Without advent, Christmas arrives through the side door, and startles me while I'm brushing my teeth for bed. With advent, it enters with fanfare, as the culmination and final satisfaction of a month-long buildup. Opening presents is the fun of Christmas, but lighting candles and reading Isaiah, looking forward to something just beyond my fingertips, is the feeling of Christmas.
Waiting is the most underrated, quickly-forgotten experience-enhancer: nothing improves a food's taste more than hunger, yet nobody thinks fondly back on hovering by the oven door, sniffing for the smell of roast turkey: caroling, presents, stuffing and snowball fights monopolize our nostalgia. Advent, though, is soaked in waiting, it drips with anticipation.
So many of us live our lives between our reach and our grasp, waiting for. . . something, and the thing between my reach and my grasp for the last two years was another very human thing: meaning.
Meaning is the rope that lashes us to the pier. It's the string wound out, that will lead me back out of the maze after battling the minotaur. "Man's Search For Meaning," (highly recommended) by Victor Frankl (a concentration camp survivor), says that meaning has the power to make any ordeal bearable, as long as we can firmly believe that our trial brings us closer to a greater goal.
Losing meaning is a scary thing - people lash out and lose rationality when their lives' meaning is merely DISPARAGED (when somebody says, "You should quit your job and raise kids" or "Just a house-mom? I thought you'd amount to more than that" hackles rise, fast. As for religious debate -- well, nobody ever strapped a bomb on his body to prove "Pet Sounds" is better than "Sergeant Pepper"). To actually lose meaning is downright terrifying -- how do you measure anything when you don't trust your own reference points anymore? Friedrich Nietzsche described it this way:
"We have left the land and have embarked! We have burned our bridges behind us - indeed, we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us! Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean. . . but. . . you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. . . and there is no longer any 'land'!"
In the space of six months from late 2005 to early 2006, I lost my mother, the woman I'd intended to marry, and several other things that were crucial to the person I believed myself to be. When my mom died of stomach cancer at age 53, I was at her deathbed. Being right there to hear her stop breathing was like being at ground zero of a meaning-grenade blast. Later, breaking up with the girl I loved was another such blast. By April 2006, every mooring was loose - I had the rope in my hand, but the other end wasn't tied anywhere! I was like a cat in zero gravity.
(hee hee hee)
The layers of meaning that had kept me warm were torn off like shrapnel shredding a winter coat, and nobody can survive winter, naked in the snow. But, I also didn't want to drape myself about with the nearest rags, overestimate my preparedness, head into the storm, and freeze anyway.
When it comes to searching for meaning, "Any port in a storm," is not enough, and I didn't want to short-circuit my own search for meaning. The German poet Rilke (one of my best friends), says, in his tenth Duino Elegy,
"How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage. . .
place and settlement, foundation and soil and home"
Sure, things were going badly, but I didn't want to squander my hours of pain, to short-cut through them and thus waste them, if I could instead come through them richer, deep green with tough foliage, rooted with place, foundation and home.
See, sometimes it seems like the world takes a perverse pleasure in poking our softest spots (it actually doesn't: sometimes life sucks, but it's nothing personal. Just trust me on this one). Faced with disillusionments that are sometimes sudden and forceful, like a nuclear bomb, and other times slow and soul-sapping, like a trench war, short cuts are easier than gritting teeth and gutting through life's challenges. Bad ports are rife in the storm, and inviting.
To boot. . .
I used to say things like, "God is teaching me patience." There's nothing wrong with saying that, and sometimes there's deep truth there. Sometimes, though, skipping to the lesson one wants to learn from a situation is a way of hijacking any true learning that might have happened.
Consider this analogy: in university, I studied literature, and discovered that there's a huge difference between reading The Great Gatsby for its colour imagery, and actually reading the Great Gatsby, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it. Sure, if colour imagery (or Freudian symbolism, or power and gender relations: pick your essay topic from those listed on the handout) is what I'm looking for, I'll find it -- but if that's all I'm looking for, a lot of other things might pass me by.
I didn't want to be like Prince Humperdink (skip to 1:58 in the clip if you can), bellowing "Skip to the end!" instead of bearing through the full marriage ritual.
So, instead of "squandering my hours of pain", instead of just saying, "Skip to the end. . . say Man and Wife!" I wanted to dig in deep, and commit to every step of the journey through the dark valley -- because you never know which patch of mud in that valley has diamonds in it, especially if you're only scanning the tree-branches for silver apples, or thinking about the beef stew at the hostel on the other side.
Another shoddy port for the storm:
One Sunday, I heard a pastor tell a story about his brother-in-law being senselessly murdered in a parking lot by street thugs. The shock-power of the story silenced everyone, and the pastor intoned, "That story just proves that life is war. . . spiritual war," the theme of his sermon.
If that really was all he learned from his brother's death, what a narrow, embittering grief he must have had! And if it wasn't, I thought with outrage, how dare he exploit his brother-in-law's murder, using it as a prop for his own message, to shock people into listening! I wondered how many other themes he'd tacked onto that tragedy, and whether he realized his lurid tactics left such a sour taste.
It is wrong, and it trivializes a tragedy, to put a false meaning in, where one is waiting for a true meaning. The pastor who blamed the 9/11 attacks on the US Government's tolerance of gays ought to be. . .what's the religious leader's equivalent of disbarred? Publicly and loudly reproached, at least. Ditto for the pastors who blame the Colombine shootings on politicians' taking prayer out of school (did any of you get that e-mail forward, too?).
There are some situations in life where, when faced with such difficult realities, the only appropriate response is deep, sad, and searching silence. No parent who has lost a child deserves to have her child's death used as a political platform, and it dishonours my mother's death, and cheapens the entire rest of my journey, if I twist that tragedy to reinforce my own prejudices. I'd rather wait for something true. The meaning will come, but meaning can be like a shy cat: sometimes we have to stop yapping, clicking and beckoning, before it'll approach.
(part two. . .)