Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Being Serious

I read the following in the short story "A Happy Vacancy" by Stephen Dobyns:

"Seriousness...often exists as something we want to show other people. We want others to think us serious, which suggests a fear of not being sufficiently respected, of not being taken seriously....And what is the opposite of seriousness? Frivolity?....I think the opposite of such a seriousness is love, because love accepts all possibilities, whereas seriousness only accepts what it sees as correct."

Associations sprang out in a multitude of directions upon reading this. First, A. Schmemann, the late Orthodox theologian, who emphasized sobriety, but one that would exclude a seriousness that takes itself too seriously. In this light, what is sobriety?

I thought of fundamentalists that I have known, who seem to share a certain lack of imagination, have little appreciation for humor, or indeed for the liberal arts, for poetry, fiction, literature, and other arbiters of beauty that have the quality of being capable of mirroring and framing in a meaningful way the attributes and character, even the image, of God. Fundamentalism of all stripes -- whether Evangelical, Orthodox, or secular and ideological, seems to have at its core one universal rubric, that is, its quality of being very, very serious, and dealing with serious matters in an intensely serious way, which excludes much of what is real and actual. In this light, what is real and actual?

In my culture, the most common problem isn't one of too much sobriety, or even of taking myself too seriously. I am often possessed by a legion of competing distractions, which lead away from the real and the actual. But an ultimate distraction might be to dismiss the real and the actual in the pursuit of seriousness, to delude and convince myself that my own seriousness is not only virtuous, but that others should take me seriously because of it, therefore making my life purposeful and meaningful. So there is the tension between frivolity and seriousness, two equal errors that lack the quality of sobriety. The antidote is humility, without which one cannot experience authentic love.