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A serious defense of silliness


Unreasonable passion, irrational exuberance

A serious defense of silliness

Daniel Yudkin

Nothing matters very much, and most things don’t matter at all. -- Former British prime minister Arthur Balfour

Dear Friends –

What follows is a genuine philosophical argument for dancing a jig on a picnic table in the rain, or loudly singing Disney songs on the L train, or wearing a tutu in public. This, I realize, risks being an extremely silly endeavor itself. But bear with me—there’s more meat here than you might think.

Here goes.

One of the most legitimately graceful moments in recent memory occurred when Jennifer Lawrence, a self-proclaimed “tomboy” from Louisville, Kentucky, was summoned to the stage last year to receive an the Academy Award for Best Actress.  In an event that could have proved disastrous, she tripped over her billowy princess-gown and fell to the stairs. The crowd gasped. This was her big moment! Here she was, being presented the most prestigious prize in Hollywood, making a fool of herself in front of everyone.

Or so it might have been. Lawrence instead dealt with the situation in a way that transformed it from painful to pristine. “You guys are just standing up ‘cause you feel bad that I fell and that’s really embarrassing,” she said self-deprecatingly. The audience ate it up. And with that—with the poise to put things in perspective and the wherewithal not to take things too seriously—she won the hearts of millions of Americans.

Lawrence may not have ever read the quote by Arthur Balfour above, but she’s living by it. There’s something liberating, something empowering, about being able to throw up your hands and embrace the fact that all these crazy moments, which seem so stuffed with drama, probably boil down to nothing like so much booze in a pan. What it leaves you with is the license to treat everything with the irreverence and silliness it deserves.

Think of all the artificial things we make to create the illusion of importance. The Oscars are a perfect example. Every year, millions of dollars gets invested in the extravaganza known as the Academy Awards. Companies pay for TV advertising, fashion houses vie to clothe high-profile stars, and behind-the-scenes politics influence outcomes of the awards. All of this to reward, admittedly, some instances of real talent on the part of actors, directors, and film crew—but a big chunk of it, when it comes right down to it, is pretty pointless. 

And the problem is, it takes itself so seriously, as if being nominated for "Best Animated Series with a Surprise Ending" were the pinnacle of human achievement. People then take their 8-pound Oscar statues and place them in full view on the mantelpiece to stave off the creeping realization that the sun is going to swallow the earth in 7.6 billion years.

Though many might find in this existential quandary only dread and futility, I find liberation and solace. This is where silliness comes in. Being silly is fun; it’s irreverent, it’s immediate, it’s mindful. To be silly is to take a deep breath before a big public talk and then chuckle at how little it really matters. To be silly is to not care less about people who are saying mean things about you in high school. To be silly is to raise your hand and ask that dumb question everyone else was secretly thinking.

Here’s the bottom line. When it comes down to it, it would be super arrogant to claim we know anything for sure about whether God exists, for example, or whether there are extraterrestrials, or whether we’ll survive the current buildup of world-destroying weapons. The only rational move here is to stay agnostic. And in the face of all that uncertainty, the only thing left to do is your best nakey-dance.