Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 30, 2017 - Make Kindred This Year

   Retail sales were up this Christmas. Good news, I suppose. Some say it's because we have more consumer confidence this year. But I’m not so sure. I think Christmas presents are a different category of retail altogether. They represent something more communal, more human. I suspect we bought more presents this year because we needed more Christmas this year. I think we gave more gifts because we need to enhance our sense of belonging right now.
    This is not to discount the religious reasons for Christmas or even choose one tradition over another. But not all parts of of Christmas belong to Christ. Gift giving and tree trimming among them.
    What are we saying to someone when we buy or make and give a holiday present? To some we are making a gesture of professional courtesy with a gift, like to a coworker or the mail carrier. Other gifts are so profound they could bind together an entire village.
    But in the most basic, traditional holiday exchange it is a gift of simple love—a token of thoughtfulness on purpose. A symbol of family. Of welcoming. Of kindred. It’s powerful.
    What will you do with that power? For we each possess it and not just at Christmas. The power to cheer, to embrace, to notice one another, to offer belonging. That last one is where it all matters most. And it is what we have been taught by the masters. We all have the ability to offer belonging to another person. Who do you know that might be in great need of a little sense of belonging right now? Who on your radar is struggling? You don’t have to save the whole world, just the starfish right in front of your own beach towel will do fine.
    This year, consider becoming observant of the state of belonging. Notice it where it exists and where it doesn't. Get a keychain or a mug with the word ‘belong’ written on it. Pay attention to people who feel lost, lonely, even angry. Don’t let anger fool you. Anger is always fear masquerading as hostility. It is more frightened of you than you should be of it. It wants to remain just as it is. You want things to change. Fear does whatever it must to remain in power. Offer belonging right to its face. Belonging knows on its own what to do with fear. Don’t worry about it. Stay focused.
    Who do you want to be this new year? We hold up as sacred this somewhat arbitrary demarcation point separating ‘old’ year from ‘new’ year. A clean slate. A symbolic new start. More than at any other time of the year we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt that we are capable of more. We hold out hope that we will have greater will power, be kinder, exercise more, eat less, quit smoking, start volunteering. We expect to become super-versions of our former, weaker selves.
    Usually by around January 3 many of us have abandoned our resolutions. Nearly all of us will have failed by January 21. Only around 8% of people actually keep them all year. We shoot for the moon and end up missing it. We attach ourselves to the outcome when we should attach ourselves to the journey, and as a result we feel like failures
    Keep it simple, sweetheart.
    Don’t worry about specific resolutions. Resolve to make a change beneath the level of your fear. Then your wounded psyche can’t get in the way and sabotage it. It won’t even see what you're doing until it’s too late. Good.
    Heal yourself through your choice to seek and offer belonging. Join a club. Start a club. Email friends and relatives who haven’t heard from you in a while. Remind yourself who your tribe is and how much they love you.
    Then go out and deliberately do that for someone else. Make more tribe. More kindred. More chosen family. You'll find this new year may be the best of your life. So far.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 23, 2017 - Good King Wenceslaus

    My favorite holiday story is the tale-in-song of Good King Wenceslaus. It takes place on the Feast of St. Stephen, December 26, second of the twelve days of Christmas. On this particular evening in the early tenth century, the much-loved and posthumously-declared king, Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia looks out upon the frosty snow. He sees a poor man gathering sticks in the distance and becomes curious about him.
    He calls upon his page to tell him about the man. The page explains he lives a fair distance away, by the edge of the forest, near St Agnes’ fountain. Agnes and Wenceslaus are the two patron saints of Bohemia. The reference to her in the second verse is acknowledging that. However, the 19th century songwriter took a bit too much license. At the time of our good king Wenceslaus, Agnes wasn’t yet born. She is actually a direct descendant of Wenceslaus, born 276 years after his death. Neither Agnes nor her fountain existed in the tenth century. But the well, thought to be the very fountain from the story, is still in operation in Prague to this day.
