Why do we go / after what drives us mad / you know? …Nothing comes of — Making the same / blunder a thousand times / that’s just inane and lame And how to go sane / reading between the lines when all the lines are your chains? It isn’t easy… Move from within / Bust out of what confines…
– Kurt Elling, The Fanfold Hawk
There’s a ribbon / in the river / that is running through your heart There’s a whisper / in the water / with a wisdom to impart: Restart … Be your own / work of art
– Kurt Elling, A Certain Continuum
My sister-in-law, who moved here from Puerto Rico 3 ½ years ago and worked a couple of years at the Utica DMV tells me how shocked she was by the number of young people – more than half, she says – for whom signing their learners’ permit was a major challenge; they did not know how to hold a pen for writing.
Given such evidence of where our public education has gone, before alluding to a story from the Christian bible which – for various reasons – may not be in every reader’s wheelhouse, I’ll briefly fill in the details, trusting I insult no one! Here goes:
In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, Herod the king feared the birth of a rival and so sent out his soldiers to murder all the male babies in Bethlehem. An angel warns Mary and Joseph, the new parents of baby Jesus, to flee in order to save the child. Importantly, the parents heeded the advice and got the hell out of town (the flight into Egypt). They did not, that is, declare the warning preposterous, did not protest but people don’t do that kind of thing to little children! At great personal expense, they exiled themselves, becoming refugees.
This is a very dark story!. Unfortunately, the reality it depicts, in which the boy child is viewed as a threat to (male) power and dominance, is not only Freudian truth but also, in a society that’s lost its bearings in myth and and soul-level truth, social reality.
So, yes, as Chris Hedges points out, Jesus’s story aligns him with refugees in all times and places. I wish to push the meaning of the story further for it provides an explanation for just what makes Christmas increasingly depressing – not to say unbearable – for me. True enough, the pandemic has added a layer of disturbance to the season of Joy that I can observe in others, not only myself. People put forth strenuous efforts to make this Christmas normal, or better-than-normal. And don’t misunderstand – my Christmas was enjoyable in many respects, not least of which was its introducing me to the jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, several of whose recordings ended up under the Christmas tree.
But this year, in an especially miserable moment, it came to me: “Christmas is a bully.” My evidence may appear frail, but the frenzy that takes over for those weeks between Thanksgiving and December 24 – which I’m projecting is true for many others besides me, to one degree or another – bullies people into going along, rather than risk the bully’s taunts and jeers. The deception is perfect: veiled under magical lights and trees and Santa Claus and Dreaming of the White Christmas, or in more ethnic versions, the marvelous Italian cookies and the 7 fishes of Christmas Eve – who in her right mind can object to or scoff at these things? Especially now, as we face the terrible hunger in ourselves for light, joy, merriment, laughter, all aspects of the conviviality of social existence that the pandemic has put on the run, who of us raised to celebrate Christmas can say no to the illusion?
But what is it we who object to the bully want? If we reject the “Xmas” meaning, what can we propose instead? We can do ethical things like limiting the money we spend. We can stick to the local and the non-material gifts in our gift-giving. But, rack our brains as we will, we can come up with no alternative that doesn’t put us at risk of being a Grinch, a real Bah Humbug downer. Who can take on that aspect of mean-spiritedness – it’s unthinkable!
Alas, even church-related activities such as carol singing do not rescue us from the bully. Our hearts may swell for a few moments, tears well in our eyes, signs that indeed there is some deeper meaning to all of this, or at least a lot of feeling from our childhoods when Christmas was – some of us imagine – simpler and happier. This impact, though sweet, is temporary (and also extremely commercially useful if one thinks just of the Christmas movies that cash in obscenely on that predictable upsurge of feeling!)
And, ahem. Here I must interject my bully theory once again: it was in our childhoods that we learned to behold the purported meaning of Christmas, not the real one. Even for those who were taught Christmas is about thinking of others (charity) Christmas was what we were told it is, rather than what we feel, rather than what we know inwardly. And the Christmas we’re taught is not the birth of Jesus, the “reason for the season,” nor is it even the rampant materialism my parents used to deplore. The Christmas that takes over consciousnesses, which makes it the real one, is the bully that hates the tenderness and innocence embodied in the child.
In other words, over the two millennia-long Christian run, Herod actually got his way. Or, rather, if Herod were not to win the day would take a change amounting to an evolutionary leap in human consciousness. That would be if individuals refused, anymore, to sacrifice tenderness and innocence – the heart’s reality – for the pragmatic world driven along by self-interest over concern for others, by greed, by sadistic indifference to feelings, by racism and hate. It would take believing that angel who tells us, “Better run with the baby!”
Unfortunately for those of us who would defy it, the Christmas bully is discernible only to the heart, and the heart is what is sacrificed. The bully cares not so much what we do in terms of observing Christmas, but that we not stand up for the most vulnerable, the tenderness and innocence of our being-as-souls. Turning the holiday into an orgy of consumption and busy activity trying to do it just right, is not in itself evil. We look at the wrong “wrong” when we deplore the materialism and fail, at the same time, to see what is being sacrificed: the Baby. And we are capable of such cruel sacrifice because the “reason for the season” exists only in our hearts whose truth is relative, not commanding.
