Christmas has passed now, perhaps for some like a hard stool. I feel the relief as the time-space-warp compression and social choke-point of this day has gone until the Earth passes this place again in 365 and one quarter days give or take a few minutes, in its ever slowing orbit around the sun. Who will have Christmas with whom, was the turkey too dry, and overcooked, the ham too moist, too dry, too small, too big or just right? If only I had bought a gift for that unexpected friend who called, or had sent a card to that distant neurotic relative who finally got my address right and didn’t send it to the next door neighbour’s.
For the psychiatrist, Christmas is a busy time as people are reminded of their social isolation, broken relationships, deaths at this time in the past, and even more now, of their material losses. Depression is worst at Christmas and the psychotic go maddest at Easter. Some think they are Jesus Christ and all the worse as it’s always a full moon near Easter. Christmas has been a festival since the Stone Age, and probably started on a Thursday, long before the birth of Jesus as it occurs near the summer or winter solstice. For non-astronomers, this is the longest or shortest day of the year depending on what part of the planet gravity has you in its grasp. The summer solstice in our neck of the woods, and in our époque, is the 21st or 22nd December. One day it will change as all things are ephemeral. Our world is slowing down.
This is the first Christmas in some considerable time that there has been a real recognition of our insatiable addiction to the emptiness of materialism, notwithstanding the frenzied hoards still rushing the turnstiles at the department stores on Boxing Day for yet another bargain. The bubble of capitalism has burst somewhat like the bubble of communism burst unexpectedly not so long ago. Our shares are worth a fraction of their value last year, the factories are closing and career opportunities drying up. You may observe that few if any of our learned stockbrokers advised us to sell when their value was at the top. If they had this would have trigged a bear market akin the boy seeing the emperor’s new clothes. They tell us to buy in the good times, sit and wait it out in the bad, and to buy when the market bottoms out. They rarely tell us to sell or act counter-cyclically in the great roller coaster of the sine wave of life we call capitalism; Das Kapital.
The insatiable furnace of the steam engine of capitalism is growth, which in a finite planet is unsustainable. We’ll run out of fuel and suffocate ourselves in the process. This Earth is not an infinite system for exploitation. It is a closed box with boundaries, hurtling through space and slowing down in its orbit which will one day lead it into the sun; the ultimate form of global warming. Even the moon is slowing down but Isaac Newton could have told us that. If predictions are right, we may be heading for a self-induced global warming catastrophe long before we hit the sun but that is by the by.
Which brings us to man’s perpetual dilemma; that of inner spiritual restlessness and emptiness, that neither capitalism nor communism satisfies. The paradox is that the only thing that satisfies is a sort of “nothing”. In the French Revolution, they banned religious observance and the same happened in the USSR under Stalin and in Mao’s China. It did not work. Last night I saw on television, the Russian Prime Minister and former President, and former head of the KGB, Mr Vladimir Putin paying his last respects to the late beloved Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church by kissing his face and crossing himself. I know not the heart of Mr Putin, but this was very eloquent symbolism and no doubt not lost on the Russian television viewers.
However the trouble with religion is a tendency to do two things. The first is to claim that only this brand of “spiritual soup” is Campbell’s and thus the only real one with the only direct line to God. This has the consequence of relegating all the others to becoming home-brand “black and yellow” label soup which is either the enemy or somewhere out of sight on the top shelf of the great supermarket of life.
The second consequence is that the very observance of religion can become an addictive ritual which is really to reinforce a set paradigm of life, which is there to make the world a less scary place to live in. The blessing the fleet makes the sailor less anxious about putting to sea. A gold coin under the mast appeases the gods and makes for less angst in a storm. The underlying message is embalmed and forgotten. That is why we kill so well in the name of our own brand of “Campbell’s”. The other brands are therefore evil and have to be destroyed lest they threaten ours. Hence, the axis of evil. Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the people”. Perhaps he was not far off the mark, if you know what opium does and the problems with institutionalised religion. It relieves pain and dulls the senses and puts many people into an unchallenging, complacent social stupor, controls the populace as well as reducing anxiety about the uncertainties of life. I hasten to add I am not a Marxist.
Christmas is a very paradox. We have converted it into an empty marshland of materialism. The Three Wise Men brought material gifts to the baby Jesus we are told and ironically, only in one of the four gospels, namely the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. These included gold for a future king as well as expensive aromatic substances used then in the preparation of the dead for burial (frankincense and myrrh); indeed a strange gift for a baby. This was a riddle I suspect Matthew understood.
