Friday, December 28, 2007

Still Searching After All These Years

Seasonal Reflections

I always find, as no doubt does the greater part of humankind, that any extended period away from one’s daily routine of work, is good for the spirit. It allows one to reflect on where one is going in life; to take things with greater ease; to indulge in pastimes, energetic or otherwise; to relax in good company; to read, to write, to paint. Christmas is one such period allowing us the space to put our otherwise fraught existence into some perspective. The central myth of Christianity – namely that of a God or what Christians call the One true God, or a least the Son of God, being born in the form of a human infant – helps to create an ideal period for such timely and seasonal reflection. This doctrine, needles to say, is called the Incarnation and it is a central tenet of orthodox Christianity.

For children there is a magic and mystery ready to be experienced that we adults, if fortunate, may share. Those of you lucky enough to have children can so easily taste of this special magic and mystery, while those of us who are either single or childless may simply hope to share in it by visiting our nieces, nephews or godchildren or helping out in the local school or in a children’s charity. However, childless or otherwise, we may with just a little willingness and a little determination share in the magic and mystery.

As I write these few words for today’s reflection I am mindful of a wonderfully magical experience I had just before we broke up from school. Our primary school principal asked me to play Santa for the second class pupils and for a special group of 8 underprivileged kids in his national school. I was delighted to accept the offer. I suppose I’ve always been something of an actor anyway. I always love performing. Anyway, the experience was magical – for the kids and indeed for me, big child that I am. I have for the last 15 years or more been convinced of the importance of each person needing to nurture the inner child. Christmas, then, is a very special time for everyone, allowing us to care for in a unique way the little boy or little girl within us.

Anyway, back to my narrative. I felt like a type of priest as I “vested” in my Santa robes. I really enjoyed the experience for the children’s sake as well as for my own. The heart of method acting I suppose is where one becomes as really and truly as possible the character in question in an attempt to bring the whole thing off. The second class pupils – around 30 of them - were all awe-struck with the arrival of Santa. The incredulity, mystery, magic, excitement, call it what you will, written on their little faces, was a simple delight to behold. One little fellow, so taken aback to be asked a question by Santa, blurted out that he could not remember where he lived. Another little one said that he did not know. All of the others knew where they lived. Then, there was the great fun of asking them what they were getting for Christmas, coupled with what they would leave on the table for Santa on Christmas Eve after he had clambered down the chimney. One little fellow said “a glass of milk.” At this stage the little lad who had said he could not remember where he lived put up his hand and said, “Santa, I remember where I live. It’s …”

Then the meeting with the special class of underprivileged children was entirely special. The principal had bought a special present for each and had ordered a meal for them from the local take-away. Christmas is indeed a special time for giving. One young boy – I’d say he was probably about 9 or 10 and who looked very pale and neglected – kept saying, “you’re not really Santa, I can see your face underneath your beard” and delighted in trying to pull off my false beard. However, their delight in getting their presents outweighed the obvious truth that this was only a rather well-rounded pot-bellied character dressed in a funny red uniform.

Ah yes, I walked back to the secondary school with a lighter step, having been the receiver of something special and beautiful in life – the wonderful experience of being involved in helping others, in the very joy of giving; the appreciation of the very truth of the matter that to give is really to receive a hundred times over. I walked with the lightness of a newly converted Ebenezer Scrooge as he had awoken to the real truth of Christmas, that to give is the ultimate experience of love. I, no doubt, had a tear in my eye.

Whatever the myths that we humans subscribe to – be they religious ones like Christmas or more humanistic ones like “Santa Claus” – one thing is certain and that is that we need them to give some meaning to our little lives. Surely, it matters not a jot what we believe in – once those beliefs do not hurt others or cause others to be hurt; once those beliefs enhance the dignity of all human life and promote love and kindness among all races. Whether they are true literally or not is also, to my mind, inconsequential. We need life-enhancing myths to keep us going. That’s why fundamentalist believers of all kinds annoy me with the literalness of their beliefs – a literalness that often leads to hate and bloodshed. That’s also why fundamentalist atheists of all kinds annoy me too, because fundamentally they have the same evangelical outlook about their own scientific beliefs that fundamentalist religious believers have of their religious convictions. Both these groups are sure and certain of the validity of their stances and of the sure and certain invalidity of the stances of their opponents. Also both these groups want to convert you and me and every reasonable matter-of-fact human being to the validity of their stances. Not alone are they sure that they are right, but they are doubly sure that we less knowledgeable and oh so ignorant ones need to be disabused of our false beliefs and converted to the real truth their own stance! (Indeed, as every philosopher worth his or her salt, or any reasonably intelligent questioning human being knows, whatever truth is or more correctly whatever truths are, they are never as simple or as cut and dried as fundamentalists of all hues would have us believe.)

What both groups need is to taste a little more of the magic and mystery of life. Both need also to take themselves with a cartload of salt; to take themselves less seriously and to be more open and just a little less sure. They need to bone up on the real meaning of myth. They need to examine the language of their beliefs; to question their own presuppositions a little more sceptically from time to time. They need a greater sense of humour. Let them go out to the cinema or theatre. Let them go out and listen to opposing viewpoints. Let them come out of their ivory towers and walk among real people. Let them go to the iconoclastic comedians of this world and begin to laugh at themselves!

Above I have placed a picture I took with my mobile phone of the Christmas Tree in my mother's ward at St Mary's Hospital, Phoenix Par, Dublin, a few days ago.

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