With or For?

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to…

We have celebrations all the time. Birthdays, special events, parenthood. But when do we learn to distinguish between celebrating with someone and celebrating for someone?

To illustrate with an example at an early age, let’s take a birthday party. The poster child celebratory event! If all the children in attendance bring gifts, they are celebrating for the child. If all the children split a birthday cake, they are celebrating with the child. And when they take home a loot bag they are again celebrating a special event with the youngster.

From these seemingly innocuous early occasions, we teach children the sensation of being happy for someone and showing your joy by bestowing a thoughtful gift on them…hopefully without the expectation of something in return although it is well known that birthday parties are expected to provide attendees with compensation in the form of fun and goodies.

And so from that early age we teach our children that they are entitled to a measure of someone else’s joy. That they can expect a share of someone else’s bounty. We teach them not to celebrate FOR someone, we train them to expect to celebrate WITH others.

Expand that to participation ribbons and various other ways to ensure children ‘don’t feel left out.’ The thought is noble, but the message is that we don’t celebrate the successes of others if it hurts our feelings to do so. We train our children instead to expect the winners to tone down or divide their glory because the non-winners are unable to celebrate FOR their win thus must be given the rewards too, celebrating WITH the winner.

Take this into adulthood and you have envy and entitlement. Children who attended birthday parties for the loot and the entertainment rather than the excitement of watching a friend open the gift they carefully selected turn into adults who manipulate others in order to gain a share of the target’s time, energy, resources, or material goods. Children who got participation ribbons watch in petulant resentment as the first place ribbon of a promotion goes to the winner but there is no distribution of the pay raise amongst the other participating applicants.

Sharing our joys is a natural part of our programming and celebrating with others gives us a sense of connection and validation.

But how much of the meaning in celebrating for someone gets lost in the emphasis of putting on a real show for the guests compared to reinforcing the connections between those guests and the celebrant?

We could claim that we are showing compassion toward the non-celebrants when we give them loot bags and pony rides and bouncy castles. But in reality, we miss the chance for them to feel compassion for the birthday child! That sense of connection, or sharing emotions, goes both ways; compassion isn’t just about understanding when someone is struggling and passively giving them space in your psyche to ease their suffering. Compassion is also about sharing the exquisite pleasures of joyful success and admiration.

When someone wins a race, a graceful loser doesn’t need a participation ribbon, they need to have compassionate connection with the winner to feel respect for a good game. This concept gets often lip service in sports and disservice in the other aspects of our lives, where losing isn’t learning, it’s burning. The winning team ideally celebrates with each other while the losing team celebrates for the winners.

Celebrating for someone allows them to own their special occasion and feel the elation of being celebrated. Celebrating with someone divides those feelings amongst all participants and knowing which is appropriate is a matter of maturity and discernment. Yet, subconsciously the birthday child often feels the unfairness of how their party winds up being about the guests, not about them.

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