June 06

Fear of Fun

Jay Michaelson


As I approach my 35th birthday, I wonder if I'm having too much fun. Surely by now I should settle down, stop going to Burning Man, and, you know, grow up. It's easy at 25 to say "seize the day" rather than "become a tax attorney;" seizing the day is a lot more fun, and rewarding, and has better poets to commend it. Not so easy at 35, when the tax attorney is pulling down a half mil a year and I'm still cashing freelance checks. It makes me wonder whether it's time either to give up the "seize the day" ethos, which so inspired me, at 18 when I read about it in Thoreau and Ginsberg, and saw it elucidated in Dead Poets Society, or at least translate it into a new era of maturity and responsibility -- that is, translate it out of existence.

Granted, what I call "fun" is not what most people do. Here I use the term in a broad and intentionally self-deprecating way, to refer to anything my heart deeply wants, from meditation retreats to writing a novel. Of course I know many rationales for such activities, all of which prove that they are much more than mere fun, are essential to the human condition, are part of the Divine plan, or whatever. But I don't want to make any pretensions. At times, I am certain that I strayed from the straight and narrow path for such higher purposes: to alleviate suffering, to create art that only I could create, and to be able to look back on a life well-lived, which to me means drinking deeply from as many its wellsprings as I could find. But I think that, when push comes to shove, I have made these choices because I deeply wanted to make them. Sure, these deep yearnings are different from simply wanting to get some kicks. But they are still about "fun," I think: about the juiciness of life itself, about experience, about enjoying life, in the deepest sense.

I've also come to accept that the desire for fun may really just be a matter of disposition. Personally I love frolicking at the Barefoot Boogie, cutting loose and having a good time -- but other people, by disposition, just feel awkward and uncomfortable, and are probably relieved, more than anything else, when they've left the dancing stage behind. Likewise, as I'll explore more below, I am spiritually fulfilled when my practice is juicy, visceral, and intense -- but other people, simply as a matter of taste, prefer calm reflection and inherited traditions. Fair enough -- let's say it's just a matter of preference. Suppose I have just been doing what I wanted. Is there anything wrong with that? Why are we supposed to grow up and stop having fun, anyway?

Well, it turns out that there are a number of reasons. First, at least for me, there is what Anthony Kronman called the "firestorm of regret." I am now at the age where peers of mine are not just rich tax attorneys, but also influential politicians, respected professors, and writers and editors at publications (even) more well-known than Zeek. In contrast, when I look back on my last ten years, it seems that they've been marked by an inability to say no to life -- I've wanted it all, and as a result have gotten a little bit of everything, rather than the depth in just one or two things that's necessary for real success. I've written about this before -- my affinity with the undisciplined fox rather than the focused hedgehog, in Isaiah Berlin's typology of intellectuals. Berlin seems to feel that both have roles to play in the world, but as a fox, I wonder if I'll go to my grave still wondering whether I've been a Renaissance Man or a dilettante.

These pangs of regret occur because of an underlying anti-fun value: that one should make something of oneself. This is a particular, Western value that is not shared by all civilizations. Probably the most obvious counterexample is the Rastafarian (or pop-Rasta) value of spending an entire life delighting in the pleasures of Jah -- working, to be sure, to better social justice, but never losing sight of the gifts of creation, which are here to be enjoyed. Every time I go on vacation I meet people who gave up the high-stress, hundred-email-a-day life that I lead to fish, or run a dive shop, or just sit on the beach. They seem very relaxed. But for all the appeal of the fantasy, I feel that I couldn't be one of them. I'd always wonder what I might have been.

But it's not just the Rastas. Consider the monastic ideal of diminishing the ego, lessening the bonds of desire, and thus attaining a form of grace, or enlightenment, that is available only to those who relinquish. Trying to "make something of oneself," in this view -- held in many schools of Buddhism, Christianity, and even, in a way, Judaism -- is a grave mistake. Indeed, it's one of the main causes for suffering on the planet, both for those who are climbing to the top of the heap, and, more importantly, on those they step on, on their way.

So it's not that achievement is a universal value; it isn't. But it is one which I've internalized, thanks to my karma, upbringing, family, community, and my own desire for success. The desire for achievement is there, along with my regretful and comparing mind which notices how many other people are achieving. But in order to achieve, you've got to settle down, mature, and focus -- three things I haven't been very good at, ever since I "got off the treadmill" (to quote another Yale Law School dean, Judge Guido Calabresi) a few years ago.

