Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)
The problem with having political or social power is that it often leads a person to take himself seriously. And of all the pathetic creatures on this earth, none are more pathetic than a person who takes himself seriously. Any sane person would much rather have half their fingers removed with a bolt cutter than spend three hours in a room with a media talk show host who looks into the mirror each morning and honestly thinks, “By god, I should be taken seriously.” A good person—a very good person—might be able to view himself with a proper solemnity, but never would he be fooled into taking himself seriously.
Solemnity—or a sort of spiritual dignity—means at least two things in practice. First, it is an awareness of our role as worshipers; we bear a profound responsibility to play our part in performing a high, carefully crafted, well-rehearsed, and proper response to God.
Second, solemnity is the divine charm that unmakes our human self-deception and gives true insight. Solemnity sees the homeless Prince, the Master’s Cross, the widow’s pennies for what they actually are: solemn reflections of what is really Real but hidden just out of sight.
Solemnity is good. Maybe it is too good for most of us to achieve, but that hardly means we should stoop so low as to take ourselves seriously.
People with solemn souls see themselves in their relationship to what is above them, and they honor what is higher. In contrast, people who take themselves seriously are always talking about things (and people) they believe are below them, and they think that Serious People like themselves are (or should be) influencers of those less important things.
Solemn souls are riotously good fun because operating without self-deception (and seeing things for what they actually are) gives the solemn person the freedom to laugh at what is funny even when the rest of us don’t see it, just as it gives them the responsibility of suffering because something is tragic even when the rest of us don’t see it. But on the whole, solemn folks are full of quiet laughter and deep joy.
In Serious People, sneering and mockery have replaced laughter and joy.
No one should trust a person who has not spontaneously laughed at himself at least twice in the last eight hours. That comes to a minimum of four moments of merriment in every waking day.
Sometimes we catch ourselves behaving like a spoiled child who refuses to take off their Darth Vader costume before going to church. We try to hold onto our games of pretend (where we are, of course, always very important) even when we have been invited into something so much higher and so much more real.
In such moments, solemnity teaches us to shake our heads and laugh at our silliness. That is what it means to be solemn: to recognize the profound silliness of our own pettiness and to laugh in its face. We laugh in its face because we know something so much more substantive and so much more real than the charade of importance that our Serious Side insists on treating like the final standard of judgment.
When we take ourselves seriously, we would rather star in a really, really bad movie that we wrote than have a bit part in a Masterpiece of film making. The solemn soul sees through that charade and chooses the immortal Masterpiece and laughs at the that temptation to take the self seriously.
And that solemn laughter shows us how the solemn and the joyful are interwoven in the Christian pilgrimage. Solemnity knows what things actually mean. Joy knows which things actually matter. Together, they are the tools that craft our redemption as we work out our salvation.