    Returning to the carol story, the king immediately tells his page to gather food and wine which they will personally deliver to the man’s house. And despite the freezing cold, out they march into the night, with only their good intentions to hearten them.
    It’s far too cold, the wind has become stronger. The page falters, he can’t go on. But the king is undaunted. The warmth of his gesture heats the very indentations he makes in the snow. The page is invited to walk in the king’s footsteps to stay warm.
    In the song, the king and page never actually arrive at the poor man’s house. As they disappear off into the night, leaving the listener standing alone in the snow as the figures dim from view, the story ends with a moral lesson. Those of privilege who bless the poor find themselves blessed. And though the story ends with an implied ellipsis, it’s understood that king and page succeeded in their mission to feed the poor man. But also more. It’s understood the honor he received at being personally delivered a meal by the king. A stand-in for Jesus himself. We are the page, walking in the footsteps of the king. For warmth, yes, but also to guide our way.
Christian cults to Wenceslaus sprung up immediately upon his death in Bohemia and England venerating him as a courageous saint and martyr. Though the stories of him are partly myth, Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia was an early archetype of a righteous king. Leadership through piety and compassion. He became the standard against which all future leaders were evaluated. Most were and still are found wanting. Yet a 12th century anthem to Svaty Vaclav—his real name—is sung nearly every Sunday as the final hymn in the churches of the Czech Republic to this day.
    By the time the Christmas carol we sing today was written about Wenceslaus in 1853, the legend of Svaty Vaclav had long grown to epic proportions. His real life generosity to his people and the steadfastness of his faith continued to resonate with the poor and oppressed and propelled his tale through the centuries.
    The fictionalized story told in the Christmastide carol is not factually true. Agnes herself could attest to that. But it is honest nonetheless in its portrayal of the teachings of Christianity and their intentions for humanity. We are to be the good king. We are to be strong and compassionate and fearless in our mission to elevate and honor the poor, not merely sustain them. It’s the difference between walking in the cold by ourselves, and walking in the still-warm footsteps of the master.
    Happy Christmas, everyone.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 16, 2017 - The Approaching Solstice

It’s almost over. The declining of the light is starting to slow down now. We are reaching the lull period when the days and nights begin to exchange superiority. They are greeting one another in passing. Enjoying the few moments they have only twice each year when they are equals. Take heart now, the sun returns.
    Ancient cultures have a deeper understanding of how the earth is indistinct from all that walks upon it. It’s no effort for them to imagine their connection—their sense of ultimate belonging—to the earth itself. Humanity has wavered from that understanding. We have lost our sense of belonging to the earth. It’s okay. This too shall pass. 
    Through our scientific explorations of the planet we have inadvertently distanced ourselves from it in direct proportion to our awareness of its miracles. We feel increasingly inadequate to the intricacy of the profound creation we have been systematically discovering. We have become all too aware of our ability to destroy it as well. 
    The earth is also now approaching what is known as the perihelion, or the time in the our elliptical orbit around the sun during which we are the closest to it. The solstice is the beginning of that progression of celestial events. 
    Our traditions and rituals around this time of year directly reflect these celestial positions. We are intrinsically connected to all that happens on, or to, our planet. Our rituals and festivals remind us of our connection to the cycles of the earth. The push and pull of the objects which orbit around and near us affect everything in our world from ocean to sky. We are atomically entangled with that process. Our very bodies are pushed and pulled along with it.
    All modern religious scholarship acknowledges that Jesus of Nazareth was not actually born on December 25. But the festival is placed at this time of year because of how it is represented celestially. The cycle of the earth around the sun is a metaphor for the birth of Christ. It represents the return of light to the world and the time when we are physically closest each year to the sun, our great central source. 
   Hundreds of festivals celebrating the return of the light have occurred on this day throughout history. The entire Christmas Advent season is built upon those same historic foundations. They are intrinsic to humanity. Our need for light is constant. The loss is painful. Our celebrations comfort us more deeply than we are consciously aware. They cheer us where we need it most—our connection to the earth.
