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What gift do you give when you are borrowing money just to make it through the month? What sort of happy holidays do you wish to children and adults, when you are worried about keeping the power on or whether you need to apply for food stamps?
With the echoes of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” ringing in my ears, I find myself pondering the holidays and the season. It is cold and dark and can sometimes feel like the light has gone from the world. The season itself, though decorated with light and warmth in Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, and other “holy days,” is not without its downers. And we all know them.
On the radio, you can listen to some Country singer wail on about “The Christmas Shoes.” There are a plentitude of Holiday specials and Lifetime movies encouraging people to just feel the spirit. And you can watch A Christmas Carol, and wonder about how you could be so miserly as Scrooge, or feel like you are living Bob Cratchet’s Christmas (possibly even worse). Many of these events and movies, and even the commercials in between assume an ability to change the world for the better by just being more generous. What if you can’t be more generous?
What do you give when you don’t have enough?
What do you give (emotionally) when the world has ground you into dust, and just getting up in the morning is an accomplishment?
That sense of barrenness or bleakness reminds me of the hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” the text coming from a poem by Christina Rosetti. The first stanza in particular:
In the bleak midwinter
frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone,
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
It is not just the earth that is sometimes hard as iron. Sometimes life itself is hard. Sometimes we can feel broken by the circumstances of life. I know I can.
I was reminded of that recently when someone remarked that they had presented a seminar recently on the unemployed, and how to work with them. My heart dropped as I realized that I was part of that group. I could teach that seminar from real life experience! My life over the past three years has been, at times, terribly hard. Most months I worried how I was going to make my mortgage, or the condo payment.
Presently, I work part-time for the Wayne Oates Institute, and do some other part-time work. I also get some help from family and friends. Working at the Oates Institute has been a great new experience in my life, but I am still under water, almost three years after being let go.
Baby, it really IS cold outside. When a politician talks about the unemployed as if they are lazy dogs that just don’t work hard enough, like them or the Wall Street Bankers, it hurts. For example, in today’s New York Times, I read that Mitt Romney is quoted as saying that:
… the American people, edified by American principles, will rise to the occasion again, securing our safety, our prosperity and our peace.
One of these principles is a merit-based society. In a merit-based society, people achieve success and rewards through hard work, education, risk taking and even a little luck.
My colleagues in unemployment and underemployed, are hard-working, educated, and talented people. They frequently have a wide range of skills. One man I know is working as bus-driver in the early morning, a testing grader during the day, and UPS shipping clerk at night. Another is a young woman six months pregnant with her first child that struggles to find work. She shares her home with her boyfriend, and other unemployed and underemployed family members because there is not enough room at her mother’s house. Then there are the people who have just given up on careers, and have settled for jobs that are basic … many offering no health care at all.
This does not jive with the common perception in our society that it is always possible to work out of a bad situation. Or that “God never hands you more than you can handle.” I’ve seen and met people who had more than they could handle, or who were broken. They DO exist. And how do we respond?
I think we have to realize two things that are related: first that we are never alone. There are others who also walk these barren landscapes, and they also are searching for hope. But the greatest source of hope is not to be found out there, but within and among the community. Hope, warmth for the cold, and nurture for those needing it can be found as we realize that while the earth may be cold and hard, it can be warmed by the kindnesses of friends, family, and strangers. Hope is, however, not just in the actions of others, but in our own openness to it. As we allow ourselves to be warm, vulnerable, and human, we open our own hearts. And we warm ourselves and the world around us. Back to Rosetti:
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
Admittedly, a very Christian sentiment, but the meaning is transcendent in that all we can ever offer to one another and the world is our heart. It is, truly, the greatest gift we can give this holiday season. Whether we sing about lighting a candle for the Maccabees, or about celebrating solstice, or Christmas, we need to face the reality that the offering that is the most meaningful is that of ourselves.
May each of us find the courage to open ourselves and to be vulnerable to the other during this season, and throughout the year.
Michael Purintun is the Director of Publications and Administration at the Wayne Oates Institute.
- Published: 19 December 2011