Monday, February 28, 2011

The Importance of Celebration

For most of my adult life I’ve been involved in the activities of helping people in crisis and paradoxically of helping others celebrate their good fortunes.  During my 22 years of work in a large charity organization, I worked with children and adults with disabilities and their families.  I also worked with the poor, homeless, persons with mental illness, at-risk teens, victims of abuse, you name it and I’ve probably seen it.  And although I am no longer employed in the social service sector, I am still very much involved with charities in an advisory capacity or as a volunteer.  Occasionally, I am asked to speak to groups about the effort of serving those in our society who are vulnerable or otherwise disconnected from the “mainstream” and I am happy to do it.

During this time, I also pursued a career path in entertainment as a professional DJ and emcee.  At first, when I was in my early twenties, the DJ thing was mainly to help pay for college tuition – which it did.  I am grateful to my friend and mentor, Dennis McNulty, for offering to train me and bring me into the industry.  The added income allowed me to stay working in charity, which was exhausting, paid very little, yet was very rewarding.

There were many times in my life when in the course of just one day I (and my co-workers) would assist a homeless individual or family with their search for shelter, help them obtain food and clothing – the basic necessities - and then later that evening DJ an event for 300 people where food, drink and all around good cheer and merriment would flow well into the night.  I have many examples of such days and weeks where I witnessed both great need and luxurious abundance.

For me, my dual career paths were a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lifestyle.  I was deeply involved with both ends of our lifestyle spectrum in the U.S.  It was also a shock to me early in my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience that I could occasionally make more money on a weekend entertaining at parties than I did all week helping our community’s most needy, but that is a topic for another article.  I must admit, however, that participating in both career paths was probably very cathartic and healthy for me.  It often forced me to step out of the emotional quagmire that people (and those who help them) experience when in crises and into the healthier emotional experience that comes with celebration.

For the longest time I thought that the depression, frustration and sadness of human struggle was far removed from the happiness, cheer and joy that comes with celebrating a significant milestone or achievement.  A change in my thinking happened when I worked with the homeless in Lorain, Ohio.  One afternoon before a community meal for about 170 people, I addressed the crowd and – almost as an act of desperation - asked anyone in the room if they had any good news to share.  No one answered.  Silence.  People looked at each other wondering what in the world might possess me to believe that they had anything to celebrate.  I said, in a second attempt, that it didn’t have to be big good news but even something small is worth mentioning.  As if on queue, a little boy raised his hand and shared that he had received an A on a recent spelling test at school.  The room erupted in cheers and applause.  The boy was ecstatic to receive the recognition.  Another person shared that he had an interview the next day in hopes of finally getting a job.  More cheer!  From that point, I was convinced that celebrating life’s significant moments, big or small, was just as important as responding to need.  These experiences are opposite sides of the same coin and to be fully human, we need to make space for both.

Suddenly, my dual career path seemed to make more sense than ever and not so much an ironic paradox.  Both endeavors reinforced my personal mission to “help people get to a better place in life”.  Sometimes that mission involves helping people when they’re in great need and sometimes it involves helping people celebrate their significant moments.

I have over time, asked my friends who are counselors or otherwise in the field of psychology, sociology, etc. whether it is possible for whole communities to be continually depressed, unable to find even the smallest reason to celebrate.  They answered with a resounding yes and I’ve witnessed this myself in a variety of settings.  It is possible for families, communities, organizations to be stuck in a self-fulfilling group depression and one of the truest characteristics of this is an inability to celebrate.  Vibrant groups celebrate frequently.  Vibrant, healthy groups are vigilant, consciously looking for significant milestones and achievements to celebrate.  Celebrations are noticed and remembered by members, especially the young and they eventually become the foundation for traditions that help individuals and groups stay strong and prosper well into the future.

Helping people celebrate life’s most significant moments is the purpose of the company I run, My Life Media.  It is as much an honor to conduct this work as it is for me to be involved in charity.  Both pursuits have their unique challenges and rewards, of course.  I am not suggesting that helping an organization plan a holiday staff appreciation or a newly engaged couple plan their wedding reception is more important than running a homeless shelter but I do suggest that both efforts have their necessary place in a healthy society.

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