Someone wrote me recently that after all, Christmas is for the children. Certainly, this is what I believed as a child when, for my brothers and me, so many wishes came true under that Christmas tree. But did I know the wishes of my heart as distinct from wanting that Shirley Temple doll? Wouldn’t I have liked not being the designated sick one in the family, the one that had to stoically manage her neuroses that were hidden from the view of all others except my parents, that effectively kept me locked inside a rather untouchable reality? Wouldn’t I have liked to feel safe enough to use my imagination seriously, to be an unafraid explorer, creator, to dream and have the chutzpah to follow dreams? If as Picasso and others have pointed out, all children are artists what does it say that almost none are when they attain adulthood?
And what reason could there be in making me a child sacrifice except that the hearts of my arts-focused parents had already been sacrificed to the world of wars, of holocaust, of atomic weapons, of racism, sexism and classism? Does the parental role of socialization go no further than aiming at the success that’s possible? – i.e., getting into Harvard Business School (or an IT job) or, in the case of my parents, with having a heightened aesthetic sensibility? Or ought it go further, the goal being the impossible – that being-in-process led by dream and heart-centered vision to be one’s own work of art?
My nephew Isaiah, just 21, young enough to be my grandson, indulged himself generously with alcohol on Christmas Eve (as we all did, but he with perhaps slightly more abandon and way less experience) so ended up sleeping the night in our guest room. Christmas morning as we shared coffee I asked him if he’d completed his 2-year community college degree. I had lost track of his progress and knew only that he was unenthusiastic about college; as proof he’d now been at it for 3 and a half years! He told me he had finished his degree but doesn’t consider this an important accomplishment.
We spoke casually about his immediate plans. He asked me if I didn’t think that life decisions are much harder now than they were when I was his age, with the future now so unremittingly bleak. I was tempted to agree but then corrected myself. I reminded him I came of age in a Cold War world under the threat of nuclear annihilation, aware of a Holocaust that had ended only 7 years before my birth. Back when I became aware of these unbearable facts, there was no refuge in denial that I knew of.
I didn’t go on to say, “and so I learned to live with a certain amount of denial,” though that is so. What I finally said to him was, Yes the world’s a mess but it doesn’t change the fact you need to live your life in a way that makes sense to you.
So many young people today have learned “to live with a certain amount of denial,” (or cynicism or ironic distance), having yielded in ways large and small to the dominant heart-hardening reality. But what I mean by “do what makes sense to you” is not like the sense it makes to wear a winter jacket when the temperature goes below freezing. I want to say your life has to make sense to the deepest knower inside you because then you can live detached from the dreadful reality, in resistance to its bullying. That is, in living and acting on behalf of innocence and tenderness – your own as well as others’ – “moving from within” – your work serves the imaginable better world, not Herod’s realpolitik.
Paradox of Innocence
I would never tell someone this “being one’s work of art” is easy: people who’ve learned truth is relative, never Absolute, cannot recognize that neoliberal reality – best of all possible worlds! – is the Herod reality. Because we can see only the one reality, when we flee it’s not from Herod, but from that which we take to be the immediate cause of our misery, the enemy of our right to do what we want, the frustrater of our impulsive desire, the bully of our ambition to succeed in the one reality we know. We abandon tenderness and deep feeling in order to exist in a rootless society based on faith in career and material progress and relational temporality. We leave our hearts with their absolute – not relative – need for “stability, love, trust, strength” (relational bonds) to the slaughter.
In his Christmas homily, Pope Francis addressed the threat to marriages and families – and thus to stability, love, etc., resulting from pandemic stress. Such an old-fashioned message sounds boringly obvious to those of us indoctrinated in liberal secular society. People who have already thrown in the marriage towel and moved on, may hear it only as a call to guilt. Or, if they are in a marriage that has held together, they might just say what’s the big deal – I don’t need the Pope to tell me I did the right thing; I guess we were just lucky. And then there are all those fighting for their right to be legally married who may or may not know that what is at stake is not only rights, but the survival of the heart at its frontline in marriage, family and community.
The “successful” relationship that has no conflicts – “just lucky I guess” – will not be able to defend the heart’s truth any better than the one that breaks down into enmity. Protecting the heart within relationships isn’t simple. By the time we’re grown-ups, the infant’s otherness – its helplessness and vulnerability, as well as its sweetness and innocence – after long neglect of it in ourselves, is no longer real. It exists, but only in projection upon actual children who then cannot be seen in their true otherness, but only as objects – admired, deplored, amusing, felt sorry for, etc.
In fact, how to protect the heart can only be learned when people persist through the awful conflicts of relationships that have been made more imposing and unresolvable by treating relationships as of relative, instead of absolute, worth. People who do not believe in the authority of the heart in its paradoxical mix of utter vulnerability and innate, subtle power will naturally refuse the angel’s counsel. They will understand flight as flight, not, in its true paradoxicality, a “flight” of steadfastness, an “escape” of staying in place so that roots can be reestablished in the heart. They will not know that to save the baby means to learn to have and to make peace.
Even a person such as myself who’s learned to deny those most vulnerable feelings, can learn, over time, that when that tender one is shaken up, in pain, terrified, nullified, the reality, and everything upholding that bullying reality is what’s wrong, no matter who or how many others seem to be doing okay in it! When “all the lines are your chains,” one must, to ”go sane,” trust in your between-the-lines” reading.
My slim hope is that Christmas can produce such a sharp cognitive dissonance in those of us who find it depressing that they too heed the angel and flee the Herod reality into the kinder one of our making.