It is that time of the year to be thankful. At Christmas it is time to be merry. At Easter, a time to … well, that depends on your perspective. After all, these are arbitrary dates. Easter moves around every year, so its arbitrariness is self-evident. Actually, so does Thanksgiving. But Christmas, well, that one’s nailed down at least.
But the fact that we attach a certain set of feelings to each one of these holidays, if we even celebrate them at all, well, that’s either nostalgia (e.g., my mother was, after all, always quite cheery at Christmas, or thankful on Thanksgiving, etc.) or it is merely the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Black Friday is the day I always, like a lemming rushing to the sea, go out shopping for no real reason than force of habit.
But let me get back to the arbitrariness of the dates and the concomitant emotions adhering to those dates, or rather holidays. If the dates are more or less fluid and not really fixed on the calendar—indeed, most historians would not attribute the historical date for the birth of Jesus to December 25—I would here like to introduce an alternative way of thinking, and maybe even an alternative way of living. First, with all due respect to nostalgia—and I think it should sans doubte be accorded some respect—what if we really did decide to keep Christmas cheer all year round and try to be merry every day? And, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, try to be thankful every day? And what about Easter? Well, that’s not so easy to define, but one adjective that comes to mind is hopeful—so hopeful it is. And what if we should try to be so every day? That would actually require us to master our emotions and marshal them, each and every day, to address the circumstances of that day. And, I admit, that would be hard. It would require of us generous forgiveness, lavish kindness, faithful optimism.
But just imagine, for a moment, the possible outcome? We could be fun to be around (merry), gracious and generous (thankful) and optimistic (hopeful), the last of these at least within realistic parameters. That might just make us pleasant, affirming, even likeable. Now there’s an idea for Thanksgiving this year. I, for one, am going to give it a try.
When I was a student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, I had a course entitled “Approaches to History.” In it, we considered various ways of writing and reconstructing history. It reflected the first beginnings of what is now commonly referred to as revisionist history, which means history interpreted through the lens of a particular sociological or political agenda. It sounds innocent enough, and at some level it is innocent. On the positive side, such an understanding of history means that we can’t just take for granted what we have inherited in a history book that purports to be unbiased. To enlarge on that, it means that there is no “unbiased” history. Everyone, wittingly or not, has a point of view that is influenced by his or her surroundings, his or her values or lack thereof, and when one interprets or reconstructs or writes history it will be, inevitably, interpreted or written through the aforementioned lens.
Take Christianity, for example. The Christian scriptures were written, presumably, by Christians who no doubt would have had a bias as to how to interpret the history of Christmas and Easter. The minor miracles surrounding Christmas are less spectacular than that of Easter, so I leave those aside. But Easter: now there’s a dilemma. If the Christians are the ones in charge of relating the history of the empty tomb, couldn’t they be revising their interpretation of the events to suit their own political agenda? In the gospels (and non-canonical concomitant Christian literature), the early Christians all claimed that the tomb was empty. A modern historian, operating from the assumption that miracles don’t “really” happen, could revise that account: “Well, the Christians were obviously biased and were unable to see clearly what happened, so they pretended he was raised from the dead. Or maybe they even hid the body and lied about the resurrection.” And thus this historian has revised the history to what is “more likely” or at least more logical. But the lens of that historian has its own bias: it is based on the notion of miracles not happening.
But what if those miracles did happen? If one were to entertain that possibility for even a moment, one would have to go back and reconsider, yet again, the big miracle of Easter and, yes, even the minor miracles surrounding Christmas. And one would have to look at one’s own life and recognize those times when something happened that seemed miraculous. And so forth. That process may just lead that person upwards out of despair and directly to the wider, redemptive implication of Easter, the foot of the cross. But that is the material of another blog.
