Last year, I embarked on a project sometime in very early December to post a "Christmas song that doesn't suck" on Facebook every day until Christmas. I remember that my self-imposed task became very difficult very quickly, but, in spite of remembering that difficulty, I had a few moments of toying with the idea of doing it again this year (I also toyed with the idea of posting Christmas songs that suck tremendously.) I came back across one of my favorite contemporary Christmas songs by Tim Minchin. I think it is one of the most beautiful Christmas songs I know. High on the short list anyway.
As most of you probably know, I work in elder care. I believe that, largely based on the fact of our collective medical condition that I've just mentioned coupled with our staggering procreative capacity, elder care is our immediate future. There is a coming tidal wave of need in that department, considering the mess of a health care and insurance industry we have in America and the Have Generations giving way to the Have Not Generations. What's past is prologue. There is a massive coming need.
One phenomenon I've observed in my work is that of rampant despair. I often find myself called upon by someone to explain to them why they are still alive and I'm afraid I don't have an answer to that question. I usually explain that I too am not exactly sure why I'm still alive a great deal of the time and given that the Almighty has fixed His canon 'gainst self-slaughter, ours is simply to persevere in the faith that there is a reason and enjoy what's left of the gift we've been given. Usually followed by suggesting an activity. There is nothing like an activity to dispel despair. I also mean to suggest that the qualitatively best application of that gift can be found in religion. A mix of the Epicurean and Kierkegaardian Existentialism to be sure, but that is the man that I seem to have become. That is where I find myself coming into this, my 34th Christmas. In other words, I am faced with the bald truth and am left with nothing else but to carry on.
The song is, of course, a highly personal one. Not everyone's family is a place where one feels safe. When I re-listened to this song this afternoon in what was probably at least in my second dozen times of hearing it, I was struck by the part where he speaks to his future daughter at ages 21 or 31. What specifically struck me was that those are around the ages in which it is reasonable to assume that one's mother, father, and possibly even grandparents will still be alive. I feel that all the more keenly as moment by moment I draw closer to the following decade.
Mr. Minchin is an atheist. I am not, although I talk about God's silence and absurdity and the void (and being freaked out by churches) with all of the faith of an atheist. As most of you know, I do, however, go in for ancient wisdom and feel that some tenacious ideas have survived out of worthiness while others not so much. One must needs evaluate them for one's self.
However, I am not responding to an atheist with the customary snide Christian attitude of having the market cornered on truth. I almost became an atheist a few years ago.
There is an Arthurian legend about the Fisher King which, like a lot of Arthurian legends, has a wide range of versions. One version is that there is a king who is wounded on the thighs or groin with a wound which will not heal. The king's land becomes a barren wasteland (symbolic of the wound and, I would add, where T.S. Eliot got the name for his masterpiece) and he is forced to fish for food. Parzival or Percival happens by on his quest for the Holy Grail. Percival fails to ask the Fisher King about his wound at the correct moment. That act of Christian charity, compassion, and concern would have healed the Fisher King of that very wound. Stories vary over the resolution (if any.) I was thinking about this story the other day and toying with the idea of a reinterpretation in which the wound came from Christianity, but was healed by Christ.
I was ardently religious in my late 20s and early 30s, but a little over two years ago I was first introduced to a contemporary movement in Christianity which is one of the most evil things I've ever heard of. I am fully convinced that that side of Christianity is destined to be as regrettable and as black of an eye to the face of Christ as the Crusades or the Inquisition or the witch hunts. I've written about it before and so won't rehash that part of it. I really needed to see Christianity oppose this evil, but instead found that a great deal of the Christian world either condoned and defended it, or simply ignored it.
At around the same time, my best friend died. It was sudden and he was not ill.
I reached a point, within the past year or so, where I asked myself if I could not believe. I found that I could not not believe. I was one of Pascal's "doomed to be a believer." Once I came to that realization, it was a relief, but a relief like how it was a relief to Kafka to get tuberculosis. I passed the point of no return, but I am still a product of the experiences which brought me past that point. The house had blown down, but I found that the foundation was still intact.
I also came to the realization that there are two ways to handle pain in this life. One is to arrange one's life in such a way so as to avoid that pain in the future at all costs. This is a decision born from a sort of informed fear. I'm not a big fan of fear. The other is to persevere in the face of future pain, to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.
So, I have the religious side of Christmas to deal with too, but I am entirely sympatico with the sentiment of choosing to just enjoy it. I feel like so much of our culture is so jaded and ironic that one is shamed into not enjoying things like Christmas.
Which not to say that I feel that there is any war about Christmas in our culture aside from that between the tasteful and the gauche. My unsolicited advice to the alarm junkies, who are hoisting their own petard in perpetuating the nonsensical notion that there is, in fact, some sort of culture war involving Christmas, would be simply this: Then work to make Christmas something worth preserving in our culture. Your outrage ought not go to someone bidding a sincere "Happy Holidays." You should be outraged over stores pulling people away from the very hallowed day of Thanksgiving now with the temptation of bargains. I mean, is putting up a tree or a tawdry plastic light-up Nativity scene on a lawn so damned important that you'll let it stand in the way of fellowship and brotherhood? Over a day in remembrance of He who taught that loving your neighbor and God was the sum of the Law and told stories about loving Samaritans?!!?
Just because an idea is tenacious doesn't mean that it's worthy. A healthy society preserves that which is worth preserving. I certainly agree with the Socratic ideal that a good life is a virtuous life and I believe that can be applied to everything we participate in. In fact, I think it better had.
There is another point I would like to make about the Season as I wrap up. Laurie and I were reading Charles Hummel's Tyranny of the Urgent in which Mr. Hummel is struck to the core by a piece of ancient wisdom that a factory manager tells him. He said, "Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important."
I can assure you that, unless you're exceedingly creepy or haunted by a history riddled with "priors", you can walk into any assisted living facility, walk up to the activities director, and offer your services. It could be as little as a half an hour a week. You can sing, you can make crafts, you can write, you can have a book club, you can play games, you could even just read aloud to the residents. They would be thrilled and you would be a valued rarity. Why would I say that at this point? Well, as James wrote, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." That's how you honor Christmas.
This Christmas I hope that you get to be surrounded by the people you love and who love you. I hope you have people who make you feel safe and I hope you can be surrounded by them. I wish you joyful memories that you can carry with you for the rest of your life. I pray that you can disregard all of the white noise.