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From Vol. 4, Issue 12, December 2022

Seeing life as a festival

Feature || Enda Harte

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Festival, Festival, Festival

I work in the electronic music industry, so it’s fair to say that I’ve experienced my fair share of revelry over the years. Whether it's thousands of people at a music festival, or tightly packed sweaty clubs, crowds play a massive part in my career as a driving force behind what I do.

Some of us can find swarms of people intimidating, frustrating, or unpredictable. Other people find it electrifying, and find comfort in such an environment. Either way there are situations which can test even the most extroverted of us, to enjoy being in these types of situations.

Fortunately, we can turn to ancient philosophy for at least some theoretical guidance on the subject, with a psychological exercise called ‘festival’, and, no, that doesn’t mean you need to buy a ticket for an event and throw yourself into the madness.

What’s it all about?

When you’re alone you should call this condition tranquillity and freedom, and think of yourself like the gods; and when you are with many, you shouldn’t call it a crowd, or trouble, or uneasiness, but festival and company, and contentedly accept it. - Epictetus, Discourses 1.12

It is actually Pythagoras who was known to have first mentioned this term festival to describe a multitude of things, we see this highlighted in the writings of Cicero, and Diogenes Laertius. However, we will focus on Epictetus as a prime source for this particular concept.

It is essentially a method of reframing a situation, with a caveat of acting with reservation. It's safe to say that most of you reading this have been out and about and in some form or another came across an individual or group, who seem to be pushing the decibel limit to the maximum. This is especially challenging if you are anxiety driven, trying to have some quality time with those you cherish, or have general social anxiety.

What we’re trying to do here is reframe the situation and take accountability for what is in your control, and what is not. You could leave the area, ask the people to quiet down (which doesn’t often help), or take the high road and remind yourself of Epictetus’ words and recall that we are not disturbed by things, but by the view we take of them.

Provided you’re in no immediate danger and remain rational, think about the reasons why people behave in a certain way, this could be due to a celebration, commemoration, or letting loose after a stressful situation, it’s essential that you aim to view this from the other person’s perspective first, before letting any negative thoughts consume you.

In Practice

I will borrow a story from a friend of mine, who used this practice recently. Working in a busy bar, they were faced with a large group of about twenty women who came in with fancy dress, ordering lots of alcohol, and things were starting to liven up. It got to the point that the bar staff, and some customers were getting quite miffed about it.

It was only when a member of the group, in light conversation with one of the bar staff, told them that her friend had a terminal illness, and this was her last foray with her friends, that the mood of the staff completely changed. It was, albeit quite a sobering shift in perspective that led to in a way embracing ‘the festival’ mindset that Epictetus and Pythagoras led us to think about. This is the practice of seeing what is in front of us, as just a temporary ‘festival’.

Reframing the situation, and accepting what’s in front of you are crucial to practising this ‘festival’ exercise. You can practise this exercise the next time you find yourself in a busy place, and find your attention drifting towards a negative outlook regarding a group of people, or individuals.

Internally voicing the word ‘festival’ can help you practise the concept with ease. You might have a different approach, and I tend to remind myself that more often than not, people aren’t trying to be maliciousespecially towards me.

Final Thoughts

A Stoic will ultimately take into account any personal accountability for everything that is in our control. In Stoicism, our opinions about situations are certainly one of the things that fall under our guise. We should be reminded that premeditated thinking, coined by the likes of Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca should be at the forefront of our practice in order to anticipate situations like this.

Enda Harte is a music management consultant living in Sweden. He writes about Stoic ethics and history online.