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!


Neal said...

What a beautiful post, and so true! I remember reading that many German companies REQUIRE that their workers take a month's vacation each year. They know how important it is to the overall well-being of us human beings! Wish the US was more like that.

Have FUN without guilt! I like that...

ninja Duck said...

Yes, the pastry in Copenhagen is to DIE for!

And, I agree- the statue of the Little mermaid is well, not that great, is it? I believe it is a symbol of Hans Christian Anderson, who of course, wrote the story. It is my understanding that he made Copenhagen pretty famous.

Oh, and my blood lines extend back to a former king of Denmark. So, your post was a lot of fun to read, for many reasons. :)

Beck said...

What if you and a loved one have forgotten how to have fun anymore? What if one that you love has chosen to pull away and has given up and no longer wants fun? How do you restore the fun when there is no more spirit left with which to have fun?

J G-W said...

Neal - Required vacation. What a concept!

N.D. - We made a point of not missing out on any opportunity to have a Danish pastry before we left Copenhagen (which was this morning!).

J G-W said...

Beck - This post was very much an answer to just that question...

I believe our ability to experience pleasure and have fun is inherent to our being. We lose that ability when we can't let go of our guilt or our shame, our fear or our anger, or anything that prevents us from seeing and appreciating the good around us instead of focusing on the bad and the negative.

I said my ability to have fun required some spiritual discipline. In the specific instance I was thinking of when I wrote that, I needed to trust that things were going to work out OK, despite certain fears I was wrestling with. That was an act of faith.

I was also aware that my ability to feel gratitude -- to be thankful for what I have, and stop worrying about what I don't have -- was probably the single greatest factor in my ability to let go of some of the negative stuff.

Neal said...

Thought this was interesting:

"You've heard about the German work ethic? Hah. According to Sam of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, who works at a consulting firm specializing in employee compensation, required vacation time in Germany and other developed countries is much greater than in the U.S. He cautions that just because Americans seem to be working longer doesn't mean they're working harder, etc. But the deal workers in other countries get still sounds pretty plush.

Sam compared time off from work in nine countries--six in Europe plus Japan, Canada, and the U.S. When it comes to public holidays, all the countries are pretty much alike, with totals ranging from eight days in the Netherlands and the U.K. to fourteen in Japan (the U.S. has nine).

It's in the category of "required vacation at full pay" that we see a big difference. Outside the U.S., mandatory vacation time ranges from 10 days in Canada and Japan to 20 days in the Netherlands and the UK, 24 days in Germany, 25 in SWEDEN and France, and 35 days for managers in Italy. The required vacation in the U.S.? None."

So it looks like they do it in Sweden as well. You should ask about it while you're there.

Anonymous said...

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