There is a story that once a great king commanded the wise men of his kingdom to present him with something that would make him feel happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. After considerable thought, the wise men presented him with a ring inscribed with the sentence, “This too shall pass.”
A friend has a major anniversary coming up, and there has been a lot of discussion about how to celebrate. It occurred to me that there is a lot more going on in a typical celebration than meets the eye. *
We generally celebrate recently past occurrences, usually an accomplishment or milestone of some sort. This means that the milestone being celebrated is done, or is about to be done. Why do we do it this way?
Certainly the most obvious answer is that we are giving support and encouragement to the person(s) involved in the milestone. We are saying, “Good job! Congratulations!” But this doesn’t always clearly apply. When we celebrate birthdays we aren’t just congratulating someone for surviving another year, right?
Celebrations also serve another purpose, one that is often unconscious. Celebrations mark an end and a beginning.
Celebrations are truly joyous only if the celebrants believe that there are more desirable events coming down the road, so it is easy to see how celebrations mark a beginning. Celebration includes the hope of more good things to come.
But celebrations also mark an end, and this is very important. A celebration helps us acknowledge that something is done, at least in its current form. Clinging to the way it used to be could prevent us from being fully in the present moment during experiences to come, so it is important to let go of the past, no matter how wonderful it was.
This is why funerals and wakes are said to be for the living rather than for the dead. This is certainly true of traditions where these events are intended to be joyful ones. While it is wonderful to look back with joy and appreciation at a person’s life, it is also important for those who are still alive to continue creating joy and love in their lives. Doing this well requires living fully in each moment, and that requires not clinging to the past.
I have been to celebrations where there seems to be an undercurrent of desperation. This can happen when the celebrants are unconsciously using boisterousness and joviality to cover up their fear and anxiety about losing whatever it is that they are celebrating.
It is entirely natural for pain and sadness to accompany loss. Since anything worth celebrating will never again be exactly the way it was before, there is always going to be a somewhat bittersweet quality to a fully conscious celebration. The benefit of this is that it allows us to be fully present with the experience and to not get caught in the anxiety that always comes with the futile attempt to fight change and keep things the way they are.
* Of course, there are celebrations that are very overtly celebrating relief that something painful or difficult is over. These celebrations are likely to consciously acknowledge pain as well as hope, and they are not the kind of celebration I am talking about here.