Last week, we meditated on human finitude. We get a limited time on this earth. How should we spend it? How can we use it to the fullest? In his book The Life of the Beloved, writer Henri Nouwen insists:
“There is stimulation, excitement, movement and a lot to see, hear, taste and enjoy. The world is only evil when you become its slave. … I believe deeply that all the good things our world has to offer are [ours] to enjoy.” (104)
How can we experience this version of the world, when we often feel the world making us prove our worth or feel not-at-home? How do we challenge and change the structures that reject us and make us believe we don’t belong? It starts by remembering that there is a place for us. Sometimes, we need to play around in a place to remember that.
My trip to Panama last week really drove that home. Panama is a tiny country connecting Central and South America. It might be the size of Kentucky plus Virginia, if you “unrolled” the land and smoothed it out a bit. It also hosts one of the biggest, most over-the-top parties in the world.
Carnavales is a four-day festival leading up to Ash Wednesday. About a dozen towns go full-throttle with music, entertainment, food and drinks, and trucks with water-hoses soaking the paradiers. In Nouwen’s words, “there is stimulation, excitement, movement and a lot to see, hear, taste and enjoy.” There are floats and bands, and a “Queen” of the carnival who goes about with her court dressed in elaborate costumes. Panama parties hard, starting late at night and going to the wee hours of the morning. After an afternoon siesta, they do it all again.
The party doesn’t last forever, of course. Just before sunrise on Ash Wednesday, the Queen of the festival leads one final parade: the Entierro de la Sardina. An old Spanish tradition, the “Burial of the Sardine” is exactly what it sounds like: a tiny fish, buried in a tiny coffin, signaling the end of the party. It’s a crazy spectacle–but the participants take it very seriously. It’s a somber reminder that life has to go back to business as usual.
The Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin believed carnivals play an important role in human culture: they bring unlikely people together for moments of unity. We welcome each other’s eccentricities, and everyone forgets heaven for a few nights by bringing heaven down to earth. These “release valves” are necessary for our happiness. We’re sad to see the party end, but we leave energized for the year of work ahead. Carnivals interrupt “business as usual” to remind us that we belong where we are, as we are, with whom we are. Before jobs and bills and commutes get in the way, our places bring us to life.
Making Chora Out of Topos
In How to Be Present in an Absent World, my co-authors and I use a few Greek words to describe different forms of placefulness. There’s topos — “a mere location, a measurable, quantifiable point, neutral and indifferent.” Just a place on a map. But there’s also chora, which describes a place’s “capacity to resonate to the immediacies of human experience.” We can think of chora as topos with a story; of Moses approaching a random bush (topos) only to discover it is holy ground (chora) (Exod 3:5–6). Festivals like Carnavales work their magic by turning topos into chora–a place meant for more than the brute work of being alive.
Without a place, leaders flame out. They grind their way from Point A to Point B across a dreary topos. When the world doesn’t readily present as chora, as a place of home and celebration, leaders need to be proactive. They need to set aside spaces for hobbies and relationships, where work will not invade. Even places of business can interrupt business as usual through creative use of place. We need to make and protect our homes, neighborhoods and even offices, so they can become spaces of love, joy, peace, rest, and presence.
Practice this reality this week. Plan a one-day, in-home retreat–your own little “carnival.” Shut off every connection to the outside world and commit your family to a day of full presence. Read books, play games, cook a meal together, and talk to one another. If you don’t have a family to do this with, invite a good friend or significant other to join you. Afterward, think about activities you can introduce into your workplace to make it feel a little more like home.
Make it Real: We inhabit the places of our life, and they reflect our inner experiences. Have you ever felt disconnected from a room? “This isn’t anything like me; something is off; I don’t like this at all.” We know when we are visiting a space, rather than inhabiting one. The more we resonate with a space, the more at home and grounded we become. Choose a space (like your office or bedroom), and reflect on what you want those to look like:
What will you do in your home this week to make it your place? How will you relearn and reconnect with your place of business this year? In a word, how will you spark a “carnival” in the places you live? Don’t laugh this off: it is the ground floor and foundation of rediscovering presence in your personal and professional life.