From Vol. 4, Issue 12, December 2022
Life is a festival - if you know how to look
Joy in the afternoon
If you stand in a certain spot in Munich, Germany, on a Sunday afternoon, you will hear dozens of bells ringing out in stereo sound all around you. In the old quarter, by one of the huge church towers, these bells are nearly deafening. They force you to stop and take notice as they fill your senses.
Life is a festival here on this sunny fall weekend, as tourists and local visitors wander around the heart of town. It is a moment-to-moment offering, a series of new experiences, of surprises, of delights, and of difficulties, even atrocities. Life is filled with interesting and unexpected things, and awful conflicts, disappointments, and adversity. Life is everything, all at once. That’s the core of the ancient concept of life as a festival, and that as we pass through it, we are exposed to all that comes our way – leaving it to us to see and analyze what it means.
My experience in Munich proved that. Moving from beside the churches to the public beer garden in the Viktualienmarkt, complete with a beer stall that serves up double pints by the dozen to folks who pick up a waiting glass stein… Then sitting down to enjoy the fruits of the city’s several-hundred-year brewing tradition, along with a huge fresh pretzel, on a bench next to dozens of others there to also imbibe the beer and huge pretzels while speaking in a multitude of languages… Next to us sits a woman, cherub-like baby in her arms, along with several men, all speaking French, and to our other side is a couple speaking English, sitting with a beautiful young White Swiss Shepherd dog who is just learning how to sit, shake, and beg for table scraps. People walk up to greet this oversized puppy, adding to the joyous atmosphere.
Reminders of the dark side too
And yet: Amidst all this charm, everywhere you turn in Munich’s old town there is some reminder of the dark side of its history, as a place where fascism gained power with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. Around the corner from the beer garden are sites where vicious people used terrible violence to build and keep this power. There are gold paving stones placed in memorial to victims on a small side street, where people were arrested for refusing to salute Hitler on the main avenue, an act of defiance that had grave consequences. And mixed in with the delights of discovering the city as a tourist, there’s also the grim experience of visiting the Nazi Documentation Center, a modern museum filled with exhibits about the horrors of the Third Reich, educating visitors on this history. By studying the history of the 20th century, you learn how truly inhumane people could be, and you also come to see that the beautiful old town was rebuilt on the ruins of a heavily bombed, destroyed city after the war.
Knowing where to look
So you can see all sides of this festival of life in one place, if you know how to look.
The ancients understood this. Some folks get caught up in the mundane details of the festival, or see it only from a self-centered perspective, they remind us. Meanwhile, others strive to see it as a whole, to learn its deeper meaning, with a sense of the View from Above – understanding it as a philosopher might. Here are Epictetus’ words:
Our situation is like that at a festival… most people come either to buy or to sell, while only a few come to look at the spectacle of the festival, to see how it is proceeding and why, and who is organizing it, and for what purpose. So also in this festival of the world. Some people are like sheep and cattle and are interested in nothing but their fodder; for in the case of those of you who are interested in nothing but your property, and land, and slaves, and public posts, all of that is nothing more than fodder. Few indeed are those who attend the fair for love of the spectacle. - Epictetus, Discourses, 2.14.23-5
Perhaps as we take in the beautiful and the sonorous and the horrible and the sad, in this festival of life, we can remember this concept of the festival. It’s a way of creating a healthy distance about the petty things, and of taking them as they come – while paying closer attention to the questions of “why” and “what purpose” and maintaining that eye for observation of the spectacle itself.
Seeing patterns and purposes
Maybe this comes a little more easily to those of us with a habit of investigating and writing things down. I was trained as a historian and a journalist, keen to see patterns and purposes. But it’s a muscle everyone can exercise. I would urge all of us, when we have the chance, to take a moment to look around, and see, from an outside lens, the workings of this festival unfolding all around us.
Meredith is the author of The Stoic Mom blog (www.thestoicmom.com) and The Stoic Mom substack (https:/thestoicmom.substack.com). Twitter @thestoicwoman