“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Book of Ecclesiastes).
SOBRIETY HAS TO DO WITH SERIOUSNESS. It does not mean one is never lighthearted; it means the important things in life are given serious regard. To be “sober,” in its most basic sense, is to be free of intoxication. But there are other kinds of sobriety that have nothing to do with alcohol or drugs. A sober-minded person is not flippant or frivolous about earnest thoughts, pressing concerns, or significant work. And he is circumspect and self-restrained in his conduct.
The first meaning of sobriety ought not to be passed over too quickly, however. It is morally wrong for us to impair our thinking by intoxication, and if being sober never meant anything more than refusing this impairment, that would be an important meaning.
But for every person who has ever failed a sobriety test in the literal sense, there are many more who would be in trouble if their seriousness were tested. All joking aside, as we say, there is a time to be serious, and if we’re not willing to do that, we’ve got a big problem. I like what Allan Bloom wrote about living seriously: “A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear.” Life being what it is, we need to sober up.
“The real world is not easy to live in. It is rough; it is slippery. Without the most clear-eyed adjustments we fall and get crushed. A man must stay sober” (Clarence Day). And I would suggest that sobriety means not only the ability to think seriously about life but the willingness to pay attention. On ordinary days, our sobriety depends as much on our focus as it does on our seriousness.
The two things that sober us up the most, of course, are the brevity of life and the recognition that our earthly deeds are only of passing significance. Václav Havel said it quite well: “A human action becomes genuinely important when it springs from the soil of a clearsighted awareness of the temporality and the ephemerality of everything human.” That’s a sobering thought — and very beneficial.
“So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Book of Psalms).