Penance and Absolution

This weekend, many Emory students and I took part in a massive exodus to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. As I hurdled home over the Interstate’s sun-soaked asphalt in my friend’s 1996 Toyota Rav4, I reflected on what exactly I had hoped to find in the old city at the mouth of the Mississippi and how successful I’d been in finding it.

        Undeniably, part of the motivation for making this trip was pure, unadulterated fun. In traveling to New Orleans each year, we experience the benefits of the friendships we’ve developed at Emory while leaving the drudgery of daily life behind in Atlanta. It is, if nothing else, a break from normalcy; an alien and exotic world defined in shades of purple, green and gold.

        For many people, this is the entire point of the trip. There’s nothing wrong with that — being a student is stressful, and there’s no shame to be had in wanting a brief change of pace. I believe, however, that there’s something else to be found in the swamps of Louisiana, in our own American Venice.

        Like most pilgrimages, this one carries a certain ritualistic or religious weight that transcends parading around Bourbon Street. For all of our modern conceptions of happiness and how to achieve it, there is an older, internally derived satisfaction to be had in experiencing childlike jubilation in the face of an increasingly adult life — a personal victory over stress itself. By enjoying ourselves, we are reminded that the aspects of our daily lives that make us doubt ourselves can be overshadowed by those that reassure us of our worth.

        More importantly, this trip offered a strange absolution for those of us approaching our futures with a new sense of certainty, and questioning how those futures would have changed had we made different decisions. This is not to say that we are dissatisfied with where we stand, but rather in a world of endless possibilities, it is easy to find oneself preoccupied with hypothetical alternatives. At the center of the maelstrom of sequins, glitter and sweat that will envelop the French Quarter in the coming days, there is a basic human joy that serves to reassure us that our current realities are satisfactory, and even vastly fulfilling. It reminds us to enjoy the lives we live instead of wondering how we could change them.

        It is etymologically coincidental, yet fitting for my purposes, that the words “revel” and “revelation” are so similar. Throughout human history, people used huge festivals as forms of mass-catharsis. Moreover, they were opportunities for self-reflection, as we find a paradoxical introspection through socialization in weekends like this. When we thrive in the absence of the institutions that usually provide structure or authority, we can be truly ourselves.

As each technological advancement moves us farther and farther from the societies of yesteryear, Mardi Gras represents a joy shared across generations. Our ability to reflect upon and eventually accept the consequences of our actions by removing the parameters of our daily lives is an essential part of the human condition; Mardi Gras manifests this process in a sunny weekend in late February.

Through my upbringing in both Roman Catholic and Jewish households, I have come to understand there is an implied suffering, or at least devotion, associated with penance. To achieve peace and forgiveness, one has to pray or express some great remorse. I believe, however, that there is self-forgiveness in joy, and an alternative penance in simply existing. As beads rained down around us and music reverberated from the pavement below, we might have forgiven ourselves for past mistakes, as our resultant exuberance was in and of itself proof that everything’s turned out alright. As New Orleans opened up her arms to us this weekend, it was this sense of peace that I had hoped to find among the bricks and cobblestones of her well-worn streets.

Now, as I sit in the library completing paying my dues for this weekend in the form of a midterm paper on Russian history, I can say that I achieved that goal. Even as I continue to reflect and acknowledge the mistakes of my past, I take heart and find solace in the friendships that I’ve built. It is a strange thing to be a senior, and be simultaneously confronted with the staggering infiniteness of adulthood while reflecting on how much we’ve changed in the recent past. Graduation offers a new and more stoic coming of age; a new chance to decide what type of adults we’d like to be for the rest of our lives. It is weekends like Mardi Gras and other treasured memories from college that steel our nerves as we forge forward into the great unknown, confident in who we’ve become and optimistic about who we will one day be.

Tyler Zelinger is a College senior from Commack, New York.

 

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