My twenty-one-year-old son is refusing to walk. Before you get the wrong idea, let me back up and start over. It’s December, a time when we enjoy the happy strains of “Deck the Halls,” “O Holy Night,” “Pomp and Circumstance.” Or maybe that’s just me? You see, my son (the afore-mentioned twenty-one-year-old) and I are having an argument. This month will culminate his four and a half years of college studies. Of course, that’s not the basis for our argument; we are actually arguing about an event in June. I want him to “walk” in the Commencement ceremony, and now you understand my opening remark. In support of my request, I tell him that ceremony and celebration are important and should be observed. Even as I say the words, I know that I have a really weak case because that’s it; that’s all I’ve got. Ceremony and celebration are important. I’m pretty certain I’m right; I believe it’s true. But I can’t explain why.
It isn’t much time later that the good folks at Classical Conversations ask if I would write an article for December with the theme of celebration. I agree, knowing it might help me answer my own question about celebration by forcing me to do some hard thinking and a little research (that it might give me some ammunition to use on my son is not lost on me, either). A little research and a whole lot of hard thinking later, I offer into evidence three reasons why ceremony and celebration are important. Ceremony and celebration:
Acknowledge Accomplishments. Imagine this article without punctuation. Every sentence smushes into the next, ideas bumble and blur, and meaning is a struggle to extract. Imagine trying to read it aloud—where are the breathing spaces, where are the obvious stopping points? Punctuation allows us to pause, think, catch our breath, grunt, sob, chuckle, look back, peek ahead, react to and make sense of the experience. Ceremony and celebration act as the punctuation between the accomplishments of our lives. They offer a time to slow down, reflect on, and acknowledge what we have done before planning or executing the Next Big Thing. They can even give us a chance to be grateful. Ceremony and celebration are the breathing spaces that make sense of, assess, and express gratitude for our accomplishments. They marry an emotional reaction to the physical task, creating a unified whole of achievement.
Accentuate Events. Imagine that this is a really, really good article, so good that you want to grab your highlighter and accentuate some of its more devastatingly profound eloquence to think on, share with friends, memorize for posterity. Now imagine that you don’t have your trusty highlighter; in fact, you are lacking a writing utensil of any kind. Alas, you have no way to mark the commemorative! Ceremony and celebration are the highlighters of life that allow us to emphasize memorable events. That was the best thing ever; it wasn’t what I expected; I will never do that again! Turn the spotlight on them. No regrets; some regrets; I really learned a lesson there; what was I thinking? Mark the commemorative. I’ve never worked so hard, laughed so much, cried such tears, guzzled so many 5-hour energy drinks. Ceremony and celebration capture the “Yeah, I did that” moment in a way we cannot if we merely forge ahead, without a backward glance, to the Next Big Thing.
Encompass Community. Imagine that no one will ever read this article. It is an article in isolation. I plan what to say, how to say it, write it, edit it, refine it to a point worthy of a Pulitzer, and pat myself on the back. Then I begin to plan my next article. Silly, right? Who would do that? Ceremony and celebration ensure that the accomplishment accepts an audience. This is more important than you might think, because the audience will have more to do than just strap on the party hat. Allow me to use a metaphor to explain what I mean. When you research “ceremony and celebration” you find two things: weddings and funerals. At first, I found that rather disconcerting. That’s it? The only thing the internet has to say about ceremony and celebration is in regard to weddings and funerals? But the thought of funerals led me to recall “The Dash” poem by Linda Ellis. You probably know the one I mean. It’s about a man who is speaking at a friend’s funeral. He notes the dates on the tombstone marking the birth and death of his friend, but goes on to say that it is the dash between those dates, reflecting all the years in between, that matters most.
What does a dash have to do with an audience? Celebration in community with an audience adds a two-fold value—one is to the individual himself, and the other is to the community. Through celebration, the community becomes invaluable to the individual. It is community that will safekeep our dash-memories. What is the dash but a composition of countless events, achievements and losses, accomplishments and failures, highs and lows, ups and downs, starts and stops and a couple of do-overs? Imagine the man at the funeral, and those attending with him, as the uninvited, the non-participant, the non-celebrant, to the countless events of our dash. What will they have to recall, to say, to share of our dash? Without an audience, who is there to remember the events but the individual himself? We need community so that others can tell the story.
Celebration makes us part of a society that shares in our events, but also benefits in turn. Celebration makes a contagion of joy and an inspiration of the moment. Within the community may be one who thinks, I’d like to do that; try that; be that. That could be me some day. Ceremony and celebration give others the opportunity to glimpse and plan their own future accomplishments, their own dash moments.
Plato is credited with the quote, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” It comes from Plato’s Apology, which is a recollection of the speech Socrates gave at his trial. No one would go so far as to say that the uncelebrated life is not worth living, but the uncelebrated life is in teensy-weensy part an unexamined life. It fails to acknowledge, accentuate, and express gratitude for accomplishments, and to encompass others in the events of life that filled our dash. I would submit to my son that the uncelebrated life is an impoverished life. It makes the individual, and others, the poorer for it. Fewer are blessed, fewer inspired. Few are the history-holders and memory-keepers. The inward is held inward. Our dash is puny. But with a “celebrated dash” the punctuation is punctuated. Highlighted. Accentuated. Recalled and safe-kept by an accepting audience who, in turn, are blessed and inspired. Ceremony and celebration are important. They are important because they turn the inward outward, where the story lives on.