Friday, August 12, 2011

The Spirituality of Fun

I guess I grew up absorbing a kind of Calvinist ethic that says fun is frivolous and meaningless, and only work really matters. Or maybe I've internalized a more general Western Christian discomfort with any sort of pleasure, this idea that matter and the flesh are bad and must be subordinated to the spirit, and having fun is giving too much license to the flesh. Or maybe I have also absorbed the ethic of liberal guilt, which says that because there is so much poverty, misfortune and suffering in the world, it's somehow wrong for me to take (and enjoy!) an extended vacation. Anyway, it seems there are many reasons I can (and subconsciously do) choose to deny myself a month of work-free, agenda-free fun on vacation with my sweetheart. At some level, I know the anti-fun impulse is a lie or a distortion. But it takes a certain amount of spiritual discipline to actually let myself relax, and let my vacation be what it is supposed to be.

This essay is part of that spiritual discipline. I'm writing this mostly to remind myself of the reasons why fun is important, and why guilt about having fun is destructive. And if my thoughts are helpful to any other fun-o-phobes out there, all the better!

Fun is important because people matter and because relationships matter and because our bodies matter. In theological terms, the fullness of joy God intended us to have includes having a physical body along with the pleasures that affords us. It also includes being connected to the human family through intimate relationships. I remember reflecting on this after General Conference a while back, when President Monson concluded with some remarks to the effect that it was important for the Saints to cherish the time that they have with family. He reminded us that in mortality, we only have each other for a brief moment, and we need to make the time that we have with each other count.

Of course work matters too. Work does lend life meaning, but only within a framework that values bodies and relationships! Only within a framework in which fun also has meaning and value. Work and fun are part of the same complex. And of course justice is important. It is terrible that we live in a world where people lack basic necessities. I'm aware that the majority of people in the world aren't as privileged as I am, and lack the resources that make it possible for me to travel and have fun for a month with my spouse. So part of my work -- part of all of our work -- needs to be about creating a world of greater compassion and plenty. Justice matters because relationship matters. Justice, like work, derives its meaning in a framework where pleasure has value. So Emma Goldman stated a positive truth when she said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution!"

Yesterday, Göran and I were walking around in downtown Copenhagen. Göran has this fascination with European royalty. (Maybe it's because of the deprivation he grew up with? Or maybe it's just that he is a retired Queen?) At any rate, in every western Scandinavian capital (in Stockholm, Oslo, and now Copenhagen), a significant portion of our time has been spent visiting and touring royal palaces. So we had just spent some time at Amalienborg Castle, and then had wandered up to visit the Little Mermaid statue. (Having seen it, I don't get what the big deal is. How did this become the symbol of Copenhagen? There was a huge line of tourists there, waiting to get themselves photographed in front of the Little Mermaid. Is the Little Mermaid really to Copenhagen what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris? Really?) Anyway, the weather wasn't cooperating... We decided to take care of some errands, but were finding it impossible to find a department store in downtown Copenhagen. I was getting tired of royal palaces and touristy statues. And it had been cool and drizzly all day, and Göran and I had been doing a lot of walking, and our feet hurt and we were cold and he and I were both getting crabby.

And it's in moments like this when doubts about the value of "fun" can take on a certain gloomy power. It was at this moment that I found myself starting to feel guilty about having spent all this money to come here and do this. But it was also in this moment that I was saved from the gloom by the realization that this man I was tramping up and down cobblestone streets in the rain with in some strange foreign capital really matters to me. He has infinite worth, and so does the relationship I have with him, and it doesn't matter really where we are or what we're doing, not to me, really. We could be anywhere: Timbuktu or Shanghai or downtown Minneapolis. But he wanted to be in Scandinavia, and that's why we rallied the resources and made the time to be in this particular place. So I took a deep breath, and I remembered to be grateful for everything I have, including this vacation, and including him.

I stopped and told him, "Before we can do any other errands, we need a pastry!" So our hunt for a department store turned into a simultaneous hunt for the perfect Danish pastry. And we eventually found both at the same time. There's a gigantic department store in downtown Copenhagen called "Magasin." It's quite possibly the biggest department store I've ever been in. And there's a food court in the basement. We found a pastry shop there and I ordered a Chokoladebolle and Göran ordered a Walessnitte, and we collapsed at a nearby table and just melted into the deliciousness which is Danish pastries. Things got better after that. We just needed to remember to have fun.