   Whether or not you celebrate the birth of Jesus, you are tied to the need for recognition of the return of the light. As society has seen fit for these festivals to become both dispensable and commercial, we have become more depressed. Our connection thins. Some who reject, or feel rejected by, organized religion are understandably cut off from the market of celebrations which Christianity has, for all intents and purposes, cornered. 
Recognizing our connection to the earth does not require a deity. The earth is like a deity unto itself, worthy of admiration, gratitude and blessing. And we are in no way separate from it. Remember your connection to the earth, it is not imaginary. It is separate from neither you nor God Itself.
   Christmas is a beautiful time of the year, intended to comfort and remind us that all is not lost. Joy to the world, the light returns. But Christianity does not own the month of December. Jesus is the reason we celebrate Christmas, but not the reason for the season itself. 
   Yet we needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, either.
   Christianity was wise to understand that we need reasons to celebrate, even if their motive was to supplant other celebrations in favor of their own. The faces and names on the statues may change, but meaning is constant.
Be kind to yourself at this time. Turn your face to the sun. Find reasons to be around other people. Sing songs together. Eat too much. The birth of Jesus is only one of the many ways to celebrate the return of the light. If he is not your teacher, there are others. Find them. But be of good cheer. Be happy for those who are the same no matter to whom they pray. Comfort the grieving. Feed the hungry. Be the light you wish to see in the world. It matters now more than ever. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 9, 2017 - Notice One Another This Holiday

I have to make an admission. It’s actually a bit difficult to say. I regularly feel judged whenever I even hint at it. But the truth will set me free, I suppose. Here it is: I’m not in love with the holidays.
I don’t like the way they often make me feel. Unsettled. Expectant on one hand and dreading on the other. The whole gift exchange thing. I’m given the impression that the only way I’ll ever truly enjoy the holidays is by adhering to the perfect equation of organizational skills + time + money = holiday joy. I often have at least one of them, sometimes even two. But virtually never all three.
I greatly admire people who seem to have it all together at the holidays. I have an aunt who just excels at it. You’d think there were secretly four of her. The best part is she never seems harried and there’s always time for conversation and hugs while cooking. Her brain functions on seven levels at once. Anyone who’s cooked around me knows I need quiet in the kitchen to function. Not very holiday-like.
The whole argument about merry Christmas vs. happy holidays makes me shudder. I question myself every single time I utter either one. I used to really, really like saying merry Christmas without a single religious thought in my head. I started saying it the first week of December and was always disappointed come December 26th that it was time to go back to just saying the boring old hello again.
Now I evaluate whether or not I think the person I’m giving a holiday greeting to is Christian. I adjust accordingly. At the holidays in public places I just say hello to someone I think might be Muslim—which of course I can’t possibly know but I’m nonetheless now required by the times to make an on-the-spot religious profiling to determine the appropriate greeting. Muslims don’t have a particular holiday that conveniently falls near the end of December like the Jewish tradition. Hanukkah is a beautiful holiday. It begins this week, in fact. But it’s not the big one. Christians make Hanukkah more prominent than it is for their own sake. We can be very pushy.
In nearly every way, however, this happy holidays discussion is actually a good thing. Despite the challenges it presents to our particular generation of human society, those coming after us will have it easier. We are the ones doing the heavy lifting of social change by changing our words. But we should be proud of how hard we are working to build diversity into our human language. We should absolutely be aware of the diversity that our unique melting pot model in the United States has created. We should rejoice for it. Saying happy holidays is not the end of the world. Especially when we remember that it is the most welcoming, loving and inclusive statement to make in a culture we have deliberately chosen to create this way.
But this, too, is merely part of the cloud that hangs over the holiday season. Only one of the stars in its vast constellation of complicated family feelings, seasonal depression from the loss of sunlight, the political landscape, wars and disease all around us. Joy to the world, please. It needs it. Peace on earth, we beseech you.
There is only one thing we can do.
