It’s hard to celebrate properly. We want to, but we don’t know how.
Mostly we celebrate badly because our idea of celebration is to overdo things. We try to celebrate by taking ordinary things (eating, drinking, singing, telling stories, playing) to excess. Celebration, for many of us, means over-eating, over-drinking, loud socializing, drunken singing, and staying at parties into the wee hours of morning, all in the hope that somehow in all that excess we will achieve celebration (whatever that means). But, for all our frenzied effort, there is precious little genuine enjoyment.
Occasionally we do succeed and genuinely celebrate. At those times we feel ourselves more deeply joined to others, widened, made larger, made more aware, made more playful, and sense more deeply the love and joy that lie at the heart of life. But that rarely happens and it never happens when we are in frenzy. Too often our celebrations are followed by a hangover (of one kind or another). Why?
The reasons for this are complex, deep, and mostly hidden from us.
Perhaps the primary reason why we find it so difficult to genuinely celebrate is that we seem to lack the capacity to simply enjoy things, to take life, pleasure, love, and enjoyment as a gift from God, pure and simple. It’s not that we lack the capacity for to do this, it’s more that this capacity in us is generally buried under a mound of guilt. What this means is that often we cannot enjoy legitimate pleasure because somehow, however unconsciously, we sense what is articulated in the ancient myths, namely, that in enjoying pleasure we are somehow stealing something from God.
We tend to blame religion for this, but this neurosis is universal, as much outside of religious circles as inside of them. Somehow, in the name of the divine, most everyone feels guilt in pleasure.
And because of this, we tend to alternate between rebellious enjoyment (“pleasure we steal from God”) and joyless duty (a dutiful life, but without genuine pleasure and enjoyment). We never seem to be able to genuinely celebrate. I say genuinely because, paradoxically, our incapacity to enjoy is the very thing that pushes us into pseudo-celebration, hedonism, and an unhealthy pursuit of pleasure.
Simply put, because we struggle to enjoy ourselves simply we pursue enjoyment too much and substitute excess for enjoyment.
And this often leads to a dangerous confusion wherein we substitute pleasure for enjoyment, excess for ecstasy, and the obliteration of consciousness for heightened awareness. The champagne-soaked athletes celebrating a major victory and the mindless frenzy of a Mardi gras give us all the video footage we need to understand this. But excess isn’t enjoyment, nor is obliterated consciousness heightened awareness. They are weak, unsatisfying substitutes.
The very purpose of celebration is to heighten and intensify the meaning of something (a birthday, a wedding, a major achievement, a victory, a graduation, the birth of a child, the beginning or ending of a year). These events demand to be shared, heightened, widened, trumpeted. We have a congenital need to celebrate and this is very healthy.
What does it mean to celebrate something? To celebrate an occasion is to heighten it, share it, savor it, enlarge it. We also celebrate in order to link ourselves more fully to others, to be playful, to intensify a feeling, to bring ourselves to ecstasy, and, more commonly, just to rest and unwind. But because of our incapacity to enjoy something simply we often try to create that enjoyment through excess and seek the ecstasy of heightened self-awareness in the obliteration of our consciousness.
Small wonder we often trudge home with a hangover, emptier, more tired, more alone. A hangover is an infallible sign that somewhere we missed a signpost.
But we must continue to try. Christ came and declared a wedding, a feast, a celebration, at the heart of life. He shocked people as much by the way he enjoyed his life as by the way he gave it up. In the end, he was rejected as much for his message of enjoyment as for his message of asceticism. That is still true today. We tend to read the gospels selectively so as to ignore Jesus’ positive challenge to enjoy without guilt.
And in that lies our problem: Because we are never challenged religiously and in the name of Jesus, to enjoy, deeply and without guilt, the very human pleasures of our lives, our healthy, God-given, need for pleasure and enjoyment tends to go underground. We still seek pleasure and enjoyment, but now we split them off from what is religious and holy and “steal them from God” rather than enjoy them simply and religiously. That is one of the main reasons why we substitute excess for enjoyment and an obliterated consciousness for heightened awareness.
God has given us permission to enjoy life and its pleasures. That truth too needs to be a central part of our religious teaching. Pleasure is God’s gift, not the forbidden fruit.
Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.