BY AMANDA L. AIKMAN, CONSULTING MINISTER, SKAGIT UU FELLOWSHIP, MOUNT VERNON, WASHINGTON, AND SOUTH FRASER UNITARIAN CONGREGATION, SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA
When I started my training for spiritual direction, I figured that it would involve a lot of reading the classics of spirituality—all those Desert Fathers and Mothers and Saints—and a lot of sitting still, contemplating God’s emptiness or something. I may have also thought it would be a pretty serious business. Well, it was a pretty serious business. But it was not at all solemn.
Sister Pat, our teacher, frequently giggled with delight, and reminded us all the time how delightful and fun spiritual life is supposed to be. The guest speakers that Sister Pat brought in to work with us were an assortment of personalities, but they all seemed to have this joyfulness about them, a bubbling-over sort of quiet exuberance.
Somehow, we have gained a notion that spirituality, spiritual practice, is a matter of being quiet and sitting still and attempting to quiet the mind. Certainly, many spiritual practices are like that. In fact, one of my pet theories is that introverts seem to have written all the great spiritual classics, so the quiet, inward-looking path is the dominant strain. Why haven’t more noisy extroverts written great spiritual classics? Probably because they are too busy out having fun—or, even more likely, because they are regarded as lightweights.
The fact is, each person truly has her or his own spiritual path. You can start out on one of the familiar and well-trodden paths—zazen meditation, for instance, or walking meditation or prayer or chanting—and then follow what is calling to you, blazing your own trail into the wilderness, inventing your own spiritual practice. Do whatever seems fun and real to you, whatever fills your heart with a feeling of true connection and satisfaction.
Two poles of human experience are depression and exuberance. Depression is believed to be an undesirable state, so far more psychological literature has been devoted to this pole than to its opposite. In her book, Exuberance, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison tries to correct this imbalance, and to pay loving attention to the joyful energy of exuberance.
Why do we so often ignore this side of existence? Why do we have so few times of exuberance?
We have our good old Puritan ancestors to blame, I suppose, as usual, given their deep suspicion of pleasure. But also, the line between exuberance and mania is a very ill-defined one. We are afraid of mental illness, and so we are suspicious of overtly exuberant behavior. Perhaps we fear getting too happy, in case we can’t stop. And some of these fears are actually grounded in reality. A University of Maryland research project studied epidemics of uncontrollable laughter.
One...started in 1962 in Tanganyika, in a boarding school for teenage girls. Three girls started laughing. Uncontrollable laughter, crying, and agitation quickly spread to 95 of the 159 students (no teacher was affected). The school was forced to close a month and a half later; it reopened, briefly, but then had to close again after 57 girls were stricken. Before finally abating two and a half years later, this plague of laughter had spread through villages like a prairie fire, forcing the temporary closing of more than 14 schools and affecting about 1,000 people....Quarantine of infected villages was the only means of blocking the epidemic’s advance.
So it is natural that we are a little wary of those with a propensity towards over-the-top hilarity and exuberance.
But this type of disposition, this type of mind, may be crucial to our survival as a species. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was asked why the genes for manic-depressive illness survive in the gene pool. He responded:
Survival might often depend on not if we think two and two is four, but on being slightly wild. Because life is just much more complicated than when we try to organize it. And so a brain which is slightly disconnected from reality might be a good thing. I think when we do science we see that a little madness does help, and you propose bizarre things which everyone says can’t be true.
One of the reasons exuberance is frowned upon in our society is that those who are exuberant are generally regarded as lightweight, lacking in gravitas, somehow childlike.
Because of the suspicious attitude towards exuberance that we have inherited, because of the grownup attitude that we have adopted, or because of sadnesses in our lives, or social pressures, we may not be able to become exuberant as ourselves. We may need to step entirely out of our usual persona to let ourselves be exuberant.
One great depiction of this is the wonderful Japanese movie, “Shall We Dance?” in which a dour salaryman gets a little glimpse into a ballroom dance studio every day on his commute. As his train passes the dance studio, he glances in for a moment and sees a beautiful dance instructor and her students, whirling around in a flash of brightness and color that contrasts dramatically with the grayness of his train and his tightly constricted life. Day after day, he gazes longingly into the dance studio as his train tears past. And one day he steps off his train and enters the dance studio and signs up for lessons. His wife becomes so suspicious at his new joyfulness that she suspects he’s having an affair, and hires a detective to see what he’s up to. But all he’s doing is dancing.