Notice one another. Recognize how people feel. Don’t make them feel like failures just because they aren’t in the spirit. Be curious about where people are spending their holidays. Invite strangers. Be considerate and generous. Be kind.
In Islam, their month of kindness is Ramadan. That is their annual time to observe the birth of their faith. It is much like Christian Advent or the Jewish Ten Days of Awe. Ramadan is the cycle of the moon during which they are to notice one another. Exhibit special generosity. Invite strangers. Give to charity. Remember the teachings and the teacher.
The winter is upon us. Gather closely and comfort one another. Remember how magnificent we are beyond this flawed human experience. Bring some of that light into the world now. We need a little. Right this very minute.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, December 2, 2017 - The Responsibility of Privilege

Our human society is in the middle of a long and difficult learning process. We are facing our demons. It's excruciating. It's painful. It pits friends and loved ones against one another. Racism, sexual harassment, religious intolerance and advanced political upheaval. These are our daily realities right now. They will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.
I firmly believe that the vast majority of the world is loving, however. Am I foolish or faithful? One thing is sure. Believing in a hopeful future requires doing my part to bring it about. Especially because I am a white male. For we have painted ourselves into a corner.
The reality of our time is that white men have historically stacked the cards in their favor at the expense of others—quoting St. Darwin all the way. But if I believe so deeply that the majority of the world is loving, how do white men fit into that scheme now? If I am granted privileges disproportionate to my merits, what am I supposed to do? Especially when I can see it happening in real time. Some might say, “Keep your mouth shut and take advantage of it.”
I think they are half-right. But only half.
Humility requires us to recognize one thing if nothing else: No one will ever truly know what it's like to walk a mile in another’s shoes, no matter how much we like to quip otherwise. We cannot escape the awareness of our own feet inside them. Any progress toward real equality will recognize that first.
I can ask a thousand questions about my daughter’s blindness. I can put on a blindfold at dinner and giggle as I drop food in my lap. But I cannot forget that I know how to see. I can't forget that I have the freedom to take off my blindfold.
I have a better chance at getting a job because I'm a white male. I more often than not receive only a warning when the police pull me over. People smile at me when I walk down the street. How can I really know what it's like to experience oppression? No one is asked to solve a math problem using nothing but a definition of the word mathematics.
There exist well-intentioned but misguided social activism groups which attempt to give whites a forum to solve racism by talking about it with other whites. There are also men’s pro-feminism groups. I get it, but no. The truth is, we have no business talking. Our role now is not to speak, but to listen. We jump in foolhardy and create solutions based on our imaginings of a problem when we are really being asked to sit quietly and listen for them.
Equality is natural. It is only held at bay artificially by the actions of one group of people against another. Men unnaturally dominate women. Physical strength is irrelevant if their value to society is equal. Whites unnaturally dominate people of color. Even lighter-skinned people of color discriminate against darker tones within their own societies.
Disequilibrium must be maintained with effort. We are seeing it now more than ever in the world. The old energy is working very, very hard at keeping society from progressing toward its own natural equilibrium. Who can blame them? It spells disaster for them all. A literal Armageddon.
It's natural for loving people to want to work toward solutions, but it must be done with humility. It must be done with what Buddhism calls “the beginner's mind.” A clean slate of understanding. A vacuum of awareness. An expert’s mind is like cement.
If I wish to be a part of the solution I must do one thing: Listen. Not talk. Make no assumptions. Don't interrupt. Don't offer advice. Don’t compare stories. Just clean out the potatoes from my ears and listen. It is often said, God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason. If the problem seems too big, just listen. If you don’t understand a problem, just ask. And then just listen. The answer will come to you in its own time. In the meanwhile, look for simple opportunities in your daily life to just allow someone else’s experience to be truly heard. It will change you. That simple act alone will be the most sincere prayer for the future of humanity you’ll ever make.

Wil Darcangelo, M.Div, is the Spiritual Coordinator at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg, where he speaks on 1st and 3rd Sundays, and the founding director of the Tribe Mentorship Project. Email Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo.