Sunday, January 15, 2012

Exuberant enthusiasm and concomitant excess

So often we are advised to practice moderation.  "All things in moderation," they murmur, urging us to sample pleasures in small portions.  We are assured that excess is bad; after all it is, well . . . excessive.

I've never been good at moderation.  I'm full of bubbling enthusiasm that inspires me to fling myself wholeheartedly into one activity after another.  I go from a passionate pursuit of teaching perfection to months of extreme gardening only to then throw myself into a grandiose creative project.  There is no temperate jogging for me -- I'm always running full-tilt.

I've never forgotten some words of wisdom my undergraduate class received during our college orientation.  We were urged to pursue our passions intensely.  If we enjoyed a writer's work, we should read everything we could find by that author.  If mathematics intrigued us, we should immerse ourselves in the study of mathematics.  I found this advice deeply compelling.  The idea of plunging headfirst into something, letting it take me over completely, fit my approach to life.  Moderation be damned!  If we are going to do something, let's really go for it, fully and without reservation.  I wanted to meet life with exuberant enthusiasm, not cautious reserve.  Indeed, in my first year of college one of my friends gave me a sign that reads, I Am Subject To Bursts of Enthusiasm.  I have it on my shelf today as a badge of pride. 

Caricature of me from around 1995

After all, sometimes it is only by embracing a project with unfettered fervor, holding nothing back, that we are truly able to achieve our vision.  The dancer must be filled with the music and commit him or herself fully to the dance.  To give only a modest effort or to keep part of one's self back undermines the piece, sapping its energy and diluting its impact.  Even then, sometimes one dancer is not enough to realize the full potential of the music.  Sometimes the dance requires that we fill the stage with dancers who throw themselves utterly into the piece. Would anything less excessive be enough to produce this?

Exuberance is contagious.  It spills over to those watching, lifting our hearts and inspiring us to join in.  The flash mob phenomenon is a great example of large-scale enthusiasm.  Observe the vigor of the dancers, and then notice the smiles on the faces of those watching. Would moderation evoke such joy?

It is not only dance that benefits from enthusiastic excess. Think of large-scale artwork -- enormous sculptures and vast murals.  When I saw Monet's paintings of waterlilies at L'Orangerie in Paris, I was awed by the immense size of the canvases -- they had a much more significant impact than the smaller reproductions I had seen.  I had the same reaction while walking through the Louvre and seeing large-scale originals of the paintings I had only seen in textbooks. It is only through the grandiosity of size and scale that these pieces are fully realized. 

Would these experiments be as compelling if they used only a modicum of sticky notes?  Absolutely not!  It is the profuse volume of sticky-notes, the sheer excess of sticky-notes, that lends it the playful exuberance that makes the project so wonderful.

It is passionate intensity that spurs me on to big projects.  The oversized garden, the bead-encrusted costume, the holiday baking frenzy:  I couldn't take these on without the eagerness that consumes me with each new project.  What begins as a small project can swiftly snowball under the influence of my rampant enthusiasm.  It is not enough to make a few linen napkins; I must make them in every color of the rainbow.  Deciding to create online self-tests quickly spirals into writing about a hundred questions each week.  The simple notion of buying some apples and pears at the farmer's market to share with my colleagues turned into a weekend of purchasing a vast bounty of fresh fruit from three different farmer's markets to fill a basket for each member of my department.

September, 2011 

Of course there are costs to my giddy enthusiasm.  Overcommitment, exhaustion, material excess . . . yes, these are my companions as well.  Half of the seed packets I buy each year languish unopened in the shed.  My shelves are filled with books I haven't even opened.  My textile studio is stuffed with supplies that were purchased to fulfill some creative vision that has yet to be realized.  Half-finished projects abound, relics of enthusiasm that faded too soon to see their completion.  My back cries out after days of gardening; my feet ache from a week of dancing.

Yet I suffer it all gladly.  I cannot imagine a life that is not filled with exhilaration.  In those moments that I am consumed with a vision, it feels as though every atom of my being vibrates to the same clarion call.  Purpose surges through me; there is no space for doubt.  I am more thrillingly alive in those moments than a lifetime of careful moderation could ever bestow.

Perhaps my path strikes you as dangerously high-spirited, even impetuous.  Enthusiasm is all well and good, you say, but we must be mindful of consequences as well.  Think it through before careening off in a headlong rush toward some hastily-conceived goal.  I know.  I can hear the voice of reason, too, although sometimes it is a weak cry that falls on the deaf ears of my ebullience.  I cannot excise my exuberance, nor would I wish to.  I choose to embrace my enthusiasm.  But perhaps I can try to do so . . . in moderation. 

Holiday Cookiepalooza 2011

In the meantime, I offer you a copious quantity of cookies (why have just one when you can have a whole plateful?) and another spirited flash mob dance.

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