Is there anything like that in your life? Something you get glimpses of and yearn to try—but somehow you don’t, because it’s sort of, well, undignified, or scary, or not in character for you? I have a long list of such things—juggling, hot air ballooning, rollerblading, to name just a few. Perhaps the only thing to do is to adopt a new persona, and temporarily become someone who dares to try that new path, that possibly dangerous, possibly life-changing new journey into exuberance. What change might you make?
So here’s a story about a guy I knew who made a huge change in his life, a change of his whole persona. He was a Mormon in his mid-forties, a married guy with four kids, a church organist, who got divorced and decided he wanted to explore all the things he had not been able to experience in his previously upright, straight and narrow, teetotalling, caffeine-free life.
One of those things he had not fully explored was his sexuality. This guy—I’ll call him Jim—had long wondered if he was bisexual. The minute his divorce was final, he dove into the gay lifestyle. He moved away from his small town and into the gay neighborhood in Seattle. His job took him all over the U.S., and now whenever he went out of town he started checking out the gay bars and meeting guys and having a high old time. This all happened within just a few months. So, he gets back from one of his trips and wants to see me to update me about his exciting new life. We’re walking along in his new neighborhood and he’s telling me about his new life and I’m astounded. He’s making the kind of radical change in his life that many people dream of but few actually dare to do. He’s having an absolute blast for the first time in his adult life.
So we’re walking along and my mouth is just hanging open as Jim is telling me these hair-raising stories about his romantic adventures. And then he pauses. Hems and haws. Looks over his shoulder. Whispers, “Say, Amanda, can I ask you something? I’ve been embarrassed to ask anybody about this.” I’m wildly curious to learn what merits the lowered voice in light of all the extraordinary stories he’s been very freely telling me, so I whisper back, “Sure. Go ahead.”
He looks around warily and asks, dead serious, “What’s the difference between a latte and a cappuccino?”
These are hard times in the world, and certainly we must find our way through much more dangerous and perplexing problems than you will ever find in line at Starbucks. Economic woes, wars and rapidly escalating climate change are only a few of our seemingly insurmountable problems. It can be hard to find hope at such times. And it can be very hard to cut loose and enjoy ourselves. But being unhappy because of feelings of guilt doesn’t help the general situation. In fact, there is a good case to be made that exuberance and delight are worthy pursuits at all times.
If you feel like doing a little Bible study, I recommend the book of Ecclesiastes, which is part of the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. The writer of the book, known as the Preacher, is an old man who has observed life carefully and experienced much. Like many Unitarian Universalists, he is not content with easy pat answers, such as declaring that virtue leads to rewards. Instead, says the Preacher, there are no guarantees of justice in life:
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent...but time and chance happen to them all.
So what is the meaning of life? he asks. And he concludes that while people should live with virtue for its own sake, they should also relish the duties and pleasures of life as much as they possibly can, giving life their full attention and effort and enjoyment:
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart…. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love…. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might….
In the Jewish tradition, there is a teaching that on judgment day, each person will be asked why she did not enjoy life’s pleasures more.
Kay Redfield Jamison warns, “Exuberance and joy are fragile matters. Bubbles burst; a wince of disapproval can cut dead a whistle or abort a cartwheel.” Let us resolve not to wince at exuberance, not to cast disapproval at those who are harmlessly cavorting and rejoicing. Let’s practice exuberance, and support it wherever we may find it.
Sisters and brothers, I believe that God loves you very much. I believe that you have within you a beautiful wild woman or man who wants to embrace life in all its fullness. I believe that that desire to embrace life is a divine gift. That longing to connect, that longing to give your gifts to a hurting world, that longing to kick up your heels and laugh till you cry, or even infect your whole village with laughter—give in to it.
May you be blessed with exuberance and joy, so as to make the world a brighter place.
Each month we dive deeply into a spiritual theme.