Where does time go? I’ve known for a while that being out of working routines leads to a lot of this dimension passing unnoticed at times, but it still surprises me that the Christmas season has snuck up so quickly.
At the moment I’m further from everything that I have associated with Christmas than I have been at any other time in my life: snow, darkening days, carols everywhere, Laplandic culture spin-offs, orgies of commercialism and young children. So it is small wonder that it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas season here at the moment. Then I notice a friend posting a Facebook status of “Hosanna has now been sung” and I realize just how close the holiday is getting.
I went to church last week, acting like something of an ecumenical tourist in the Anglican chapel closest to my apartment. It was mentioned there that it was the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and that all of the Christmas things were coming, but that was sort of overshadowed by other aspects of the service. In particular there was a veteran organist and choir director whose 80th birthday was being commemorated with all sorts of official recognition for his 62 years of service to the denomination in various capacities as a church musician. The officiating priest spoke of having pulled out all of the stops (an appropriate analogy) at getting every possible high church element included.
Besides all of the “smells and bells” then, part of the celebration was to borrow a batch of choir boys from the darker skinned Anglican congregation on the other side of the mountain. And the retired priest who delivered the main sermon –– an old classmate of the honoree for the day –– made a minor key mention of the fact that it was by rights their church where this celebration was being held. It was in the mid sixties that the Apartheid government had declared the area around the harbor of Simon’s Town to be “whites only,” forcibly moving those too dark to deserve respect over to an inland slum ironically named “Ocean View.” As the old priest pointed out, this chapel where the octogenarian musician was being honored was the same place where these young people’s parents had been confirmed and where their grandparents had been married. The implication was that they were quite welcome there as full participants these days, not just as liturgical guest minstrels. Even so, there was sort of an understanding that the status quo of the white retirees there remaining in control would not be disturbed. From a tourist perspective I found all of this fascinating, but I’m still not quite sure how to relate to it.
So what should Christmas mean in this land of slowly healing wounds, where the solar significance of the holiday is entirely reversed in any case? Last year I wrote a piece about the significance of candles in my life as a means of surviving darkness this season. Now I’m living in a land where the darkest times are in June, and even then candles aren’t so critically important. But regardless of the seasonal reversal, there is a strong need here to maintain hope that the light –– in the more figurative sense –– will return soon. But what light might that be?
The concept of Jesus as the light of the world is as relevant here as it is in every other part of the world, but there is probably more fresh and raw scar tissue from nasty things done in Jesus’ name by his professing followers here than in just about any other part of the world. Then again, there has also been much good done by Christians here in terms of encouraging forgiveness rather than vengeance as power has changed hands. But some still ask, has that simply led to the villains going unpunished through their ingenious move of religiously neutralizing their victims’ will to fight back? Under these circumstances what form should the light of the Gospel message take so as to provide genuine hope for the weary and down-trodden?
Part of the question fundamentally becomes, is there some way that we can learn to respect –– even love –– each other without using that as a means or excuse for manipulating each other? History has given us ample reason to be pessimistic about this. Nor do I have a solution worthy of a peace prize for my contributions, but here’s the best I can suggest: The opposite of manipulation is trust, and so the greatest hope that we have is that these people –– who have been conditioned to hate each other while at the same time looking for ways to take advantage of each other –– will some day find a way of learning to trust each other. Of course that’s infinitely easier said than done, but trust does provide us with something of a star to look to in our moral navigation process.
In some senses the easiest way to build trust in another person is by showing them that you are willing to trust them first. Loyalty is a basic instinctive tendency for most psychologically healthy people. OK, people are never as loyal as dogs, but most people are at least somewhat capable of the trait. So if you can show a person that you care about them personally and you mean to do them good, and if you are sincere about it, in the vast majority of cases that person will do good by you as well. Among other displays of this in pop culture we have the transformation in the character played by Eddie Murphy in the film “Trading Places” –– a wild fictional exaggeration, but demonstrating a completely valid point.
When trust building with other people doesn’t work I would attribute it to one of four basic reasons: The first would be that the person you are trying to win over still (perhaps justifiably) sees you as still taking more than you’re offering. This could mean that they suspect you of playing a con game in your attempts to win their trust, but it could also be a matter of simple calculation: If I have been working for you and you have been paying me 30% less than what I’m rightfully entitled to, a 10% Christmas bonus is unlikely to make me start completely trusting your good will towards me.
In the second case though, even if you really are being more than fair with the person you’re trying to win over and you have no ulterior motives for them to suspect, you might fail to win them over because they have been thoroughly conditioned to believe that you cannot be trusted because you are… X. Some believe that they can never trust someone from outside of their own religion, or their own gender, or their own social class, or their own political persuasion, or their generation, or any number of other standards by which the difference between “us” and “them” is operationally defined for them. Some such people are more closed-minded than others. Sometimes this can be overcome with patient personal investment in friendship across such borders, but not always. For some the most important part of their personal identity might be what they see as their strength in standing strong against what “someone like you” represents.
With others the issue might not be a consciously held prejudice against something you represent, but a subconscious wound that they can’t help but associate with you. If a girl has been brutally raped by a man who, for reasons I can do nothing about, I strongly remind her of, it should come as no surprise that she will be highly unlikely to trust me. The same principle applies to any who have been exposed to traumatic violence or dehumanizing humiliation of any sort: If they are personally afraid of me for reasons that are entirely not my fault, I am probably the wrong person to help them through their trust issues.
And then finally there are those who are bona fide sociopaths –– incapable of human caring or loyalty on any level. How large a group this is is a difficult matter to determine, but they are certainly out there. When you find someone in this condition, no amount of kindness will ever earn their trust or make them a trustworthy friend to you in return.
All that being said then, I do recognize that there are at least two groups of people with whom I shouldn’t even try to build trust; with whom the best I can do is to interact cautiously and honorably, but giving them plenty of space. With others though –– and I believe that this includes the vast majority of those in our world with trust issues –– there is a very good chance that through a persistent enough display of kindness and fairness trust can be established. This trust in turn can be contagious, and the more it spreads, the greater our chances are of realizing the Advent message of “peace on Earth, good will towards mankind”.
The best way for me to find the strength to pursue a goal of becoming an instrument of peace is to feel secure in who I am and what I’ve been given. The less I worry about people taking the things I treasure most from me, the more I can allow myself to open up to them and care about them rather than just worrying about myself. I admit that this too is easier said than done, but in all honesty I find the Advent message really helpful here: God is reaching out to me where I am at, making it possible for me to be part of his kingdom in spite of myself, giving my life more significance than I could ever earn for myself by my own merits, and not leaving any of this at up to the whim of whatever religious authorities there are who would want to use this as a means of manipulating me.
What more could I ask for? Well… plenty, but what more could I justifiably demand? Absolutely nothing. And what I have beyond that is a rich life on entirely different terms than I ever would have imagined and a fascinating new adventure taking shape in what remains of my time here on Earth.
So here’s wishing all of my friends in the frozen north and in other still darkening parts of the world a joyous Advent season, and here’s asking that you keep working for peace and keep praying for me as I try to do the same.