(The title is a quote from Alain de Botton.)
(photo by Tavis Ford)
For some, this is the hardest time of year—a nagging reminder of isolation, and the feeling that, as John Keats put it, “we cannot be made for this sort of suffering.” For some, that feeling is made worse by the superficial visions of happiness that trot across our screens, and in our places of commerce. There, the holiday season can feel like an assault—columns of seemingly uncomplicated, impossibly Technicolor people, marching contentedly through a wonderland of material comforts. How easy it is to forget that even the most committed consumers have less sanguine stories to tell—a fear of death, a struggle with self-criticism or insecurity, a shameful memory lurking somewhere beneath the cheery veneer. Caught in the aggro-joy of the marketplace, how many will share those stories this holiday season? How many will ask to hear another’s story shared?
Here are a few from my own community. A family upended by a daughter’s suicide. Dear friends living with cancer, depression, addiction. Parents living with old age. A woman living out of her car at the other end of the street. Tales of divorce, betrayal, resentment—like tiny fissures presaging the coming earthquake. Life here is not only these things, of course. But even in a beautiful, earthy city like Portland, there is pain and sadness, and I suspect that, without descending into the ridiculousness of Debbie Downer, our task during the holiday season is to at least acknowledge it. Maybe such acknowledgment is where the possibility of hope really begins.
Confirmation bias aside, I couldn’t help seeing the same message in a poem I found yesterday, by Portland Revels founder Richard Lewis:
Call all the heroes home from war
Call them away from their fierce weapons
Let them fight no more,
For now is peace under the Yuletide heavens.
Peace, that is winter’s gift—
The ancient hope, renewed each year,
In song and heartfelt fellowship
In story and salutes of solstice cheer.
Call the people, the young and old together—
No quarrel shall mar this holy time.
When all clasp hands, each with other,
While trees guard the land and silent sky
So are we much in love with love,
At one with all that lives—below, above.
What struck me about these lines was something more than mere “solstice cheer”—though that was important too. But there’s also a landscape that must be “guarded.” (From what?) There’s a silent sky, hovering overhead like an indifferent deity. There’s a sense that hope must be constantly renewed, presumably after periods of hopelessness. It all seemed to cycle back into the mystery of existence—a reminder that pretending we have actually overcome suffering, even for the sake of a holiday, is a way of re-inflicting it.
Speaking of the Revels—I took my daughter to see this year’s Christmas show last weekend (Mommy had her book club, and we took the opportunity to get out of the house for a few hours). I must admit that I arrived at the venue in an un-festive mood. At one point, the company came out into the audience, exhorting us to join them in a rendition of “The Lord of the Dance” (the shaker-derived hymn, not the Michael Flatley phenomenon). At first, I resisted. But somehow, something about the way I was invited in—a friendly face and a warm hand, stretched out on the spur of the moment—allowed me to push through my own season-induced melancholy. I in turn led my daughter into that line of dancers, and we circled around the auditorium, singing a song about a savior I don’t believe in, and enacting the endless falling and rising of the world.