The Spirituality of Fireworks: On Adulthood and Creature-Feeling

On July 4th, 2012, at 9:15PM, there was a spectacular fireworks display in West Orange, New Jersey. There I was, no more than half a mile away from the launching point, watching the sparkling lights exploding into patterns of perfect spheres of light up into the pitch black night sky. There were all manner of pyrotechnic displays, but my favorite was the one where amber lines of twinkling light lingered in the air forever, drifting across the night sky together in tandem. It looked to me like what magical fairy dust would look like if it existed in real life. Over the next twenty minutes or so, I marveled at the magic bursting in the air. And then, near the end of the show, my eyes welled up wtih tears. I was on the verge of crying.

My tears were caused by the realization of the cruelty of life. As inescapable as death is, so too is the loss of innocence and the loss of magical moments.

And I would’ve let myself cry, were it not for the fact that my brother and his girlfriend were right there next to me, also watching the fireworks. But my desire to cry was not due to some sense of patriotism, the feeling that we Americans had freed ourselves from the British all those hundreds of years ago. No, it was something more universal.

As I returned to the darkness of the back yard to grill up some paella and Argentinian skirt steak that would turn out beautifully, I wondered why I felt like crying. In moments, I realized that it was probably because I would rarely ever feel that sense of magic again. I would never have those delightful magical moments again because…well, because I grew up.

I was reminded of just how delighted my baby cousin was. I had spent the whole day with him, and he would squeal with delight at just about anything. To his little baby’s mind and to his innocent eyes, everything was fresh and new and just simply magical. He rolled around on an air mattress that was so many times bigger than he was, and he was so purely joyed at being able to crawl from one end to the other. He climbed up onto the bed where there were a pair of toy guitars. Crawling around, he accidentally pressed one of the buttons when his tiny little baby hand pressed down onto the guitar instead of the bed. It lit up and started making noises. And the little fellow was surprised. He looked at it in wonder, and then, sitting himself down, plopped his diapered bottom down on the mattress to start examining it in comfort. He swatted at another button, and the guitar made another noise. In great delight, his pinchable cheeks bunched up and he smiled a great big smile. He had just discovered something novel that he had never encountered before, something that was beyond his understanding.

As adults, we can no longer access that place of joy and delight, at least not without great difficulty. Time and life experience take its toll on our imaginations. Nothing is ever new anymore once we hit a certain age. Everything can be explained, and nothing is left a mystery. As we grow older, we learn and experience more, and it takes more and more to impress us. Little children grow into young boys and girls who get interested in holding hands. And then they grow into teenagers who get interested in kissing, then necking. And then into young adults who are interested in fornicating. If they are lucky, they mature into full adults who become interested in loving. But eventually, through the passage of time and the toll of living life, we ultimately come to a point where we aren’t impressed or delighted by much of anything at all. The magic of holding hands with that special someone is dulled by the magic of kissing, which is dulled by the intensity of sex.

My tears were caused by the realization of the cruelty of life. As inescapable as death is, so too is the loss of innocence and the loss of magical moments. I felt that the mere act of aging and going through life makes it so that we lost our ability to connect with life itself, to partake in the joy of living. I felt like one of the few things that could bring to an adult’s heart those feelings of hope, possibility, and magic was romantic love. And then I realized that even the magic of romantic love would dull.

We want to believe because life is sapped of its meaning, its joy and wonder, when we progress to more advanced exis­tence.

But what exactly is this magic? I asked myself this, and I was reminded of two concepts: Otto’s concept of creature-feeling, and Freud’s notion that religion is a manifestation of a man’s wish-fulfillment as a result of his outgrowth of his parents.

Rudolf Otto, a German theologian, writes of his concept of creature-feeling in The Idea of the Holy. It is a complex concept of a sort of religious feeling that includes many different qualities. It is comprised in part of the feeling that one is in the presence of something that is “wholly other”: that is, something that is completely different from us in every way and is thus beyond our comprehension. Partly, it also means to be fascinated and struck with awe. And finally, it is also partly to feel the smallness of one’s existence, to be reminded that one is nothing compared to the power of the divine.

Freud says that when we are children, we rely on our parents to provide us with everything. More specifically, we rely on our fathers to protect us from the world. As we mature into adulthood, we outgrow the need for our fathers’ protection. However, we still experience the dangers of the world. And thus, according to Freud, we develop religions as a psychological mechanism of coping with those dangers.

Together, the idea that we desire to be awe-struck and to feel protected from the world could explain the increasing number of television shows about the paranormal. I believe that we human beings have an inherent desire to experience that creature-feeling. Like Carl Jung might have expressed, we have a desire to experience life in a capacity greater than what rationality can give us. We have the desire to be awe-struck, to come into contact with those things that are wholly Other.

It could be why, in this day and age of science, there seems to be a strong interest in things like space aliens, sasquatch, and ghosts—not to mention vampires and werewolves. Despite our living in the age of reason and science, why are there so many people who have believe in and indulge in such things? Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith shows us that faith transcends reason and rationality. That means that people who believe in the existence of the paranormal—or even those who believe in God, for that matter—are engaging in faith for reasons that have nothing to do with reason and rationality. But why?

Perhaps that is because human beings have come so far from our prehistoric roots. We learned to control our environment and to progress our technology to such great heights. We have so much power over nature. As such, we bore of our scientific advances and our ability to mold our existence to our liking. Perhaps, much as a high-powered CEO likes to visit a dominatrix so that he can be completely lacking in control for an hour of his life, we derive a child-like sense of safety in knowing that we are not the ones who are fully in control of our destinies. Perhaps it provides us with a sense of relief that we are not complete failures if we do not shape our lives to become exactly as we envision it. It reminds us that we are in fact not Gods as we much as we may have fashioned ourselves to be in our illusion of meritocratic American life.

But on an even deeper level, perhaps we are like Agent Fox Mulder. Perhaps we all want to believe to some extent no matter how small or large. We want to believe because life is sapped of its meaning, its joy and wonder, when we progress to more advanced existence. Not only do we lose the joys of early life, we gain the dullness of adult life at the same time that we gain more responsibility. We want to believe in something greater and more powerful than ourselves because we all have a desire to return to a state in which we have no responsibilities, a time when we weren’t in charge of our life. We wish for this because if we are in charge of our life, it means that we directly responsible for our failures. The belief in the paranormal is a reminder that our destinies lie outside our control.

When I was watching the fireworks, it occurred to me that that I was taking part in a shared experience. Not only was I watching the fireworks with my brother and his girlfriend, I was watching it with all the people who lived in West Orange. The sight of the dazzling display of sparkling lights exploding overhead is awe-inspiring, especially when you are close enough to both hear and feel the explosions. The ground thumps underneath your feet and you feel the force that is expelled when the fireworks burst open with their pretty payload. The explosions frighten young children at first, but then they see the beauty that follows and become struck with awe. It’s not exactly a religious experience, but it was close enough for me. It was close enough for this spiritually impoverished agnostic.  ¶

  • splendid read! I had a very similar thought pattern gazing at the fireworks on a Diwali night, a festival of lights here in India. It inspired me to think of a story – the wind and the fire as characters. The fireworks – as innocent chemistry and the alchemy of universe – a story of beauty and melancholy at the same time. Thank you for the article! resonates very deeply :) God bless!
    It also happens to be the longest night of the year (the winter solstice) that I am reading this. Strange how things connect!