A third reason to stop having fun, along with regret and the value of achievement, has to do with dignity and maturity. It's just undignified, isn't it, to be the balding guy on the dance floor. Mick Jagger may still look okay doing his thing at age 62, but I'm trying to be a serious intellectual, a PhD for god's sake -- and nothing is more ridiculous than professors who think they're rock stars. Admittedly, in the gay community, there are many men who keep having fun -- dancing all night, having a lot of sex -- well into their upper decades. There, the values are different. But how do we judge them ourselves? I think, whether out of conformity with expected norms, or shame, or just a sense of propriety, many people stop having so much fun because it just doesn't do anymore. There's a time and a place for everything -- and the time for raves has passed.

Privately, I wonder if the real reason beneath this supposed norm isn't just that, for many people, the fun isn't fun anymore. At a certain point, the pain of dancing for six hours outweighs the fun; the sex isn't as intense; and the thrills of the first-time meditator, first-time traveler, first-time whatever, are long gone. Fortunately, the value of "maturity" elevates this physical or psychological debilitation, gives it class.

A fourth reason to stop having so much fun is, of course, that life isn't always fun.
Pleasure, even in its deepest form, is only one of the important aspects of life. In a long-term relationship, for example, pleasure waxes and wanes, but if the pursuit of immediate sensual pleasure (affairs -- fun!) is placed above commitment (less fun), the end result will likely be sorrow. Or in terms of health: the burger is fun, but heart surgery is not. Or in terms of emotional depth: picnics are fun, but visiting the friend in the hospital is not. Or in terms of spirituality: spiritual highs are fun, but living ethically may not be. In all these instances, "seizing the day" begins to look infantile, and narcissistic. Living fully and truthfully requires more.

Fifth, if life is only pursued for the delights of the self -- even highly refined delights like reading post-structuralist theory or creating art -- it becomes a dead end. It's too easy to keep searching for the next thrill; this is how people become addicted to drugs, like an acquaintance of mine who died, at age 38, because of his years-long crystal meth addiction. At first it's fun; then it's less fun; then you need to do it to have any fun at all. So, too, with spirituality. The first meditation retreat is such a high! You think you'll never come back down. But then you do, and you start searching for the next high: samadhi becomes a narcotic. And so too with many other pursuits as well; to me, the jaded artist-hipster who's bored by life because she's seen it all by 25 is little different, psychologically, from the junkie.

Finally, I think we're meant to stop having fun, at some point, because of a sense of deeper responsibilities, most importantly to family and community. Of course, since I've defined "fun" to include anything that provides a sense of joy in life, family is fun too. But I think it's distinguishable, in that the intention of the family man or woman may be less "I am doing this to taste the joys and sorrows of life" than "I am doing this because it is my role, or my duty, or my responsibility." Likewise for career; it may be fun, but it's mainly responsibility.

So there are at least six reasons to stop having so much fun: regret, achievement, maturity, truthfulness to life, avoiding the dead-end, and taking responsibility.

And yet, I still do it. I still find myself making choices that lead to more juiciness -- again, less, these days, in terms of all-night raves and more in terms of spiritual growth and artistic creation, but juiciness nonetheless. On good days, I am at peace with this decision. It's not been just about thrills, for me. I find that deep pleasure (aesthetic, spiritual, erotic, intellectual) truly leads me to the sacred. I wake up out of whatever trail my mind has gone down, and into the reality of the present moment (to risk a cliche), where I inevitably feel great gratitude, peace, and holiness. There is so much aching beauty in the world, that I fall in love with it anew every week.

Yet on less good days, it seems I'm condemned to second-guess this choice: to wonder whether the knowledge I've acquired, out of a zest for learning and what I hope is an authentic lust for life, balances the more conventional achievements of my wealthier and more-respected peers. And to wonder whether I haven't been too selfish; whether I might have applied my gifts in a way that helped the world more. And, finally, to wonder when, if ever, I'm going to grow up.

I don't know whether this schizophrenia will ever resolve itself, whether I'll finally let go of the bourgeois-American-Jewish urge to achieve and be somebody -- or whether I'll follow it, relinquishing my childish Dead Poets ideals to memory and history. Both sides have their arguments, both sides their appeals. And in my typical fashion, I'm still trying to have it both ways.

As I've reflected on these values on a personal level, though, I've begun to notice that they are expressed societally as well. I think it's no exaggeration to say that we Americans have a fear of fun -- even as we are the most immature and thrill-seeking society in the history of the planet -- and I want to explore how that fear develops in two areas of interest to me, if not to everybody: religion, and sexuality.

Images by Jenny Hankwitz, courtesy Cheryl Pelavin Gallery.
Top: Slip; Bottom: Blasting Hot Day
CONTINUED  1  |  2  Next »