Let me close with another aspect of history: not just how we can interpret it, but how heavy it is, for that is the title of this blog. For example, the weight of the Second World War and the atrocities that led up to that war is indeed ponderous. Hopefully consideration of those events has changed the way we think about evil and has strengthened our resolve to confront it courageously when we see it again. The same can be said of the American Civil War and the circumstances that caused that conflict—can we do better now, can we move forward together as a country, regardless of race, creed, or color? Can we consider and recognize the weight of history without carrying on our back the unnecessary burden of history?
I don’t know if we can, but I know where such healing must start: it starts not in the legislative chamber or in the courtroom or in a protest march, but in the heart. It starts with each one of us letting go of the ponderousness of his or her own history. We can’t forget the past, but we can let the burden of it go. I have a friend who is still carrying the burden of his childhood with him. No, he can’t just forget his childhood, and in fact he should not, for we all need to learn from our parents’ mistakes so that we don’t inflict those same mistakes upon our own children. But we don’t need to carry the weight of those mistakes, whether our own errors or those of our parents, around with us any longer. How can we let go of such a burden? The answer lies in our consideration of Christmas and Easter above, summarized by St. Paul at Romans 7:24. If miracles happen, we can let go; if they don’t, maybe we can’t. I believe we can.
A friend of mine (a cousin, actually, who is also my friend) has been traveling in New England. One of the lodgings he stayed in recently was a lovely old Maine countryside B&B attached to a pub. It was lovely to look at at least, he said, as it did not serve him a lovely New England breakfast. Amidst its otherwise quaint furnishings, it featured a rather uncomfortable bed. He described resting on that piece of furniture as being like sleeping on the floor of a taxi cab, an analogy that, however unlikely it may seem, certainly embodies well the level of discomfiture.
And that is the theme of today’s blog, not the floor of a taxi cab—which in my day was always stickier than it was hard, though with Uber that has all thankfully changed—but rather one’s bed. For one knows the dictum well enough to be able to finish it from the partial quotation in the title above: “Well, you’ve made your bed, and now you’ll have to sleep in it!” The meaning is, of course, not quite that of “karma,” which, I explained in a blog of a few weeks ago, is a Weltanschauung to which I am glad that I personally don’t share, as were it true, I imagine that I would myself constantly be on the receiving end of retribution of some kind. Rather, the maxim to which this title alludes is a doctrine of just consequences. It means, “Well, you’ve made a bad decision, and now you’ll just have to live with the result(s) of that decision.”
Now that’s as good as far as it goes, I suppose, as there’s some truth to it. If you get a tattoo on your hind quarters that says, “Mary and Bob,” inside of a heart with an arrow through it, but you wind up breaking up with Mary or you want to change your name to Robert (or Roberta, which nowadays has become increasingly more common), either you will wind up always keeping your pants on or you will have to have the tattoo removed, though even then it may still be somewhat visible to the naked eye. And that would be, in any case, a pain in the … .
But I leave the tattoo aside to get back to the expression about the bed, which, I think, the example of the tattoo amply demonstrates, can be true. I say “can be true” and not “is true,” because it is Good Friday today, and on the third day, Easter. And what do these two holidays (in the true etymological sense of that word) mean? They mean, “You’ve made your bed, now come sleep in this much more comfortable one where you can find real rest.” That’s a very strange variant on the dictum, isn’t it?
What do I mean by such a variation? I mean that these two holidays are a bit different than either of them is billed as (Good Friday is not “billed” at all, and Easter is billed as chocolate and bunnies and eggs, an incongruous enough combination, confusing even to children). They are in fact kind of opposites of each other. On Good Friday one man dies for all. On Easter Day, that same man rises. We love the optimism of the second part of the formula. We might even be tempted to say that’s what the formula is all about—optimism, symbolized in a story that isn’t physically or historically true but is psychologically true. But even if you were to accept such a superficial and facile explanation of Easter, which I do not, that still leaves Good Friday dangling.
