“Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.” (Hannah Arendt)
It’s been a major struggle to write my Christmas reflections this year. I’m 5 hours in and I’ve written and deleted over seven drafts and can’t seem to capture what has been captivating and troubling me this holiday season.
I write this message each year, the last couple of years shared here (here’s 2020’s), as a means of encouragement (both for myself and you, the reader). And yet, this year I’m stumped. I have ideas about hope and grief and promises kept, and yet they come out pear-shaped on the page.
Perhaps you’re going through a similar period or can recall it. A period of such busyness and never-stopping-for-a-moment-ness that parts of your brain (of course, the creative parts) just seem to have shut down.
It’s a little… unnerving?
I don’t know what your creative outlet is, what keeps you engaged and fueled up? (No, coffee is not a “creative outlet”). For my wife it’s painting, and now cooking (thanks be to God). Perhaps for you, it’s running or soccer or… something else? (See, I said my creative fires had dwindled!)
For me, it’s reading, and reading across a wide spectrum from poetry to Napoleonic history to Russian literature to philosophy (and of course, vineyards). These different ideas and interests are always buzzing in my brain keeping me engaged and thoughtful. On an average year, I’ll read between 70-100 books.
I just cracked 20. And half of those were audiobooks. (Hiss, hiss, boo).
This year we’ve moved from a 800 sq ft apartment to a house on 6-acres, had an (adorable) baby girl, had our busiest and best year of business yet, started a whole new irrigation project, hired our first full-time employee (she’s been awesome), our irrigation team now has 9 people working on it!?!? and who knows what the hell else.
I guess I’m exhausted? Or, and this I think is closer to the truth, I’ve lost the plot. Does this make sense to you? Have you felt this way?
“An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandad!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned round and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.'”
I am, as it were, in the uncertain purgatory of maybe carrying on as if I’d never die or living like I’ll die any minute… (Zorba the Greek, while wild, does seem oddly the sensible character here).
If this were a “New Years Post” there’d be resolutions and promises of change and tactics and mumbo jumbo about “filling the tank” and “re-committing” and bla bla bla. But this is a reflective Christmas post!
…So what’s the reflection?
My reflection is HOPE.
I believe a big part of the (very real) loneliness and despair and grief during Christmas is it showcases a chasmic gap between our promises and our reality. Christmas is rarely “Where the treetops glisten / And children listen / To hear sleigh bells in the snow.”
I gave a talk recently on hope and how hope cannot be separated from grief. That grief is inherently hopeful because it is a public proclamation that things are not as they should be – and not as they could be.
“It seems plain that the voice of our despair defines our hope exactly; it seems, indeed, that we cannot know of hope without knowing of despair, just as we know joy precisely to the extent that we know sorrow.”
There is much to be grieved about. If we actually stop and breathe for a moment there are oceans of grief to drown in, both at your front door and in your city and around the world. It would feel crass to even begin a small and pathetic list here.
And so… hope?
Yes, in my grief there is hope. And the bedrock of my hope is grief.
There is a gap, a chasm, between who I want to be and who I am. Between what I want the world to be and what it is.
And you’ll never convince me that this gap is A-OK. That we can live with it. Because I can’t – I refuse to.
As the abolitionist John Newton said:
“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
There can be a sense in our culture, in our language, that hope is passive. Even in ancient Hebrew the two commonly used words for hope mean, essentially, “to wait for”.
But I believe hope is not passive but critical, that grief is critical. It is a public statement that things are not okay. That this is not acceptable. That we shouldn’t be comfortable with this – whatever this is for you.
During this holiday season, my encouragement is that hope / grief / joy / despair are well-placed. They are not so different or inappropriate. And that their depths are not plumbed by lovely songs like White Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street. That they are not, as it were, hopeless.
And so, as I’ve written this reflection I’ve pulled books off the shelves and found old quotes and ideas in margins and notes. I am, as it were, rediscovering a time past.
And so the road goes on.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”