Thursday, 24 December 2015

On Humbug, Loss, and Hope

I'm so glad Christmas is nearly here. I'm not that keen on it anymore, really, but at least it means that the Run-Up To Christmas is nearly over.

I'm not sure when I first became the bah-humbuggy sort of person that I am now. I'm also not sure whether my dislike of the season has grown as I've changed, or as the world has changed.

Was this season always this frantic, this febrile? I don't think so.

I need to make something clear: I've got no problem with December being party-time. It's dark and miserable this time of year, and people need perking up. But it's the paradoxical deification of Christmas that I can't stand. The eager count-downs (“it's only 10 more sleeps till Christmas!” proclaims the DJ), the ludicrously po-faced perfume adverts, the incessant sleigh-bell backing added to anything that moves, the fake snow, the canned carols. From the juggernaut-like build-up an alien might presume it was God's bodily return we were expecting on the 25th. The Advent irony of this doesn't really need spelling out.

It all seems rather like a sort of giant opposite-of-a-pearl: layer upon layer of irritants accreting around an infinitesimal scrap of beauty.

Ah, the carols. Maybe that's where this all gets personal for me.

When I was a boy I sang in a church choir. Once, I was the lone voice singing the first verse of 'Once in Royal' into a dark, waiting, silence. After my voice broke I learned the tenor parts, and sung all the favourites so many times that I still know most of these off by heart.

So perhaps it's familiarity breeding contempt. That's certainly part of it. It doesn't help that some of the most popular carols are stuffed full of sentimental imagery and annoying moralising directed at hapless Victorian children.

But that's not all of it.

I enjoyed singing those carols in the church choir too. To feel – to be – part of something that had being going on long before I came along; calm, secure, enveloping, and full of story. Suggesting beauty, order, hope.

I mustn't sugar-coat the past. My childhood, like all childhoods, had its share of anxiety and pain. And my adolescence was messed up by stress and ill-health. But there was definitely hope. Hope that was never defined, articulated, questioned, or even acknowledged. Hope that underlying everything there was a Reason.

And now, here I am, forty-odd years later. Our society seems frantic in its attempts to conjure, ex nihilo, a sentimental spirit of Christmas past, decked in carols from a religion almost nobody believes, set in a landscape of snow and sleigh-rides that we seem unlikely to see again (unless the gulf stream switches off, in which case we may end up with more snow than we'd like). While I look on, feeling superior in my cynicism.

It strikes me that sentimentalism and cynicism are opposing but equal errors: they are both things that happen to hope when it decays.

(Fruit left too long can sometimes go soft: the delicious sweetness can turn into collapsing mush. Or sometimes fruit can go hard, especially if it stays on the tree: its living flesh turns to withered, shrunken, woodenness.)

So we're all in the same boat really: I certainly have no reason to feel superior.

This is where I have to make a choice. A blind step in the darkness, one way or another

This is what I chose. I know the unbelievers among you will easily be able to knock logical holes in it – so can I. But I choose it nonetheless...

The funny thing is that, when I think of the hope I had, it feels so real. Real enough to touch, to smell, to embrace. More real, I think, than when (I believe) I was 'in' it at the time. And I realise that grief for hope lost is a sign that not all is shrunken hardness, but that there is still life, hidden inside.

Or as Rumi, the Sufi mystic, puts it:

"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
"This longing you express is the return message"

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup. [1]

What about the world around me – this ceaseless slush of sentimentalism? It's no answer to blame it all on commercial interests: they just reflect back, amplified, what people want. If no-one wanted endless sleigh-bells (including on Tesco self-service checkouts – quelle horreur! ) we wouldn't get them. But why does the Run-Up seem to be growing in intensity as the years pass? I suggest a parallel: the increasing doses a heroin addict needs to try to achieve the feeling of the first hit; as CS Lewis puts it, 'an ever-increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure'[2].

But the memory of that original pleasure – that scrap of beauty at the middle of the anti-pearl – must still be there at the middle. If it wasn't, all the flim-flam wouldn't have anything to work on.

As Matt Haig says in an excellent Guardian article [3]

'Christmas can get to us, sure. But it can also help us. If we edit out all the noise, we can close our eyes and remember a time when we believed in magic and miracles...

...I realise now that, growing older, we can uncover magic as often as we leave it behind.'

I think, too, of people who decorate their houses and gardens with lights for Christmas. Strings of LEDs everywhere, inflatable santas, twinkling electric icicles, glowing reindeer on the lawn. Time, effort, and money spent on something that I, snobbishly, think is tacky. But I choose to see every sparkly, lit-up home as a creative act, not made for profit, nor for climbing up a greasy pole of ambition, but out of enthusiasm, a sense of fun, and love.

Happy Christmas!

[1] From 'Love Dogs', trans Coleman Barks, from Rumi – Rumi - Selected Poems, Penguin Classics