Good Friday is all about the aforementioned bed. Unlike the tattoo that is hard to eradicate and usually but imperfectly and painfully removed, the bed in which you are supposed to sleep for your past mistake(s) can be removed—indeed was, a long time ago. It was removed in or about 33 A.D. when one man died for all, for he died as a ransom. He eradicated utterly and completely the blotches that were far more than merely blotches—they were deeply clinging cancerous tumors in our souls. He didn’t just shrink them by divine radiation or by setting an example of how to live in a better way. Rather, he took them all into his own body, and they killed him, as cancerous tumors are known to do. And when he died with them, they died with him.
So back to the bed that you’ve made. No, you don’t have to sleep in it. You might choose to, even though you know it’s quite uncomfortable and you won’t rest well in it—in fact you’ll quite possibly wake up more tired than when you went to bed in the first place. But you don’t haveto sleep in it. With a dash of wisdom and a little courage, you can muster the strength to choose to sleep in quite a more comfortable bed in which you will find true rest, for it has been bought for you and given to you for free. For that is what grace and Good Friday, and Easter, too, are all about. Good Friday has paid for your new, comfortable bed. Easter gives you the courage to choose to sleep in it.
Happy Easter! Or, as the Greeks say, ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!
There are row homes all around, and some of the surrounding neighborhoods were then, and still likely are, starkly poor. I was young, and though I had no money myself, my heart went out to those living in what I then perceived to be poverty, because I knew that for me, in the end, there was a pretty good chance, with all the education I was privileged to be getting at the time, life would likely work out somehow; but for many of those living there, it might never change, might never turn out well.
They might in fact be held in a less-than-living wage category for their entire lives, with no hope for a future. Theirs, I then thought, was the true via dolorosa, the true path of suffering. Theirs would most likely be a life of subsistence living.
On the one hand, save one letter, I wasn’t too far off about that being the via dolorosa. Truly it is hard for someone stuck in an impoverished situation to break the cycle of poverty, whether they live here in America or anywhere else in the world. Yet the letter I was missing was a ‘T’, as I was confusing the life of suffering (vita dolorosa) with the way of suffering (via dolorosa). Those row houses, row upon row upon row, had all the earmarks of underprivileged living, poverty mingled with poverty, sadness dripping more sadness. That would be the life, not the path or way of suffering. And that was all merely from the outside. For in any of those row houses, I’ll wager, there could have been, and very likely was, a real home, a place of warmth and care, love and acceptance. And that is real wealth, real prosperity.
On the other hand, no sound-thinking person could say that poverty is a desirable situation to live through year in and year out. And, on that same other hand, one has to realize that poverty is often on a sliding scale. What I was calling poverty in Philadelphia, genuine as it was and still is in that city, is still not the same as poverty everywhere.
I was not too long ago—just two years this month—in a country, Ethiopia, where poverty is much more severe. There we visited a family who lived in a small hut with a small not very private, at best, semi-isolated area alongside of it that served as a bathroom. There was no running water in the hut or the makeshift bathroom and it was a long walk to the nearest well. The floors were beat-down dirt with a rug over a portion of the dirt. The possessions inside the hut were meager. A few pictures. Stick furniture. Something that served as a bed. A very modest life, and no hope, no way out—ever. Not what we in the affluent West call poverty as it most often manifests itself in our culture; something worse.
Yet by the time I got to Ethiopia, all those years after wandering and pondering in West Philly, I knew that what I saw in Africa was not the via dolorosa (way of suffering), which had in fact led me there, but rather the vita dolorosa (life of suffering). The latter can occur anywhere, but obviously can be quite acute in situations that offer no opportunity for improvement, no hope for change for the better. The former is a frame of mind. It is a choice to embrace pain, not to run from it. It is, as anyone who knows anything about Christendom will be aware, peculiarly poignant, even palpable, this time of year. It is not the right to bear arms (too often a pet issue for American conservatives), but the right to roll up one’s shirtsleeves and work with those less fortunate. If it is a burden, it is a light one, because it is a choice. It is the choice willingly to give away much of one’s material wealth to help the poor, hopefully empowering them that they may discover a way out, that they may get the opportunity to improve their situation; it is a choice to spend time with the disadvantaged; it is a choice to embrace a friend in need and to help to carry his burden. Even if some Christians might self-effacingly deny that it is a choice—after all, what happened to Simon of Cyrene does not seem to have been much of a choice—it nevertheless can feel like one. In Simon’s case, he bore a small burden for the One who would bear a much heavier burden on that very cross. We can do so, as well.
