“Are we having fun yet?” has become a common means of asserting: no, we aren’t.
As whining goes, it’s light-hearted enough, but I can’t help thinking the question and its unstated answer expose a deeper cultural complaint.
We want to have fun, and considering the leisure time and pleasurable pursuits available to us, we should be having it. But we aren’t.
Never are we more certain to fail at “having fun” than as the Thanksgiving-Christmas juggernaut approaches.
I think it’s because we don’t understand what a festival is.
Is it just a day off from work?
If so, how is a holiday distinct from a “mental health day”?
In his masterful essay, “In Tune With the World,” Josef Pieper writes that to keep a feast is not to escape from work simply. It’s to put down servile work: the work that keeps the roof over our heads and pays the bills.
We do so in order to focus on something which has meaning in and of itself. Every so often we need to relax the mind’s concentrated focus on specific tasks and lift it instead to what IS – to reconnect ourselves to that which is Good, True and Beautiful.
We can do that in various ways: worship, naturally. But also spending time with family, cooking great meals, admiring nature.
We do it especially through songs, poems and works of art. “The Arts” arise largely as a way for us incarnate beings to express what arises in our hearts on great occasions. Pieper cites Plato: the Muses are given to us “as festival companions.”
To celebrate, then, you have to be able to look beyond the immediate and allow yourself to become connected to the ultimate.
Even for secular feasts this is so. If you look at a civic parade and analyze the individual elements for their utility, you are going to ask yourself what is the point. Why are these silly people marching around in costumes and carrying flags when they could be doing something useful? That’s the utilitarian view.
Only if you are able to see instead a community honoring all that was noble and admirable in those who have gone before, and rededicating itself to those things, will your heart be capable of stirring.
Cessation of servile work implies something else, too: sacrifice. We know a feast doesn’t mean an end of work. I have to cook and clean for the feast and not get paid for it.
To celebrate, therefore, I have to consciously assert that this thing we are celebrating is more important than the money I could have earned by my labor.
That in turn implies generosity (as opposed to riches) and love. Acts of renunciation and sacrifice don’t happen without love.
Do you begin the see the difficulty?
Enjoying a festival is a matter of lifting our hearts and minds towards something higher rather than simply sating the senses with pleasure.
How can we lift up our hearts if we don’t believe in anything higher than ourselves?
It’s not at all surprising that an age of unbelief should have great difficulty rejoicing, no matter how much wealth it has accumulated for more and more exquisite pleasures.
Commenting on this, Pieper notes that ultimately joy comes from belief in the goodness of existence. “Joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves,” he writes.
Festival days –religious or secular—can make us joyful only to the extent we want to receive what they have to offer. We have to believe the feast is worth celebrating and open our hearts to be connected to it.
Even the sad feasts: funerals, All Souls Day, Good Friday, are cathartic because they help us express our union with Being itself. In the dark festivals, we accept death (without having to like it) and express our hope that all shall be well.
Cease to believe that – cease to believe that existence is good and that there is some ultimate justice beyond ourselves—and the ground for festivity drains through our grasping hands like so much sand.
“Only the lover sings,” it is said. And only the believer has fun.