Life is short. And it is precious. And President Monson was right: in mortality, we only have each other for so long, and we need to enjoy each other while we have the chance. Life at its best is always laced with the tragedy of loss. So there is a moral imperative to enjoy what we have while we still have each other. We need to make these moments count, to take care of ourselves and others.

So take care of yourselves, and have some fun today!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Gay Pride, Stockholm Style

Last year when Göran and I took our first vacation abroad together, we spent a week in Sweden. We didn't realize until after we'd scheduled our trip that it just so happened we would be in the Swedish capital the week of the royal wedding between Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel. (No wonder it was such a challenge finding a hostel with a room for the entire week!) Quite without meaning to, we managed to end up in Stockholm during one of the biggest national celebrations in recent memory.

This year, by a similar stroke of luck, we ended up in Stockholm the same week as Stockholm's annual Gay Pride celebration. We didn't plan it that way. But in the airport, Göran was browsing through the tourist brochures on the wall near the information booth, and he found a couple of brochures for "Stockholm Pride": August 1-7. Here we are.

Last year, I remember seeing a poster for Gay Pride in Tampere, Finland, and I remember feeling a bit disappointed that it seemed so Americanized. (The poster was in English, and I somehow wanted Finns to come up with a more native name for the festival than "Pride.") Of course, what did I know? We weren't actually able to attend.

But now this year, we landed in a major European capital the week of Gay Pride, so in between some of our other sightseeing and shopping and eating, we've periodically dropped in on the festival down at Kungsträdgården and Sergels Torg and taken in an event or two.

But here's the thing...! First of all, in Minneapolis, Gay Pride still feels like this celebration put on by The Gays. In Stockholm, it feels completely different. It's more like a celebration the City puts on, with the gay community. The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Stockholm was that there were literally rainbow flags everywhere. Adorning all the major streets, including the main thoroughfares leading up the Royal Palace. Hanging down in all the major shopping malls and all throughout the shopping district in the Gamla Stan ("Old City"). Adorning all the public buses.

When you enter the Pride Festival area, there's a sign that reads (in Swedish): "Welcome to Stockholm Pride! You are now leaving heteronorms behind!" But ironically, when we entered the park, it seemed to us that there were more heteros than homos. We felt safe being as gay as we wanted (which amounted to holding hands and showing other gentle forms of affection in public). Apparently, the heteros were OK with dumping their heteronormativity.

Earlier today, Göran was getting a bit peaked from lack of food, so we stopped at "Max," the Swedish equivalent of McDonald's. While chowing down, we overheard a conversation between a Brazilian tourist and two young Swedish women. The Swedes were telling the Brazilian about the Pride Festival, and encouraging him to go check it out. "Are you two girlfriends?" the tourist asked. "No, no! We're just friends," they replied. Earlier in the week, as Göran and I were walking down the street with a rainbow fan in hand, another woman with a young child approached us and wanted to know where we got the fan, and where she could get a Pride program. In Stockholm, Pride is a celebration for everyone, gay or straight.

The Church of Sweden has an exhibit at Pride, which in Stockholm would be somewhat analogous to the LDS Church having a booth at Salt Lake City Pride. (Chew on that for a while!) The booth was adorned with various affirming slogans like "You're the best!" More importantly, they had posted a few theological sound bites as well: "The greatest of all is love" (quoting I Cor. 13: 13) and "A new commandment I give unto you: Love one another" (John 13: 34).

I will tell you, it is actually kind of an incredible feeling. In the U.S., Gay Pride still feels polemical. We're reminded of this by the routine protesters who show up with signs that read "Homosexuals will burn in hell!" and "God will never allow science to find a cure for AIDS." None of that here. Here, Gay Pride is a communal statement on behalf of the entire polity. Here, Swedes are essentially reminding themselves and the gay community that gay Swedes will never have to go it alone. Everyone -- from the Royal Family down to every guy on the street, including the state (which recognizes our marriages) and the Church (which eagerly reminds us that God loves us) -- stands with us.

That truly feels amazing.

Tak så mycket, Sverige!