So I close with these thoughts a day earlier than usual, for I offer this blog not on a Saturday but on a Friday, a very good, if a very dolorous Friday. These reflections about poverty are couched in a discussion of the distinction between the life of suffering and the way of suffering. Though there can sometimes be joy in spite of it, the former is unfortunate in any culture; the latter, by contrast, is desirable, the only truly desirable outcome for a life well lived, at least for those who seek to follow the path that Simon of Cyrene trod. That path led Him, whose cross Simon bore, to the quintessentially heroic, propitiatory sacrifice. For those of us on that path, we shall find that it leads not to but through personal sacrifice surprisingly to joy, and it does so in a relatively short time. Though in this life it may seem to us to take an eternity, it will turn out, in fact, merely to be a span of three days.
The topic of this week’s blog may appear, at first blush, a bit unlikely, for perhaps you’re wondering who would be so pretentious as to blog about the meaning of life? I must be kidding, right?
But I’m not. Rather, it donned on me (the meaning of life, I mean), when I saw a picture of a sheep named Christopher in the news. According to the Associated Press article, the poor fellow was lost for several years in the Australian scrubland—a land I had never hitherto known existed—and, when his wool was removed, it yielded roughly 89 pounds of the stuff. The article said it was about half the body weight of the animal. That’s a hefty animal and a lot of yarn. Such an amount of wool apparently can provide one sweater each for thirty people.
And that’s when it donned on me: I’d stumbled upon the meaning of life. And it’s not merely because I like sheep and can, thanks to Elaine Jakes’ having bought a farm (ch. 9 of The Curious Autobiography) when I was but a teenager, do a near perfect sheep voice imitation. Wherever I go, sheep are seriously impressed when I make a bleating sound (which, I’ve been told, echoes all too well the female mating-call). Nor is it because I happen to have been to Reykjavik, where I’ve seen and smelled some of the finest woolen sweaters in the world, sweaters that themselves still rather smell like sheep. (As I was but a student at the time, I hadn’t the money to purchase one; besides, it is normally far too hot in Texas to wear one). Nor is it because it is a Welsh family tradition to celebrate Easter with a meal of lamb. Nor is it because I am interested in metaphoric vocabulary derived from animal behavior: bull-headed (rather Minotaurish, isn’t it?); creepy (centipedish); catty (how fitting is that one?); jackass (need I say more?); mule-headed (definitely referring to the mentality); piggish (if you’ve seen a pig eat, you’d understand); rabbity (perhaps my favorite); birdlike (a bit too obvious, though “featherweight” is rather nice); squirrelly (entirely self-evident); lion-hearted (too little used any more); and, of course, sheepish. Yet I need not mention that one. And obviously none of these, nice as they are, sheds any light on the meaning of life. Rather, only this heavy-laden sheep does.
Now before I should dare divulge life’s meaning we need to consider something about sheep that is sometimes deemed offensive and certainly, among the most vociferous of sheep-rights activists, politically incorrect in the telling (non rectum reipublicae dictu). No, I do not mean to say here that sheep are stupid. That is a cliché; besides, to tell the truth, sheep have actually come out better than expected on their aptitude tests. There is no sense in perpetuating a false stereotype.
Besides, I would prefer to rehearse some interesting facts about sheep of which one might simply be unaware. First, even after many years, they have a remarkable memory, like elephants; they can also show emotion more readily than many other animals. And, apparently they can remember (or they know instinctively) which medicinal plants to eat when they are ill. Finally, they can even recognize (or at least mother ewes can) the bleat of their own offspring. In other words, sheep may not seem very much like us, but in many ways they are.