However herein lies the problem. The simple messages Jesus brought the world have been so corrupted, wrapped in gaudy paper and tinsel, and like the game, pass the parcel, by layer upon layer of telling and interpreting and particularly by Western minds, that those observances of Christmas are obfuscated and befuddled to the extent that they have taken on a different and empty meaning; a schmaltzy story about some baby who did not cry as he was so “good” and indicating that only bad babies cry, lying in a cow’s food trough in the equivalent of an underground car park of a hotel with no room service during the peak season and no prior booking by his Dad etc..
My wife asked me yesterday if I would take a picture of socks she had knitted so she could send it by email to a knitting friend. I have four cameras or is it five? The first one is about ten years old and takes cartridge film which is no longer procurable. The second is a Pentax SLR about five years old which takes film which is now becoming rare, the third is a Cannon digital compact whose zoom suddenly died last week, and the last is a Pentax compact whose USB lead is a particular size and which I could not find. My wife told me to throw out the “duds” as she is of that mind. Throw out a camera? Into the garbage bin? It seems wasteful but lest I hoard this, what else can I do? For number three camera, the cost of repair is worth more than the camera. The message; everything we own, love, treasure, lust after and do…well it is ephemeral. It won’t last. The Greek word for a newspaper is, in essence, “an ephemeral thing” (I am learning Greek)…something that ends up as “dog-wee paper” the next day.
It is a brave and perhaps a foolish man to discuss the message of Jesus at Christmas. However I will put my toe in the water. I think he was saying several things. Theologians no doubt will agree and disagree as that is their lot. Those of you with fixed ideas will find this threatening as your paradigm or fixed box view of life may be challenged.
The first is that this life is ephemeral. I think Jesus was a formidable Zen Master but this is lost to the logical Western mind and also to most in the East. The riches of this world are inside us. They include simplicity, peace, the mastery of our baser nature, our interdependence on the natural world, our oneness with the cyclical time-line of Creation, and the need to work out one’s own salvation as the scriptures say, with fear and trembling. But salvation from what you may ask?
A “charismatic” Christian piano teacher one day during a lesson asked my young daughter, was she saved? Saved from what she replied. It is cheap grace to think that mere words make for salvation. It is a work in progress like a butterfly that only finally is released from the nurturing confines of its chrysalis, and in our case, when we breathe our last breath. I think it means salvation from “self”, that inner untamed beast the Leonard Cohen sings about, which drives our natures, that leads us to say and do things out of selfishness, instinct and reaction and not out of self-control, insight and love. Instead of being in the moment, smelling the daisies and hearing the bees we are deaf and blind. So much of our living is done reactively, selfishly and instinctively. We do not live in the present tense. Our lives are driven by visions of the past or of the future. Fearfulness and unrealistic expectations are in the future, while regret, recrimination and the seeds of depression are in the past. As well, a whole generation now lives in another world connected by earpieces. The present just goes by like a rushing tide they cannot see. Eternal life begins in the now. What happens after death is in a way, not the issue but what happens in your life now.
The more junk we accumulate, the sicker we get. In the end everything you cherish will end up at the council tip. Even you will end up there or somewhere similar. The more affluent we become, the more we die inside. We end up like Christmas turkeys filled with stuffing; dead, but full of stuff. Stuff kills us in the end. It is interesting to me that Jesus chose fishermen to be his pupils not lawyers or wealthy businessmen. To sail a boat you have to live in the moment, be aware of all Nature’s whims and to love the wind, the sea and the motion of a boat through the water. I sail. To be good at it, you concentrate on the now, and you don’t look behind as what has gone is gone. Waves look scarier from behind.
Jesus spoke and acted in riddles. His life was a riddle. Even his followers did not get it. His last words on the cross were a riddle. His life is still a riddle which is still lost on most men and women who rush by in the busy streets of life with earplugs or blinkers. His message has been sanitized, commercialised and pre-digested for mass consumption. The alternative version is too hard, too challenging, too mystical, too personal, and too lonely. He said in the seventh chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “Enter ye in at the strait (viz. narrow) gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it”. In other words, as Aristotle said to Alexander the Great, there is no royal road to learning. This is a difficult and personal adventure of the soul. But that is the nature of his “Zen” ideas which are not confined to national boundaries, cultures or any age. This brings ever anew, stuff about a confronting state of being from a Middle-Eastern mind which we have “morphed” into a European white man by slick advertising over the centuries and a couple of movies.
Consider butterflies in a field. Once caught, put in a display case with pins through their hearts, they may still look like butterflies but their essence and beauty are lost the moment we catch them. Such often happens with ideas of the spirit when we institutionalise them. Consider the lilies of the fields….
Roger K.A Allen