It's Christmastide once again, and as we get older Christmases seem to roll by very quickly indeed. It's hard to get my head around the fact that this is my 51st Christmas in this world. As Robert Frost said so perspicaciously, when asked what he had learnt from life after all his many years of living, "It goes on." How true and how obvious, and yet how straight to the point. The obvious, after all, does stare us right in the face. And, all too often, the obvious is least acknowledged because so taken for granted.
Life as Gift:
This subtitle is quite a cliché, simply because its overuse, if not abuse, has demeaned it and reduced its meaning to little or nothing. Too often we give lip service to this phrase and its sentiments. Yet one hears it said very often, and indeed one is not too slow at using it oneself. These last few days I have spent some time in various shopping centres, or malls, as the citizens of the USA call them, looking for presents for people, seeking out things that might delight them or bright light to their eyes. As my mother, and all good mothers, used to say, "it's the thought that counts." Once again this is a truism, verging on the cliché for exactly the reasons as outlined already above, but nonetheless an important truth upon which to reflect.
In preparing these thoughts I googled the words "life as gift" and "gift of life" and came up with some 243,000,000 results for the first combination. Surprised? No, indeed, we're not. After all, the truth always abides and abounds. Let me name some of these results in a random fashion:- Gift of Life donor sites from all over the world for many essential organs, hearts, kidneys and livers to name but several; Gift For Life Rwanda, an AIDS charity; Sail For Life - kids open heart surgery charity; Holocaust site; Children Action, a site for the rights of children; Adoption and even the gift of mosquito nets which are quite literally gifts for better life and living in Africa.
A little Philosophy:
We experience our life as somehow been given to us or gifted to us. We are essentially receivers of the very life that is us or that lives in and through us. It was gifted to us by our parents whose lives were gifted to them and so on back over countless generations. Some philosophers say we experience life as a being thrown, as it were, into existence without prior warning. To be thrown into the stream of time is a fundamental and unalterable feature of our human situation. We have to accept the historical conditions of our existence. We can try to interpret them because we cannot change them. This is essentially Heidegger’s concept of the Geworfenheit of Human Existence. The site Poem Hunter gives the following lovely wee poem penned by poem-maker Gershon Hepner which goes thus:
Heidegger declares it is the throwness
of our existence that provides its onus;
everybody’s lonely as an orphan
because they are condemned to be geworfen. Link
I have always been taken by this idea of "throwness" as we do experience life as being thrust upon us, or literally we experience ourselves as being thrown like a paratrooper into foreign territory. In this "foreign territory" we have to learn to acquaint ourselves with our surroundings, to survive in it and literally to conquer the obstacles around us. Heidegger contends that we experience this throwness as a type of alienation from our real selves or our real existence or Dasein. Of course, unlike the paratrooper, we have our family to care for us, to set us on the right track, to support us, to educate us. Then, we have society at large to socialise and educate and make good citizens of us. However, we still have to make ourselves, to take whatever life we have been gifted with and make and mould it into some project called personal identity.
Here, let me refer to the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre(1905-1980) because I have always loved his contention that we experience our lives as projects thrust upon us. I believe and feel that this is another way of describing the giftedness we experience life as being; almost another way of describing what it's like to be catapulted into existence. Sartre was not so much interested in metaphysics at all and merely made some references to it. Metaphysics was largely an irrelevant area of philosopher which asked useless questions about where we came from, about God and angels, about Heaven and Hell etc. In fact Sartre was almost solely concerned with Ontology (the philosophy of being). In his case, ontology is primarily descriptive and classificatory, whereas metaphysics purports to be causally explanatory, offering accounts about the ultimate origins and ends of individuals and of the universe as a whole. Sartre, being the ultimate or essential existentialist (to mix my philosophical categories as my adjective is quite metaphysical a term) and is quite content to describe what it is like to exist here and now, to describe what it is like to be human on this earth.
Consequently he subtitles his large philosophical tome Being and Nothingness a "Phenomenological Ontology." Its descriptive method moves from the most abstract to the highly concrete. It begins by analysing two distinct and irreducible categories or kinds of being: the in-itself (en-soi) and the for-itself (pour-soi), roughly the nonconscious and consciousness respectively, adding a third, the for-others (pour-autrui), later in the book, and concludes with a sketch of the practice of "existential psychoanalysis" that interprets our actions to uncover the fundamental project that unifies our lives. This is so amazingly in harmony with many of the theories of the various psychotherapeutic schools. We are indeed on a quest to uncover our very own "fundamental project" (call it self-identity, self-realization, individuation, making the unconscious conscious, the search for meaning etc) in which we engage in integrating ourselves. In short, Sartre believes that life could have no meaning unless we gave meaning to it. I think anyone pondering this notion to any depth would agree.
The Sartreian project is an angst-ridden struggle, and a worthwhile one to make because by making it we fashion a meaning out of literally the 'nothingness' of our existence. I like Sartre because there is no sugariness or saccharine quality about his work. Sartre's philosophy is for the courageous. The gift that is life is no sugary or saccharine one. Gifts have to be developed and improved most often through struggle and pain. As the old phrase, or cliché, has it: "No pain, no gain!" Here I think of the deaf Ludwig van Beethoven and then the thousands of other famous people who have suffered from depression in its unipolar and bipolar varieties: They are listed here: List. It seems that both physical and mental pain, that is suffering, hones our human gifts. This is often hard to realise but it is all too true. I can witness to this statement in my own life. I have honed my gifts of imagination, teaching and writing from my own mental suffering of endogenous depression. Likewise, I have read many biographies and autobiographies as well as general self-help and more popular psychological works which attest to the truth of these foregoing contentions.
Anyway, let me state, here and now, that giving and receiving gifts is essentially therapeutic and we need both. To give is essentially a way of saying "you are important to me,"you count in this world," "you are not alone," or "we are in this project called life together." To receive is to say "thank you," to feel that I am loved and cared for, that I count, that my project in life is worth undertaking. In all of this there is no sugar or saccharine. Far from it. Oftentimes, there is struggle involved. We may be bringing gifts for the weak, the sick, the vulnerable and even the dying. We ourselves may be receiving our gifts in our sick bed or after receiving some awful news about our own health or that of others close to us. Giving and receiving are essentially human interactions which are essentially healing and therapeutic. They both help us to grow in selfhood. They help us in the process of self-integration or individuation. They help us to become who we truly are.
And so, over the pat few weeks I have been involved in running our school Christmas Party for the older citizens around our school and this involved working with teachers, adults, parents and students in collecting money and in general organisation. It also involved buying gifts for hampers and delivering them. Obviously I have also bought gifts for my family and for others close to me as well as receiving them from others. Literally, I was bowled over in receiving a few from some of my autistic charges in the resource room at school. I was humbled because I was not expecting anything nor would I ever. I teach because I love it and I love the people with whom I work and whom I teach. However, the feeling I get on receiving their gifts is self-enhancing and fundamentally ennobling.
And so indeed Christmas is a time of gifts aplenty with absolutely no sugar or saccharine intended.
Pupils wrapping gifts for the annual Christmas Party to which I alluded in the above paragraphs. This photograph was taken in December 2003.