterton held that in the great triad of Christian virtues — humility, activity, and cheerfulness — cheerfulness is the most important of all. There is no more striking and startling a paradox concerning Chesterton, who is said to be the "master of the paradox," than the fact that this man of conspicuous corpulence was also a man of cherubic cheerfulness. "Angels fly," he wrote in Orthodoxy, "because they can take themselves lightly."

Chesterton himself could soar because he did not take himself seriously. Too much concern for one's ego, or pride, he once said, results in "the falsification of fact by the introduction of self." Christian humility demands the "subtraction" of myself in order to see things as they are in themselves. The humble Christian is then free to undertake his appointed task or activity in a spirit of lighthearted cheerfulness. When Ebenezer Scrooge, of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, finally unburdened himself from his weighty ego, he could almost fly: "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy."

The heart that is light defies gravity and flies on the wings of levity. Cheerfulness is the natural expression of a person's lightheartedness. John Ruskin, an essayist, critic, and reformer, believed it was an essential virtue: "Cheerfulness is as natural to the heart of a man in strong health, as color to his cheek; and wherever there is habitual gloom, there must be either bad air, unwholesome food, improperly severe labor, or erring habits." Shakespeare adds, "A light heart lives long."

Hold onto Your Hats!

Czech writer Milan Kundera, titled his celebrated novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The lightness to which he referred, however, was really weightlessness. Astronauts who experience weightlessness do not fly, they merely roll about. Chesterton's lightness is upward, not circular. He could have justifiably called his autobiography The Enjoyable Lightness of Being. When another dispirited European writer, Franz Kafka, read Chesterton, he exclaimed, "He is so gay, one might almost believe he had found God." From Kafka this is high praise, indeed.

Chesterton's lightheartedness by no means was empty-headedness. He was not facetious. His cheerfulness never obscured his intelligence. It was his clear intelligence, in fact, that allowed him to see how reckless disregard could be so hilarious. Consider his rebuttal of socialism: "There might be people who prefer to have their hats leased out to them every week. Or wear their neighbors' hats in rotation to express the idea of comradeship. Or possibly to crowd under one very large hat to represent an even larger, cosmic conception. But most of them feel that something is added to the dignity of men when they put on their own hats."

It is interesting to note that disciples of the socialist Saint-Simon wore a special waistcoat that could neither be put on nor taken off unassisted. In their zeal to express comradeship, they lost sight of practical common sense. Chesterton could not be weighed down either by ego or by ideology. Nor was he weighed down by the realization that "the river of human nonsense flows on forever." Nor was he daunted by the unfulfilled dreams of Christianity: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

Rose-colored Glasses

Opinion polls are like lampposts, Chesterton commented, "that drunks use more for support than for illumination." "A light touch is the mark of strength," he said. But for him it was also a mark of wit. He was rather rotund, but bore the slights of others with typical lightheartedness. A woman once chided him for not being a combatant in the war. "Why aren't you out in the front?" she asked. "Ma'am," he retorted, "if you'd just step this way, you will see that I am out in the front." To George Bernard Shaw, who said to him, "If I were as fat as you, I would hang myself," Chesterton calmly answered by saying, "If I had a mind to kill myself, I would use you as the rope."

Because he saw the lightness in the nature of everything, he could cheerfully avoid anything that was base. "Variability is one of the virtues of woman," he wrote. "It obviates the crude requirements of polygamy. If you have a good wife you are sure to have a spiritual harem." Thus, he could also hold that "purity is the only atmosphere for passion."

As a Christian, Chesterton had much to be cheerful about. "If there were no God," he quipped, "there would be no atheists." Another of his quotes reveals his wit: "The Bible tells us to love our neighbors and also our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people."

Eyes on the Prize

"Adventure," he once remarked, "is the voluntary acceptance of discomfort." Life itself is the greatest of all adventures, but its discomforts are always less than its joys. For it sets man on a search that leads to a discovery that makes everything worthwhile. As Chesterton put it: "Divinity and infancy definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet. That tense sense of crisis which still tingles in the Christmas story and even in every Christmas celebration accentuates the idea of a search and discovery."


DeMarco, Donald. "Lightheartedness." Lay Witness (May/June, 2004).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness.

Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.


Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2004 LayWitness

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