Which brings us back to the meaning of life. Before we can state in a mere blog in 1500 words or less what the meaning of life is, we must establish that sheep, like humans, no matter how stupid they may seem—and if one reads the news, it is not difficult to discover that we humans, even to our fellow human beings, can seem very stupid—are in fact not unintelligent. They are, in that sense, humanlike. I shan’t be sheepish about stating it plainly: a sheep can provide a very apt metaphor for a human being.
Unless we bear that in mind, we can’t discover the meaning of life, nor can we understand William Blake when he writes:
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Blake, in his second most memorable poem—“The Tyger” being the most memorable, though “Jerusalem” is my favorite—long before the sheep intelligence study of scientists here tells us the same thing that the scientists have confirmed, namely that sheep are very much like human beings. When he writes “By the stream, and o’er the mead,” it is hard not to detect an allusion to the green pastures and still waters of the twenty-third Psalm, a poem that perhaps needs no introduction for most readers .
Both poems, Blake’s and King David’s, point in the same direction. They point toward the meaning of life. They suggest it, without quite stating it. But the oversized wandering Australian sheep perhaps says it better than even the psalm or Blake, or any scientific study about sheep, even the I.Q. test on which the sheep—and I assume there was more than one of them, for otherwise the results could be skewed, if Albert Einstein sheep happened to be the sole test-taker—out-performed, presumably, cows, goats and gazelles. And so it is that the sheep in question, the living Chia-pet king of wooliness, Chris, by his mere presence said, when he wandered back in sight of humankind, “I need help. Can you please shear me?”
And that is the answer to the riddle, “What is the meaning of life?” As without help Chris would surely have died, crushed under his own coat, the answer must be that we need each other; that we must help each other. We were born to do that. We reproduce, look after babies and care for our families simply to fulfill that unspoken charge. Many of us will be blessed to care for (sic) aging parents for whom we are privileged to do that. If we are living correctly, our lives won’t so much be about ourselves as about others. We will take the time to sheer each other’s wool, to gather it, to make sweaters for the poor; we will take the time to love each other from the heart. The world tells us “You, and you alone, matter, and you can do whatever you want in this moment.” But then it turns right around and says, “Get with the system, do the trendy.” The unstated premise is simply that so long as you stay current and don’t look back to the past or forward to the future, you’ll be okay.
But Chris the wandering sheep tells us something else. He says, “Remember me.” He says, “Help me.” He says, “Let me have a future, don’t let me die.” He also says, and Blake says it for him (and for the tiger), “The one who made you, made me; we are in this thing called life together.”
Yet I don’t mean to imply mere mammalian reciprocity. Again, the world might just settle for a bit of that. But Chris’ story is different: he is not offering reciprocity but is providing a metaphor for the relationship of the human and divine. Chris needs our help, and the mere fact that he exists demonstrates to us what we were made for and that we, too, have needs that only someone higher than us, in our case much higher, can fulfill. Our existence, our pathos, sorrow, grief, wretchedness, and—dare I say it?—sin shows our deficiency in the same way the Chris’ wool shows his ever-waxing need. How ironic, then, that Blake’s little ditty suggest, too, that the lamb should be, like King David in his youth (or a still greater king), a child.
You may yet be wondering about the meaning of life. In case I haven’t been clear, I shall be now. It is, from one point of view, denying yourself to serve others. From the other point of view, it is, simply put, acknowledging how wooly life can get. Blake says the rest; if you don’t like Blake, take heart, you’ll get another crack at it: Christmas season is just around the corner, the stuff of another blog—rather a series of blogs about life once upon a time in a little town beneath a great arbor. In the meantime, whether with a ringer’s precision or snagger’s compassion, he who has Wolseley’s to shear, let him shear.